Shanghai

Shanghai is not like any other city. Sure, the architecture in its French Concession has earned it the title of the ‘Paris of the East’, but many other cities can also claim that mantle.

With its imposing colonial waterfront buildings, the historic Bund area is also reminiscent of London; while parts of the city have been compared to New York and Hong Kong. But for all its cultural meshing and architectural duplication, Shanghai cannot be replicated.

On the surface, it’s an onslaught of noise, pollution and crowds, but dig a little deeper and you find a culture that balances tradition and modernity, East and West, function and form - drawing a diverse group of professionals and creatives alike. And fashion, which is increasingly becoming a symbol of China’s prosperity and status as an international powerhouse, is playing a pivotal role in this global hub.

As a port city, Shanghai has a long history of trade and contact with the outside world, making it the country’s most progressive metropolis in terms of culture and fashion.

By the 1920s and 1930s, slim-fitting Chinese qipao dresses (the original style was wide and loose) and even high heels were commonplace, while Chinese men were as comfortable in Western suits as they were in traditional garb. But in 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China was declared by the austerity-loving Mao Zedong, sombre outfits became du jour. Standing out was taboo and any form of adornment was discouraged for its association with capitalism.

But China would again open up, and it was Shanghai that led. While the principal Chinese designer brands may have been founded in Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing, the city established itself as a fashion capital.

These days Shanghai is starting to challenge the dominance of international fashion locations such as Paris, Milan, London, New York and Tokyo, with designers such as Uma Wang and Masha Ma garnering international acclaim, and world-renowned retailers like Lane Crawford and 10 Corso Como setting up shop alongside innovative indie retailers. Once again, Shanghai, the city of many guises, is having a fashion renaissance.

The highest concentration of the city’s designer shops can be found in Xintiandi (or XTD), a largely pedestrian precinct with a reputation for some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Exception de MixMind, one of China’s first designer brands and a favourite of first lady Peng Liyuan, has a store here, as does Ziggy Chen, a menswear designer whose pieces are now stocked in renowned retailers such as H Lorenzo in Los Angeles.

Xintiandi Style is a mall that brings a large selection of local brands, such as ZucZug and Content, to the area, too. It is also home to one of China’s first multi-brand stores, Alter. Known for an eclectic collection of avant-garde designers, it is one of the most important boutiques in Shanghai right now thanks to its commitment to the cutting-edge. Fashion-focused Hong Kong department store Lane Crawford built its largest store in the world near Xintiandi, with multiple floors of shoes, accessories, furnishings and an expansive selection of designer labels, complemented by a handful of local brands such as Helen Lee and Chictopia.

But it’s label Shang Xia that is the really interesting fashion story in Shanghai. Backed by Hermés and founded by native Jiang Qiong Er, the cultural significance of the brand cannot be overstated. Its Shanghai Maison shop is housed in a French villa designed by architect Kengo Kuma and its mission is to re-create traditional high-end and luxury Chinese garments, accessories and homewares by using the finest Chinese design traditions, craftsmanship and materials. The brand’s designer is Zhang Da, whose two-dimensional clothing creations - a very Chinese way of designing where the clothes flow with the body rather than create shape around it - both pay homage to traditional style concepts and help fashion evolve into something that is more relevant to today’s luxury consumers by combining old-school craft with modern aesthetics. There are still many in China that mindlessly copy and consume, but Shang Xia’s appreciation of craftsmanship as well as traditions represents a more sophisticated and cultured side of the country.

In the French Concession is Tianzifang (TZF), another retail mecca. The area retains much of its original (now semi-dilapidated) shikumen architectural style, which first appeared in the 1860s. Although there are fewer stores focused on fashion here, there are a plethora of independent shops and restaurants crammed into every nook and cranny and it is easy to get lost in the meandering laneways. It feels less commercial than Xintiandi (which is saturated with international and local brands) and is a stunning example of the spaces in which many people in Shanghai have lived for decades - epitomising the intersection of time, culture and aesthetics. Make sure to visit Taste Shop on Taikang Lu, which specialises in household items that make life a bit more beautiful.

The hustle and bustle of XTD and TZF cement Shanghai’s reputation for overcrowding. But there’s another remarkably empty and peaceful side to the city, one typified by the likes of Shaoxing Lu, a road that is home to Triple Major. This multi-brand store was founded in the hutongs (alleys) of Beijing, but set up its Shanghai base on this historic publishing street in 2012. Four storeys offer a large selection of cool, quirky goods from designers all around the world, as well as an exhibition space and a small but thoughtful collection of books and magazines.

