Shanghai has become a hotbed of fashion talent in recent years. The gleaming facades of luxury stores in JingAn, Xintiandi and the former French Concession are just one indication of Chinese buying power and how important the market is for the biggest global fashion brands.
Yet independent labels have also flourished here, pushing the agenda for Shanghai as an Asia fashion capital and China’s most fashionable city. And trendy boutiques, restaurants and bars are sprouting at an almost alarming pace in the city, feeding its residents’ insatiable desire for newness and ever fresher blends of East-meets-West.
Contemporary fashion designer and Shanghai native Helen Lee helms her own eponymous label as well as being creative director of ski-and-sportswear brand Perfect Moment. After many years hanging out mostly in parts of the former French Concession, where her fashion-label atelier was once based, she now has a new neighbourhood on the radar: Suzhou Creek’s Southside area, which is currently undergoing an urban regeneration with a luxury and fashion focus.
In between designing, meeting clients or managing her stores, Lee has little time for shopping. So where would a fashion designer go in Shanghai? “I don’t buy that much fashion in Shanghai, but I do love browsing. There are few new shops to check out – one of my favourites is called LMDS (1 Taojiang Lu), which is really quite a chic and fashionable boutique.
“I also just opened my Helen Lee South Creekside store (203, 955 South Suzhou Road). The space is big and airy, and I now spend a lot time there. The 5,900-square-foot space is more like a private shop/ showroom — I wanted to have this kind of space so I can hang out with buyers and clients. I wanted to make it quite special and easy for people to look at the clothes and get to know the brand better.”
It’s in an area that’s been newly developed by the Balian Group, with the aim of creating a new fashion centre within the city. “I can show my designs to the buyers and consumers in a really comfortable environment where I can connect better with buyers and clients,” Lee says. “It’s like a refurbished warehouse space that’s designed in a really simple, charming and light way.
“There are meeting rooms, store space, changing rooms, a photo shoot room and even a little bar, so people can just hang out. I want toshow off the creativity we’re trying to present here and it gives us the flexibility to do events for VIPs, or mini fashion shows or even cool reception parties for the arts and design crowd.”
“I like to hang out around Anfu Lu and Fumin Road, my local neighbourhood,” says Lee. The heart of the former French Concession, it’s home to many international-style boutiques, restaurants and concept bars. It’s also a haven for expats living in the city, where most venues willhave English menus and English-speaking staff.
“I also like hanging out around the Bund, usually just because I really like to look at the Huangpu River,” she says — and despite growing up in Shanghai, she’s not averse to frequenting some of the city’s luxury hotels. “I really like the Hyatt — there are a couple of nice venues there — or we’ll go to the Shangri-La for brunch or afternoon tea. On certain occasions, I’ll head to the Peace Hotel to have very old-style Shanghai cuisine for brunch. I love relaxing while looking at that waterfront view.”
Eat & Drink
They say fashion people hardly eat, but Lee and her husband regularly tour Shanghai’s vibrant restaurant scene. Last time we met, we were laughing over smokey whiskey cocktails at a new contemporary Chinese restaurant called Daojianghu (3/F, 50 Tai’An Lu).
Recently, though, she has another obsession: “My favourite place to eat is this tiny Japanese restaurant called Tianji (570 Yongjia Lu). It only has eight seats, so it’s really intimate. There’s really good tempura and they use handmade vintage ceramics and glass tableware that the chef collected and brought back from Japan.
“It’s a really artistic and beautiful place. You watch the chef cook everything in front of you, and he introduces all of the fresh food and ingredients, as well as different ways of eating it with different sauces. Let’s not forget the vast and quite special collection of sake they have, either.
“If we’re talking about bars,” she adds, “I like cocktails, so I often go to the Japanese-style speakeasy called Speak Low (579 Fuxing Zhong Lu). I’ll usually try at least three or four different cocktails in a night … and they have four floors. The Margarita and Flurtibird cocktails are really great, but at the end of the day my favourite drinks are usually champagne, dirty martinis and gin and tonic.”