On The Red Carpet: With Dongguan’s Personal Stylists

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We all know that dressing better improves many things, including self confidence and just how far we get with that stranger, whether it is a new business contact or a new love interest. The world of fashion, often inspired by traditional garb, is also a crystal ball that opens a misty view into the universe of human beliefs and values. It is a powerful and unforgiving entity that has the ability to separate those that belong and those that do not match.

But it is also a power that can be wielded by anyone, from any background. It is a decisive equalizer. To learn its secrets and bend their rules, is to gain great power.

Dongguan is a prime location to look at the world of clothing design, and personal style. In this city of 8 million, a place where wealth exists and where supply is almost limitless, demand for high fashion is yet to catch up to the complexities of the West.

“It is unlike the 50s and 60s. People wore the same worker outfits and other political clothes, actually the clothes showed that you were loyal with the country,” she said.

Principle of the MeeZee Vocational Training School, Maggie Jiang, is in a rare position to pass judgment on Dongguan’s fashion scene. A native of Guangzhou, she has spent 12 years here, and her school, a subsidiary of Korea’s SBS Broadcasting Fashion School, comes from a history of working with Korea’s television and film stars. Korea’s pop culture has had a huge influence on the region.

At the school’s offices in the Dongguan Television and Radio Tower, she explains that fashion, in its international understanding as a path to self expression, is somewhat of a new concept in China. “It is unlike the ’50s and ’60s. People wore the same worker outfits and other political clothes, actually the clothes showed that you were loyal with the country,” she said.

When China’s foreign policy became more lenient, bell-bottom pants became popular in the 80s and the populace followed suit. But it took another decade before modern views would affect personal style.
“From the 90s until now,” Ms. Jiang said, “as more and more foreign TV shows were aired online, people could follow the European and American, or Korean trends.” The world’s most populous country was thrust into a world where clothing signified self worth. “The people became aware of what they wore and learned what it is to be trendy,” she said.

STYLE IS THERAPEUTIC

Most people see the world of personal stylists as isolated in a realm of champagne and caviar. Actors and sport stars, public figures and political officials, these are among the privileged few who can afford a team of professionals to sculpt their personal image.

As big as Dongguan is, and as prominent as some of the Fortune 500 posts are, we still suffer the self esteem of a small town. And though it is true that their services may not be easily afforded by a very large percent of the city, the world of personal stylists can and will be had here.

“Because people don’t have the notion to improve their look, there are very few people doing what we are doing,” said Sha Qian, a teacher and personal stylist at MeeZee.

Shasha, as she likes to be known, is from Shangdong Province and studied clothing design in Korea where she met her Dongguanese husband before moving back with her spouse and putting her doctoral degree to work as an image consultant.

“It’s our goal to nurture the fashion market here in Dongguan. We want people to want to be pretty,” Ms. Sha said.

Feng Lu, one of Dongguan’s most well known fashion designers poses with her picks at Fumin Fashion City in Humen Town.

Feng Lu, one of Dongguan’s most well known fashion designers poses with her picks at Fumin Fashion City in Humen Town.

The school does not have a monopoly on the market here, but the market is still not overly competitive. One of her schools’ owning partners runs a personal style club at one of the local hotels, and then there is J&C, a company run by Mr. Hu Bin, a local hair stylist turned fashionista.

To talk to them is to gain a sense that personal stylists are part image consultant and part therapist. “Their appearance doesn’t just change how you look. It will make women gain passion again,” said Hu Bin. “They pay attention to details, spend time on their looks. The angles at which they look at things will change, too.”

By changing their personal image, Mr. Hu says that women, though the advice can easily be transferred to men as well, will have the confidence to be more social, meet new people and open themselves to new things. “They can change their social circles through a change in image,” he said.

Ms. Jiang and Ms. Sha say that when focusing on image, a person must not only consider self-image and personal taste, but they have to consider fashion is a language of expression. They must also consider the grammar of that language before speaking.

“What a woman wears does express some information. If a woman likes to wear a one-piece dress, or likes to wear pants, she tends to be neutral and capable, independent and strong,” said Jiang. “But I want to say, if they don’t know style a lot, many of them wear the wrong clothes. If they don’t know the clothes they wear express that kind of information.”

“When we are serving customers, we will consider their personality because certain colors express certain psychology. And they might not know this,” said Sha.

