Saturday, 25 June 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 12 - Shopping

Hong Kong must surely be the shopping capital of the world. In what is really a very small geographic area, there are multiple Armanis, Guccis, Max Maras, D&Gs, Jimmy Choos, and every other designer venue you could shake a stiletto at. There are also hundreds of high end jewelry shops on Hong Kong island alone, selling magnificent diamond, jade and other ludicrously expensive sparkling creations.  These shops are the domain of the "tai-tai".  A tai-tai can be defined roughly (although there is absolutely nothing rough about them) as a "lady who lunches", but a broader definition says that a tai-tai is a woman who is married to a wealthy man, loves to shop, and goes to spas. You see these women in droves in Central Hong Kong in the afternoon. A tai tai NEVER gets up before 9:00, and it takes several hours to achieve the grooming these women uniformly achieve in even the hottest weather.  I honestly cannot figure out how they do it. Maybe they have their sweat glands removed. They are always immaculate, with perfectly coiffed hair that is never dripping with sweat or frizzed from the 100% humidity that is a Hong Kong norm.  Their clothes are clearly chosen for style rather than comfort in the heat. An unlined dress is unheard of. Without exception, they are wearing 4+inch heels, and their hands and feet must be mani/pedi'd at least three times a week.  These women are also of a fairly uniform physical type.  Generally under 5'5'', they are very small boned,physically fit and the owners of very small, but perfectly formed little boobies. Being a tai-tai is a full time job, and these women take it very seriously. They keep the high end stops in business.

Hong Kong caters not only to the upper end of the market, but to a wide range of other shoppers as well. There are hundreds of beautiful little boutiques selling one off creations. There are loads of mid-range boutiques selling beautiful little knock-off creations.  There are British department stores like H&M and M&S, which strangely are considered extremely fashionable in Hong Kong. Go figure. Every neighbourhood also has a street market where you can pick up fabulous bargains in everything from underwear to sequined clutch bags. Hong Kong is indeed a shoppers paradise, but there is a little catch. And I do mean little.

If you are a US size 12 (UK size 10), or, god forbid, any larger, you are considered a grotesque freak who should not be darkening the door of any respectable fashion outlet.  Even Marks & Spencer here does not carry above a size 12!  I have a friend here who is 5'8'' with a body that would make most women weep with envy and most men tremble with lust.  She is totally fit with no significant body fat. She actually had a shop assistant laugh at her when she asked if they had a particular dress in her size. No, Hong Kong is not friendly to anyone larger than a C cup.

But....there is a wonderful solution to this problem.  Hong Kong is also home to hundreds, if not thousands, of tailors who can make you up anything in any size faster than you can say "copy this".  Hong Kong itself is home to many of these custom made clothing manufacturers, but anyone in the know avoids Hong Kong and takes themselves off to Shenzen.

Shenzen is a major city in southern China's Guangdong Province, located just over the border from Hong Kong. Using the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Hong Kong's equivalent to the Tube, you can easily get from central Hong Kong to the border in under an hour. If you have a Hong Kong ID card and a Chinese Visa, it takes just a few minutes to cross from Hong Kong into China proper. Even if you don't have these things, it is still a pretty straightforward border crossing.  Once you emerge from the customs and immigration building, you are facing an enormous (think 5 stories of 20 football pitches each) building filled with shops. Actually, for the most part, these are less like proper shops and more like covered market stalls.  Before you even cross the road to get to the shopping city, you are accosted by dozens of young men grabbing at you to try to get you to go with them to "their" shops.  Over the years, I have found that it is best simply not to engage at all with these types of hawkers. Do not say "no thanks" or "leave me alone" or "bugger off".  Do not make eye contact. Do not kick or scream. Just ignore. They will eventually leave you alone. This is sometimes very difficult for polite westerners to accomplish (especially the British). Please believe me when I say, that ignoring completely is the best way to avoid purchases of unwanted DVDs, pashminas and fake Rolexes. The hawkers will not think you are rude. They will respect you for not being the complete mug that many of your fellow countrymen/women indeed are.

As you make your way through the maze, people will emerge from all the shops and stalls to grab your arm and say "just looking missy".  It took me a long time to figure out that this might be the only English they know, and it has been gleened from the thousands of embarassed Western shoppers who claim to be "just looking". It cracks me up.

I usually start any visit to Shenzen by going straight up to the fifth floor. This is because, appropriately, the top floor is close to heaven. This is the floor devoted to personal tailoring. This is an Aladdin's den of textiles with row after row after row of silks, wools, jerseys, linens, cottons, latex (yes, even latex) and every other fabric imaginable. There is even a section devoted just to lace!  Around the edges are dozens of little stalls owned by individual tailors.  My tailors are Cindy & Nancy who were referred to me by a friend whose clothes I admire. Nancy takes the orders and helps you find the best fabrics. Cindy takes measurements and writes up the design instructions.

I prepare well for my trips to C&N. First I find a few items of clothing that I already own and love. I pick out new fabrics and say "same same".  Cindy even knows that you might lie a little about the perfectness of the fit and makes you try them on so she can see what she needs to do.  But even better than "same same" is getting stuff made from the pictures you have cut out from magazines or printed off the Internet.  I have had three "Diane Von Furstenberg" wrap dress made up in different fabrics, and I will. probably get several more made before I leave. This is honestly the best work outfit EVER. It is comfortable, flattering and you never have to think about matching top with bottom. You can dress it up with heels and a jacket or dress it down with flats. It has no buttons to lose or zips to break. It also doesn't care at all if you are having a "fat" day. I love this dress!  I have had several things made in Shenzen, and for the most part have been very pleased with the result.  A couple of times, a few items have needed adjustments but you would expect that with something made from scratch.

After the frenzy of fabrics and fittings, it is time to explore the rest of the shopping village. Mostly, this consists of shop after shop of brand name watches, electronics, shoes, handbags and accessories.   These "brands" come in a couple of different categories.  The top category is the real thing.  As you are probably aware, China manufactures a huge quantity of the world's consumer products. Sometimes a few of these either fall off the back of a truck and end up in Shenzen. Sometimes, a few of these have very minor flaws and end up in Shenzen. These goods are high quality, and usually cost about 30% of the official item. So, for an Hermes Birkin bag for which you might pay £800 in the UK, expect to pay around £250 in Shenzen.  The second category is the "GradeA" knock-off.  These are very, very high quality copies that use the same materials as the original, e.g.proper leather.  That same Birkin bag as a Grade Acopy would cost about £100.  You can then look at the Grade Bs and Cs.  They typcially look good at first glance, but the materials will be inferior and the quality of workmanship not so good.  For that same Birkin in a lower quality, expect to pay anywhere from £10 to £15.   These categories typically hold true for all goods in Shenzen.  I think it is fair to say that if someone offers you a Rolex for £20, it is probably not the real thing!

Sadie's favourite shop in Shenzen sells "fell off the truck" versions of Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, Paul Smith and Diesel shorts, t-shirts, trackpants and other teenage goods of desire. We bought her entire summer wardrobe for under £50.

The best thing of all in Shenzen is, of course, the shoes. Yang Yang Shoes Shop sells nothing but Laboutins.  These shoes are not only works of art, but also of mechanical engineering. I haven't yet mastered a six inch heel, but I am in training.

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