If you walk north up Shaanxi South Lu you’ll eventually come to Changle Lu, known as one of the first shopping streets in Shanghai. Located between the ultra-hip French Concession and the high-end residential district of Jing An, it developed to attract a range of retailers that excited Shanghai’s collective appetite for shopping and fashion. After some of the city’s most reputable designers set up shop here - including Qiu Hao - it became one of the go-to shopping destinations in Shanghai’s earlier years. Even today however, Changle Lu’s newest tenants prove that this historic street is not only still relevant locally, but that Shanghai’s growing reputation as the world’s most innovative retail centre is well-founded.

MHT (Mian Hua Tian) is the most noteworthy, with an ethos of promoting ‘slow fashion’. The boutique also boasts an exceedingly rare garden where a bilingual cockatoo called Lucky welcomes guests. The former villa holds more than a few secrets, such as the hidden closets, so be sure to take your time. head further down Changle Lu and you’ll hit Fumin Lu, where another villa houses the Dong Liang boutique that specialises in Chinese designers. The young and established sit side-by-side, making it a great introduction to local names. Also on Fumin is Madame Mao’s Dowry, an intimate studio with a small selection of clothing and accessories. Fashion ‘It’ girl Chloë Sevigny’s named it her favourite shopping experience in China.

Across the Yan’an elevated road, you’ll find an altogether different Shanghai that seems a world away from the old villas of Fumin Road; a place where ultra-modern buildings house large boutiques including 10 Corso Como. Shanghai became the world’s third city to have its own 10CC (after Milan and Seoul) and its architecture is as impressive as its collection of design and art books. You’ll also find clothing, an art gallery, bar and restaurant.

Further north is Spin. In yet another beautifully converted villa, this purveyor of ceramics sources its designs from talented craftsman all over China. They use traditional methods to create modern designs, and the end result is refined but stunning.

The last must-see in Shanghai is the Uma Wang boutique on West Fuxing Road (it is a bit out of the way, but worth the detour). Wang is one of the most successful Chinese designers and this store is a view into her sartorial talents. Wang isn’t into labelling, nor defining what is Chinese or non-Chinese, masculine or feminine, old or young, and many of her clothes are unisex. She epitomises the new spirit of Shanghai: a formless form, something that is of the past but is even more relevant today.

EAT

Southern Barbarian Tucked in a tiny ‘mall’ on Jinxian Lu, this restaurant specialises in Yunnan cuisine from China’s south-western region. Try the spicy mint salad and shredded potato pancake, and wash it down with one of Shanghai’s largest selections of beer. The bilingual menu is also very helpful. 

Vegetarian Lifestyle Aside from the convenience (it has outposts in both Xintiandi and Jing An districts), it offers light, innovative food packed full of flavour.

Yakexi Food is the focus here. Nothing beats the sword beans (si ji dou or gan bian dao dou) or the skewered meats. 379 Xikang Lu, near Wuding Lu.

Hunter Gatherer Quick, casual and organic (sourced from their own farm), this is an inventive dining and retail experience. 

Ultraviolet Named the year’s 24th best restaurant on The San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, this is a visual, sonic and olfactory experience. Its location is a well-guarded secret. 

DRINK

Yongfoo Elite This bar is housed in a former consulate for Russia, Vietnam and the UK, and has an impressive interior design. Go on a nice day and explore the garden area, as there are many masterfully updated hidden rooms. 

Mokkos Lamu This shochu bar is down a semi-shady alley, but it’s extremely welcoming inside. There is a long bar and a handful of tables that seat just a couple of dozen patrons. If it’s your birthday, Lamu will sing you the most beautiful birthday song ever. 

Arcade If you want to listen to music and play video games, this is the venue for you. It’s the only place in Shanghai that has hundreds of free video games, plus they play some of the best tunes in the city.

STAY

Swatch Art Peace Hotel The rooms in this hotel are as large as they are luxurious. It’s certainly one of the best boutique hotels in Shanghai. 

The Waterhouse at South Bund This hotel boasts some of the coolest architecture in the city, mixing both raw and refined elements. It also offers a quiet retreat from the crowded streets. 

Andaz Conveniently located in Xintiandi, near restaurants and sights, this hotel’s neon lights and sleek furniture make for a futuristic stay. 

The Puli An oasis to come back to after the onslaught that is Shanghai. 

Okura Garden Hotel Shanghai On the border of the French Concession and Jing An district, this hotel is in the middle of it all… But its large garden offers peace and quiet. 

CULTURE

Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre The visual language of the posters and how they evolved over the decades of Mao’s China might be shocking, but this museum offers one of the most enlightened cultural experiences in Shanghai. There’s a gift shop where you can purchase reprints. 

K Party This is one of the most authentic Chinese experiences you can have. Think gaudy decor, flashing lights and every song you’ve ever wanted to sing. 

China Fashion Bloggers This blog-aggregator collects content from Chinese and foreign writers to give you a holistic perspective on the Chinese fashion scene. Find news on everything from culture to events, fashion week and daily outfit inspiration

Words by Timothy Parent - Published in Voyeur Published in Voyeur September 2015
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