We know that fashion can define a whole generation, whether it’s (defined in American vernacular) the Swinging ’20s or the much more conservative ’50s. Fashion can define a nation and a city. The ladies at MeeZee describe Dongguan ladies as being very traditional. They say that it is likely that many of them will try to decrease this kind of self expression, that wearing revealing clothes is not just about the amount of skin shown, but the women here consciously consider keeping with the trends as a way to maintain their iAdentity as part of the group.

When you look at Mr. Hu, remaining part of the group doesn’t seem to be the motivating factor in his choice of dress. He is a short and stout man, with a handsomeness that is more rugged and pensive than today’s oft chased pretty boy look. His choice in style—young, wild and unapologetic—on first look has a tendency to cross a few wires in computing his value based solely on how he is dressed.

The conservative businessman may think, ‘if this is what he thinks is style, I may be in the wrong place.’ But on second thought, he wears his clothes like an artist challenges the norms of common thought. And in Dongguan, it seems that personal stylists are not for everyone.

“It’s our goal to nurture the fashion market here in Dongguan. We want people to want to be pretty,” Ms. Sha said.

Mr. Hu does admit that personal style consultation is only a small part of his business, mostly employed by local TV or radio hosts, people that have a vested interest in how they look. One of his most revealing sales pitches is to tell potential clients the story of a client that increased her sales by 10 percent after taking his advice on fashion. “She said ‘the image change gave her inspiration, made her pay more attentive to the details of her work,’” Mr. Hu said.

A personal stylist, according to Mr. Hu, is responsible for more than just giving some advice on which pants to put on. When he uses the “one foot at time” cliché, he is referring to a step-by-step process, rather than trying to show us that we are all the same, no matter what echelon of society we hail.

“Fashion is a paradox. If you want to change, but don’t want to make it too obvious, then you can’t tell people you are changing,” he said making it understood that genuine change comes from a personal place, and it is something that an individual must accept on a higher plane. “You want to stand out, but you don’t want to try too hard.”

STYLE IS PERSONAL

The leaders of the local fashion scene will say the same thing about Dongguan’s world of the stylish. “[Fashion] is a good thing, but some people follow trends blindly. For example, a big brand releases a certain style, some buy them all, although the style isn’t so suitable for them,” said Ms. Sha. “In fact, in France—in Europe—people will not follow the style of big brand releases. They know their style very well. So we want to tell people not everything from big brands is certainly suitable for you.”

This, she says, is part of what they teach—that image is personal. Even if a fad is everywhere, the trend is trumped by personal attributes. Just because Prada or Gucci are putting out a line of leopard print designs, does not mean that it is suitable for everyone under the sun.

Generations of painters and musicians abide by the aesthetic theories of their predecessors and though many famously balk at the norms and trends, those changes in attitude are held mostly by the residents of the ivory towers. To see the change and understand its appeal requires a great understanding of what has come before.

Of course, fashion is manipulated and created by the artist that design clothing, but fad and trend is decided with more influence from the masses than in any other art. We look at the models and super stars. We immolate them to our best effort. But what comes out in the end is an interpretation that is touched by lesser designers, and picked by the masses in the markets.

The ladies of MeeZee, Maggie Jiang, and Sha Qian (left bottom). Hu Bin addresses the crowd on the catwalk (right). (photos provided by MeeZee/J&C)

The ladies of MeeZee, Maggie Jiang (left top), and Sha Qian (left bottom). Hu Bin addresses the crowd on the catwalk (right). (photos provided by MeeZee/J&C)

Dongguan is a prime location to look at the world of clothing design, and personal style. In this city of 8 million, a place where wealth exists and a place where supply is almost limitless, but demand for clothing and fashion is yet to catch up to the complexities of the West. They know they want it, but maybe they are not sure what they want.

In Dongguan’s Humen Town, Ms. Feng Lu says that while compared to much larger cities like Guangzhou, the clothing industry in Humen is granted a much higher rate of attention from its government. “Although tax revenues from clothing in Humen only reach around 30 percent, 70 percent of people in Humen work in the clothing industry,” she said.

Ms. Feng, broadly recognized as Dongguan’s highest authority on clothing design, creates clothes for three brands, has been a guest host on DGTV’s “Perfect Ten” fashion show and has designed for celebrities on the mainland and for a former Ms. Hong Kong.

Ms. Feng, who studied in Paris’s prestigious ESMOD school of fashion design, said, “many people ask me to compare Paris and Humen because I studied in Paris and I grew up in Guangzhou, which has an even longer fashion history than Beijing. I tell them, ‘I can’t compare them. Humen is a town and Paris is an historic capital.’”

