The 5th floor of the Lo Wu Shopping Mall in Shenzhen is overrun with tiny little plastic boxes that house custom tailors.
Stools scatter the linoleum corridors, some empty, some occupied by workers eating take-out of noodles and lotus root while their children rollerblade through the labyrinth of shops. At some shops, there are big-wig international clients picking up their power suits and demanding adjustments.
As I skim past them, the assistants inside call out to me, asking if I need a suit made. I shake my head, and utter a firm “No.” I’m a woman on a mission, speeding to the busiest and most renowned of these little shops. Finally, I come to the shop I am looking for, Lark International Apparel, which is owned by a young Chinese woman named Stephanie.
The experience is a minimized and, if you can believe it, seedier version of the beckoning that occurs in the colorful streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, minus the swaths and swaths of masculine herringbone, checks, cashmere, and stripes; instead, an army of mannequins in brightly-colored, silken qi paos line the shop windows. Although the craft of tailored clothing has been a mainstay of Hong Kong culture since colonial times, I suggest you skip the Hong Kong tailors—especially if you’re a woman—and cross the border into the rising Mainland city of Shenzhen.
First of all, tailoring in Shenzhen is one-third the price of tailoring in Hong Kong, which is one-third the price of tailoring in America and Europe. This is because most of the Hong Kong shops outsource their work to Shenzhen’s many clothing factories anyway. Furthermore, the male-driven suit craze down in Tsim Sha Tsui does nothing for fashionistas in search of custom-made treasures; in fact, there are plenty of complaints of Hong Kong tailors creating women’s suits that are too boxy and indelicate for a woman’s curved frame (SEE: New York Times article: One Woman’s Quest For a Hong Kong Suit). In Shenzhen, however, there are plenty of female tailors, like Stephanie, who are astute businesswomen specializing in women’s fashion.
For example, a friend of mine had two classic Burberry coats made with Stephanie, one camel and one navy, each for 700RMB (about 110USD). They both had genuine Burberry fabric and buttons, and they were so beautiful that Stephanie asked if she could keep them on display a little longer, since they were helping her pull tons of business. Another friend commissioned a dress modeled after Kate Middleton’s sheath dress, but she asked for it in navy. And not to leave out the men, a third friend had four, crisp dress-shirts sewn for 120RMB each and a classic gray suit tailored for 930RMB (150USD). He loved them so much that he went back to get a mauve cashmere overcoat (200USD) constructed for his mother for Mother’s Day.
My own experiment was a shorter version of a fifteen-thousand-dollar Victoria Beckham dress that I had been eyeing on Net-a-Porter, which I stole at $350RMB (about $55USD). It fits like a dream, and I cannot wait to pair it with a black, broad-rimmed straw hat, so I can wear them together this summer while eating some matching tiramisu.
After our consultation, we ate one of the most delicious Cantonese meals I’ve ever tasted at Laurel Restaurant, also on the 5th floor, and shopped around. Most of the mall was selling cheaply-made designer knock-offs, which looked like a waste of money. But there were areas that sold custom-made goods. My skinny guy friend found a genuine leather belt, which the shop assistant cut to fit him immediately.
There was only one flaw that I noticed in the system. They did not have all three of the same fabrics for my dress, so I had to compromise and choose one that was of a slightly different color and stretch. Next time, I promised myself, I’ll come prepared and bring my own textiles, like those from European suppliers: Elliott Berman Textiles.
- Set enough time for at least 1-2 fittings.
- Save images of the clothes you want to your phone; be sure to include finer details.
- The simpler the item, the better. The shop owners are reluctant to do greatly detailed work and try to drive the price up.
- Bring your own fabric for assured quality and personalization.
- Bargain! I usually start at half of what the merchant asks for and work my way up slowly.
- Keep your measurements. Stephanie can tailor things for you remotely and mail them to you when she is done. You can make any fine-tuned alterations yourself with a tailor in your home country.
- If you’re a US Citizen, don’t forget to secure a mainland China visa, which can take up to 3-4 business days if you don’t order rush service. All other nationalities can buy day-trip visas at the Lo Wu border.
If you go:
Cross the Shenzhen border at Lo Wu station. Exit and head up the escalators to the next level. The Lohu Commercial City Mall will be on the upper level to your right. Lark International Apparel is on the 5th floor.