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Sun, Jan 25, 2009
Urban, The Straits Times
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Fitting choice
by Noelle Loh

Best known for its body-conscious form with a thigh-high slit, the cheongsam is often the uniform of Chinese waitresses or dragon ladies in modern pop culture.

The more feminine, modest incarnations are reserved for demure damsel types - think Maggie Cheung's jilted wife character in In The Mood For Love.

However, the idea of the cheongsam as risque or prudish is as outdated as the stereotypes of women they conjure up. Far from cheena (local slang to describe outdated Chinese culture), today's cheongsam exude chinoiserie chic.

At Fuchsia Lane, a shop in the Red Dot Building in Maxwell Road, a red cheongsam top is cropped and emblazoned with a pop art version of a bird motif.

Natural fabrics such as cotton and jersey, rather than the traditional Chinese silk, are used for an instant update.

Tong Tong The Friendship Store in Shaw Towers, meanwhile, spins out cheongsam that look as cute as its moniker sounds. The traditional form, for instance, is adapted and given a pleated A-line skirt with mushroom print panels peeking out.

Over the last three years, at least five stores specialising in modern takes on the traditional costume have popped up here.

Says Fuchsia Lane owner Vivienne Lin, 29: 'The traditional cheongsam looks great in photos and on screen but will not suit the mobile lifestyle of a busy, cosmopolitan woman because of its restrictive form.

'I wanted to create comfortable, wearable cheongsam that show off our heritage without looking out of place in this modern world.'

Others, such as My Mandarin Collar's Clarissa Choh, 33, who operates from a home studio on Holland Avenue, point out that traditional cheongsam tend to be less accommodating of the female form.

She says: 'The traditional cuts usually look nice only on ultra slim figures.'

Retailers' efforts to make the cheongsam contemporary have paid off.

While most decline to reveal figures, business has jumped as much as 70 per cent in the last two to three years.

In the lead up to Chinese New Year, sales can triple.

Veteran designer Lai Chan, who declines to reveal his age, applauds these labels' attempt to make cheongsam relevant while maintaining the appeal of this Chinese classic.

Known for his traditional-looking but figure-flattering cheongsam, he has been in the business since the 1980s and counts fashionistas such as DrJade Kua, 29, and Singapore Fashion Festival 2008 organiser Tjin Lee, 34, as fans.

He says of traditional dresses: 'A $500 kebaya can easily hold its own against a $50,000 designer gown at a ball.

'The cheongsam is still relevant and has not lost its appeal. The techniques used to make it, however, must modernise.'

01-18 The Cathay

Silk printed cheongsam, $189, from Deja Vu Vintage; cotton knit cardigan, $73.83, from GG<5, 03-15 Paragon; leather belt, $55, from Hide & Seek, 22B Hong Kong Street; diamante bangle, $85, from Aldo, 03-24 Wisma Atria

Started: 2005

Specialty: Like all other clothes in the store, the cheongsam are vintage, dating back to the 1950s or 1960s.

The range: Lightweight designs better suited for daywear to more luxurious designs made with silk and brocade. There is also a selection of Oriental-style lace tops.

Price: $109 for a day cheongsam from the 1970s to $355 for a hand-beaded cheongsam from the 1950s
03-05 Red Dot Building, 28 Maxwell Road (by appointment only; tel: 9748-6717); The Shop @ Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane; Chai Fashion Emporium, Level 1 Liang Court

Beaded cotton silk dress, $488, from Fuchsia Lane; cotton tuxedo jacket, $435, from Club Monaco, B1-12 Ngee Ann City; ring, $79, from Quintessential, 02-01 Pacific Plaza

Started: 2007

Specialty: Handsewn designs made using materials such as cotton and jersey and embellished with funky prints, crystals, sequins and lace for a kitschy appeal.

The range: Dresses, tops, skirts and accessories.

Price: $89 for a cardigan to $488 for a crystal and sequined lace dress (only six pieces available)
02-10 Raffles Hotel

French lace beaded cheongsam evening dress, $1,880, from Lai Chan; crystal bangle, $589, and leather clutch, $459, both from Quintessential

Started: 1980s

Specialty: Classy, traditional-looking cheongsam known for their flattering cut and made with luxe materials such as Italian silk and crepe.

The range: Cheongsam dresses for both day and night.

Price: $700 to $7,000
01-04 Delfi Orchard

French lace cheongsam evening dress, $4,800, from Renee L. Collections; bangle, $45, from Aldo, 03-24 Wisma Atria; leather heels, price unavailable, from Prada, 01-45 Paragon

Started: 2006

Specialty: Feminine, classic cheongsam made from fabrics such as French lace with intricate embellishments.

The range: Evening and bridal cheongsam dresses.

Price: $2,000 to $15,000
02-04 Willyn Ville, 1 Holland Avenue (by appointment only; tel: 8383-5252); +20 Bulbs, 01-08 The Cathay (Till next friday only)

Silk cheongsam top, $248, from My Mandarin Collar at +20 Bulbs; wool prinstriped men's jacket, made to measure by Koops, and silk pants, $128, by Trioon, both from Hide & Seek, 22B Hong Kong Street; patent leather heels, $175, and black beaded necklace, $85, both from Aldo, 03-24 Wisma Atria

Started: 2006

Specialty: Modern silhouettes adorned with classic Mandarin collars and made with fabrics such as Thai silk and French lace. Each design comes in only four pieces.

The range: Tops, cocktail and evening dresses, pants, skirts, bridal cheongsam and tea dresses.

Price: $88 for a top to $1,888 for a bridal outfit
02-12G Takashimaya Shopping Centre

Silk embroidered cheongsam dress, $940, and suede leather bag, $800, both from Shanghai Tang

Started: 1994

Specialty: Bright and funky take on traditional Chinese silhouettes such as the cheongsam and tunic tops in luxurious fabrics. Does menswear too.

The range: Tops, dresses, pants and both fashion and lifestyle accessories such as key chains and notebooks.

Price: $10 for a greeting card to $8,000 for a made-to-measure beaded cheongsam dress
03-30 Paragon; 03-14 and 03-50 Tanglin Shopping Centre; B1-64 Raffles City

Silk embroidery top, $249, from Xi; denim wide-legged jeans, $560, from Love Moschino, 02-20 Hilton Shopping Gallery; jade pendant, $79, by Reina Dvine from +20 Bulbs, 01-08 The Cathay

Started: 2001

Specialty: Cheongsam made with materials such as silk, denim and cotton with a sophisticated, East-meets-West flair.

The range: Tops, dresses, pants and accessories.

Price: $49 for a top to $499 for a cheongsam dress
01-04 Shaw Towers

Striped silk cheongam dress, $269, from Tong Tong The Friendship Store, 01-04 Shaw Towers; polka dotted socks, $25, from Hide & Seek, 22B Hong Kong Street; patent leather heels, $895, from Louis Vuitton, 01-07 Ngee Ann City; faux leather bag, $195, and feather head piece, $85, both from Deja Vu Vintage, 01-18 The Cathay

Started: Began as Tan Tan in 2006 but changed its name following an expansion last year.

Specialty: Cute and quirky adaptations of cheongsam made with modern materials such as denim and cotton. They come in modern silhouettes such as the empire waist and A-line skirt.

The range: Cheongsam dresses, cheongsam-inspired tops and accessories.

Price: $99 for a cotton top to $599 for an embellished silk cheongsam dress

This article was first published in Urban, The Straits Times on Jan 23, 2009.

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