The company that Ms. Feng has her biggest contract with doesn’t use her designs for mass production, even though that is the business they are in. She is the chief designer for their public fashion shows. “I’m the company’s face,” she said. “So every year I will have fashion shows, make a catalog or do outdoor advertisement for the company’s promotion.”

Just because Prada or Gucci are putting out a line of leopard print designs, does not mean that it is suitable for everyone under the sun.

When it comes to shopping, however, Humen is the place to be for a deal. Friends of Dongguan’s “most famous designer” don’t like to shop with her on outings in Guangzhou. The clothing industry being what it is in Dongguan, popular clothing designs will be found throughout the well established home of clothing manufacturing. “Last Chinese New Year, my friend bought the same [dress] as me. Mine only cost RMB 50 here, and hers was bought in Yangzhou for RMB 500,” said Ms. Feng.

In an industry that created the strategy of planned obscelescence (the theory that a company can make higher margins by creating a product that will not last, e.g. last season’s shoes are out of style this season), Feng says that Humen’s clothing companies cannot afford to push their styles with untested designers, and that Dongguan will never be on the cutting edge of that part of the industry.

She points out the case of one company headquartered in Humen. They pulled in RMB 300 million last year. “It’s building its brand now and it has gotten used to its style. Once it changes, the 300 million will disappear,” she said. “It’s hard for people who do wholesale and copy other’s designs to do design and build up a brand. They can’t lose their bread.”

This is a reality that runs a multi-billion dollar industry. Fashion can bring attention from those that have the power to make you whole, a new friend or boss. In the fashion world first impressions and second chances both exist, but when you’re playing the game at the top level things can get complicated.

STYLE IS CUSTOM FIT

Of course if you are talking about going to Humen to bargain hunt among the throngs of China’s mass productions, be careful if you don’t fit the mold. Feng points out that the clothes there are mostly “Chinese size.”

“The sizes at the wholesale market, I can’t fit into their clothes either. The ratio is not right.”

Feng Lu, in this picture, works on her designs in her office at the Fumin Kid’s Ware Center in Humen Town.

Feng Lu, in this picture, works on her designs in her office at the Fumin Kid’s Ware Center in Humen Town.

Her advice for Western women shopping for clothes, as much as they might not want to hear it, is to ignore the local brands that target young women. Go for the ones “like the brand I’m designing for,” she said. “It targets mothers, so its sizes will be bigger.”

The personal stylists seem to have a scientific method for making their closet decisions. To choose the style right for you, first learn how you fit into three elemental categories. At least that’s how it works according to Mr. Hu. His theory is color, collar, lifestyle.

To decide his clients’ skin tone, he will pull out an array of skin cards and match them to corresponding color groups. “The gold colors are the warm colors. The silver colors are the cold colors. Each has its brightness, purity and color tone—three properties,” he said. The skin tone decides a person’s color group. Eye color decides their color purity and the combination of the two categorize the color further, into summer, autumn or winter colors.

The cut of the collar, for men especially, determines the fit of your style. It’s usually a personal call decided on the angles and shape of facial features and body types. And then there’s lifestyle. Your stylist is likely going to ask questions like, who are your friends? What do you do for a living? And, what are your hobbies?

In times long gone, wearing clothing of color and self expression was a luxury only afforded by the select few. The idea that one person is better than another based on what they wear and how they look was present, but in worlds where class distinction and differentiation was an inevitability of birth. A direct and obvious thing, where people did not question that others were better than them because they had more money, power and prestige.

In the modern world those ideas still exist, but we have been sold on the idea that we, too, can enter that class of dominance. With a transformation of self identity that can come from retrofitting the latest in fashion accessories and styles, can anyone of us gain star power and become desired by all. Probably not, but who cares. You look good in that.

Wardrobe Intervention: From Girl to Girly in 3 Steps

Honestly, when I was told I would be undergoing a full service consultation from a local personal stylist, the first thought that popped up was, “oh my god, I hope they’re ready for a challenge, physically and mentally.”

I have to confess. I’m not the dress-to-kill kind of girl. I understand the psychological effect behind a good look, and I have in times past tried to dress up. It is just that the outcome didn’t satisfy my expectations. Unlike most Chinese women, my Western-inclined figure (with a relatively sizable sciatic area) limits the kinds of clothes I felt I could wear successfully.

