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Made in China

To most consumers, those three words, “Made in China”, are synonymous with cheap. In our adventure to Shanghai, we discovered that behind the knock off clothes and trinkets, there are a few great gems of sincere craftsmanship.

While the source materials may not make for products that will last for years, the customization and price point make up for it. The experience that started with apprehension had transformed into six hours of making new friends and a lot of laughter. Not to mention a suitcase full of one of a kind pieces.

We’ve put together a number of looks here, exclusively featuring our bespoke items made in China.

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At 9am on a Sunday morning, the South Bund Spinning Market was barren. There was a sense of mystery amidst the factory smog and smoke filled streets and hiding behind draping plastic meat-locker doors.

The market is a three story building in the heart of the Huang Pu district of Shanghai. Name-brand knock offs lined the hallways and shop after shop of tiny showrooms were occupied only by a barrage of broken mannequins, fake leathers, and cheap denim. Chooks, our host, had walked these halls dozens of times and knew each shop simply by the name of their owners.

“First, we’ll visit Peter for leathers, then over to Funny Lady for our button ups, and finally to Tina for suiting… you’ll want to spend the most time with Tina.”

Chooks spent the latter half of his career visiting China six or seven times a year.

“For quite some time now, I’ve been bringing a lot of business to this mall. My son JP and I have even launched a clothing brand, designing products together and working with Tina for manufacturing.” Chooks’ many years in the market meant he knew the good from the bad. And it would certainly pay off.

The shop owners began to trickle in around 9:15am, each one looking more weary than the last.

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On Chooks order, we made our way to the leather corner. The shop owner, Peter, gave us a welcoming smile, and Chooks began to ask about Peter’s wife and young son. I pulled a drawing from my pocket of a hybrid motorcycle varsity jacket I had been concepting, while Chooks turned to say, “I’ll do the talking. Make sure you cover the details of what you want… I’ll get you the best price.”

Peter rotated me to his wall of leather samples. The space was no larger than 100 square feet and was filled with close to two-hundred leather jackets and swatch books stacked in the corner up to our shoulders. One leather sample after another was pulled from the wall. After a few minutes, we found the perfect cognac brown to outfit the sleeves.

After selecting the final trimmings for the jacket, Chooks leaned in towards Peter. “Okay Peter, we’ve known each other for a long time. What’s the best price that you can give my friend?”

Peter started at 1350, then Chooks countered at 1000. This dance continued back and forth. It was akin to haggling for a fake Rolex on the streets of Mexico…only I had spent 30 minutes defining every detail of what would become a bespoke jacket made of genuine leather. There was little reason to barter, as I was already hooked. Yet, with an agreeing set of smiles, we settled on 1150. 1150 RMB. My jacket would cost just $186 USD.

We moved upstairs past fifty or sixty tiny storefronts to visit “Funny Lady”. By now, locals and visitors alike had begun pouring into the market, and the once open hallways were becoming tighter and tighter. Funny Lady’s shop was about half the size of Peter’s. The perimeter lined with shirting fabrics and stuffed tightly into waist high stacks of wooden crates.

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Chooks prompted us to rifle through the options and pick out our fabrics. “These shirts are $21. You’ll regret it if you only get one or two.” I selected four favorites…two florals and two polka dots. After the fitting, we went back to the list. Buttons, stitch colors, cut collar, notched cuffs, check, check, yes, no, yes. The list went on. It was clear to these people that every piece mattered. The attention to detail was like nothing I’d experienced before.

By this time we squeezed ourselves back through the hallway and down to the first floor to find Tina. Just as I had that morning, I came armed with pockets full of pictures and drawings for my hopeful bounty.

I was originally hoping to purchase two three-piece suits, a midnight blue tuxedo, and a few dress shirts. Swatch book after swatch book, I poured through textiles. Nothing caught my eye until we opened a book of made in China “English” tweeds.

I selected one brown tweed while the other suit would be a felted gray wool. Details came next. Back and forth, through books of liners and buttons. We discussed stitch color, contrasting silk liners, and the character that two-tone leather buttons would bring that the standard buttons lacked. Tina helped us explore color options and laughed often at our banter and the frequency with which we changed our minds. Before finalizing the suits, I spent time wandering through the mall to find just the right floral silk to line the brown suit. The grey suit was completed with a gray peacock silk lining and purple tonal stitching on and under the lapel.

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Hours later, we were satisfied. And exhausted. My order with Tina had expanded to include an additional vest to pair with both suits, a camel cashmere topcoat, three white dress shirts with contrasting buttons, and a blue plaid dress shirt to dress down my brown suit.

Time to check out. Chooks had known Tina for years, and leaned in to have the “best price” negotiation. I anticipated a hefty sum for the lot of suits, jackets, shirts, and extras. After a few minutes discussion, we were settled on a price. My custom pieces came to a total of 2850RMB, or $461.

Brilliant.