One Stitch at a Time: Shanghai’s Back Alley Economy

Story by Julie Sickel  |  Video by Lauren Miller  |  Photo Gallery

In the Huangpu District of Shanghai, fashion isn’t shipped from a large factory; it’s stitched together in a back alley shack next to the woman washing her clothes with drainpipe water.

On the corner of Lujiabang Road and Nancang Street stands the South Bund Soft-Spinning Material Market, a three-floored Mecca of tailors ready to measure visitors for custom-made suits, jackets and dresses.

The Two Sides of the Material Market

Reporter Lauren Miller shows the contrast between in-store experience and the tailor back-alley working conditions.

One of those tailors is now leading my reporting team down a busy, trash-filled street with the grand gait of a woman strolling in the park on a spring afternoon. The four of us are, in turn, trailing behind her with the navigational prowess of inebriated toddlers.

I think about expectations as I hop a puddle of brown liquid and avoid being clipped by the mirror of a passing motorcyclist.

I expected to go to the market, order an inexpensive Chinese dress and speak to the vendors about their work. I didn’t expect to be standing outside a small workshop fearing for my safety as a sassy Shanghainese seamstress bangs on a couple pieces of rotting wood that make up a shop door.

One of the six tailors goes to work altering Julie's dress.

After playing a couple rounds of “guess how I’m going to die” in my head, the door opens and our team is brought into a dilapidated room the size of a walk-in closet. To the left is a sewing machine rivaling my mom’s antique Singer. On the right, is a workbench covered in material, tape, scissors, mannequins and an iron. A second door leads into a room that is twice the size of the closet but just as rundown.

It is in this room that we speak with Xun Li Yu, a Shanghai native who learned to sew when she was a teenager. Yu has worked in the shop for four years. Yu and the other five tailors in the shop are part of a family run business, with most of the tailors being related in some way.

Chinese women seem to have the wonderful fortune of looking younger than they actually are. But under the fluorescent light in this decrepit back room, Yu’s face appears tired and much older than that of a woman in her late twenties.

Yu’s voice is coarse like burlap as she describes her clientele.

“My customers come from all over China and the world,” Yu said. “The majority of my customers are Shanghainese and foreigners. The ages are between 20 and 40.”

Lauren Miller is fitted for her hand-made dress at the Shanghai South Bund Soft-Spinning Material Market.

Yu and the five other tailors at the shop sew all kinds of Chinese traditional clothes, but they focus mainly on dresses. The shop will get about 30 customers on a busy day and a dress can cost anywhere between 380 to 600 RMB.

“It’s up to the customers how quickly we make something,” Yu said. “Four hours to make a dress is our quickest speed.”

After we finish speaking to Yu, two of the other tailors get to work altering dresses that Lauren and I ordered the afternoon before. On Lauren’s dress, the material around the rib cage is too tight. My dress is a tent of silk around my small frame and the tailors soon admit that a mistake was made while taking the measurements. One of the male tailors playfully puts our guide into a headlock and rubs her head to scold her for the error.

With each alteration, the stitches of the dresses are ripped, and then another male tailor pinches the silk and sews new seams. The process is truly trial and error as Lauren and I repeatedly try on our dresses and grope at undesirable areas on our garments. Slowly, Lauren’s dress takes shape. My dress is still an oblong object strewn awkwardly across my body. In the interest of escaping the looming cold of the shack and the murmur of the Chinese soap opera playing on the television in the makeshift changing room, I offer to retrieve my dress the next day, after more alterations are made. Deal.

We thank the four tailors as a group, while they continue to apologize for the mistakes in measurements. The temperature outside seems warmer than in the dreary shop as we follow our guide back to the metro station.

The streets, which were bustling with activity hours before, are now dark and silent but still littered with debris. I feel relief as the market comes back into view and we cross Lujiabang road in pursuit of the metro.

On a busy day, this shop in the market takes orders for up to 30 custom-made dresses.

The next day, tailored dress in tow, I decide to talk to other vendors to hear about how their shops are run and where they work. I can’t help but wonder what the conditions are like for other tailors at the South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market.

On my quest, I meet Mike Hu, a well-groomed, clean-cut vendor who specializes in tailored men’s suits for a $60 starting price. Mike has a factory off-site that employs 10 workers. A whole suit can be made in 24 hours. Mike has been at the market since its inception, five years earlier.

Next, I meet Tom, a young, attractive tailor with a lot of manly attitude. He sells leather coats for men and women. Tom’s coats can be sewn together in a single day if the customer desires. He says his factory is also near the market, but he avoids answering specific questions about the factory or its workers.

“It’s a secret,” Tom says.

Like so many things in Shanghai, it’s hard to compare the market to something or someplace in America. In the middle of this seemingly poor area of Shanghai, there is a thriving economy fueled by the skilled hands of Chinese workers and a thirst for unique tailored goods.

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Category: World of Work