I don’t remember the last time I felt very confident about my overall image. But I do vividly remember the frustration of trying half a dozen dresses in the shop downstairs from the Dongcheng Carrefour two years ago, and finding not a single thing. Lesson learned: Some people should give up shopping in the low-end, off-the-rack markets.

I know nothing about fashion, I can’t afford fashion and I don’t think I need fashion. Like most locals, I don’t wear makeup or anything that involves complicating my life or sticking out. During madness of weekday mornings, dangling around insufficient sleep, takeout lunch preparation and other morning routines, I can squeeze no more than 30 seconds to pick out an outfit and about seven minutes on skin care.

Can Shasha the fashion fairy godmother, accredited with years of study in Korea’s high-fashion industry, turn this fashion-impaired ugly duckling into a beautiful swan? Will I discover that changing a few wardrobe fundamentals will change my entire outlook? This project is about to get exciting.

Don’t mistake step one for a scientific experiment requiring needles. The tools of the test require only a mirror, about ten bundles of colored cloth samples and a pair of bare eyes. According to their theory, different colors clothing will reflect different glowing hues on the face, which should be adjusted to my skin tone. Placing each cloth on me one by one, they chose the ones that looked good on me and ruled out the ones that do not. Yellow, blue, red, green, pink, brown, purple and grey, each basic color contains 10 to 30 variations. It’s clear to me that certain basic colors such as green and pink had more than 10 acceptable pieces while some others like brown and purple merely had a handful.

0614_Cover story 5According to the final report, I have a “soft-spring,” leaning towards “bright-spring” skin type. Therefore, warm colors such as orange and pink are more suitable than the cool colors like blue and green, but not too bright, apparently. Before, I didn’t have a clue about color coordination; I only know that black is the safest color for basically every human being.

Watching the swaths matched to my face, I would not say that step one was transformative, but I did think I had a more complete understanding of what I was looking at, and that I would at very least save a lot of time on my next shopping spree.

The concept is the most frightening of the process. Having Shasha come into my bedroom, re-organize my clothes, throw out improper pieces and explore new outfit possibilities from what remained, left me with the imagery of an inquisition. I was embarrassed to unveil my closet. I thought, as a woman, I had a shamefully small collection. The result turned out to beat expectations.

Scattering the contents of my wimpy wardrobe and hampered hamper upon the bed, Shasha began a whirlwind of combining the most bizarre mix-and-match that I’d never thought of. She could find a perfect match with the single items that had been giving me headaches. For example, my flowery blouse looks gorgeous tucked in to my vertical striped shorts.

She taught me how to use my scarf without wrapping circles around my neck and pairing it with an unbuttoned long coat, very simple details that totally changed the feeling to a fresh, lively look. The most classic professional outfit—a white blouse with black pants—became so different with some easy details. Keep the blouse loose, tuck it in and roll up the pant cuffs to expose some ankle.

It was such a pleasantly surprising experience to discover new life in my boring clothes. In this way, I have a clear vision of each outfit in my head. I can prepare it the night before. This is something I should do once in awhile. Although I love the new matches Shasha suggested, but I’m not sure if I can wear summer short pants in the winter. Beauty really does come with a cost.

After determining my color tone, analyzing my closet, and deciphering my dress code, it’s time to shop. Beforehand, Shasha had been out looking for suitable clothes at reasonable locations. She nailed it down to two shops worth a check—H&M and Stradivarius.

It gave a real sense of security to have someone who knows exactly what I needed shopping with me. One thing that I learned, never be afraid to try on any style of clothes. There is nothing that I can’t try on, only clothes that I think I can’t try on. It’s very important to break down preconceptions and lower inhibitions. Always be ready to try something new. This rule can also be applied to my daily life.

No one is perfect, the only thing I can do is beware of my shortcomings and figure out a way to cover it or divert attention from it with a few dressing tricks. For example, wearing high waist pants can prolong my legs; choosing straight skirts adds length to my legs; adopting A-line skirts will better flatter my bottom-heavy figure. My upper body should be the focus and simplify my bottom look.

Reading my own style report, I gained a better understanding of myself and what type of clothes, makeup and hair styles will look good on me. Maybe my figure will change one day and I will need to completely update my closet. But until that day, I will follow this guideline, try to pay attention to fashion, and discover other style possibilities. It’s still me under here, but at least I know that when the time comes, I can be the girl the moment demands.

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