California-born self-taught designer Cairn Wu sews a dress at her studio in an old lane on Chongqing Road in Shanghai.
When Julie van Beek moved to Shanghai four years ago, she had a hard time finding tasteful clothes that fit.
Standing 1.7 meters, the Dutch designer, who wears an average European size 36/38, found most clothes here were too small, and often too short at the arms and legs.
"They are either not my size or not my taste," she says. "When it comes to international brands, all the major ones here are about 40 percent more expensive than they are in Europe."
She is one of a number of expat women who were frustrated by the fashion options here and decided to launch their own brands that are not just bigger in size but different in style.
Many of van Beek's expat friends had the same problem. Encouraged by their common need, two years ago van Beek opened the first D.I.S. (Dutch Items Shanghai), a boutique selling her own designs and clothes and shoes she sourced from Europe.
The store on Wukang Road offers women's clothing in European sizes from 34 to 46 (US sizes 2 to 18) and shoes from 36 to 42 (US sizes 6 to 11). It also sells a small collection of menswear ranging from XS to XXL in both European and US sizes, and shoes from 40 to 46 (US sizes 8-11).
The business went so well that in less than two years, there are already three D.I.S stores in the city. The other two are in Jinqiao, Pudong, and on Hongmei Road - both are popular residential areas with expats. She is preparing to open a fourth, in the Hilton hotel in Sanya, Hainan Province.
"It (the business development) is really beyond my expectations," van Beek says. "We opened more stores to meet the huge demand of our customers."
At D.I.S, bigger sizes don't mean lesser style. "Our clothes are comfortable with a fashion twist," she adds. "They are designed to last a long period, not just for one season."
The spring/summer collections on sale are made of natural fabrics such as silk, cotton and linen, featuring a warm, summery palette of plum, cherry, Indian blue and deep purple.
T-shirts start at about 200 yuan (US$29). A jersey wrap dress in flower prints is about 600 yuan and a bohemian-style long summer dress costs around 1,200 yuan, quite reasonable given the quality of the fabrics and cuttings.
Most of her clients are expats, says the Dutch entrepreneur of Korean descent, but there are more Chinese customers so she has added size 34 to her stores.
While local fashion designers tend to go abroad to advance their careers, more and more foreigners have chosen to come to Shanghai to realize their designer dreams.
Before moving to Shanghai, California-born Cairn Wu had worked as a broker in futures and options for three years to save money for her new career - a fashion designer with her own label, Kaileeni.
Growing up in America, Wu has wanted to be a designer since she was a little girl, making clothes for her Barbies. The 28-year-old of Chinese descent visited China for the first time when she was in the college, and decided she would one day move to Shanghai.
"Back in California, it (the fashion business) is very competitive," she says. "I think people here in Shanghai are more open to new things. There are more opportunities."
About two and a half years ago, the self-taught designer, like many of her counterparts, started her fashion career in Shanghai by "copying" others' works. She soon developed her own design philosophy based on her personal style, which is a fusion of urban flare and vintage inspiration.
Just like van Beek, Wu makes clothes in larger sizes to cater for the needs of foreigners in Shanghai. Price range from 500 yuan to 1,500 yuan. She also takes orders for custom-made cocktail dresses, evening gowns and wedding gowns.
Wu receives customers in her studio tucked away in an old lane on Chongqing Road. She has a close relationship with her clients, about 80 percent of them expats, and people from northern China such as Beijing, who are usually taller and larger than most Shanghainese.
"The expat community is very supportive to each other," she says. "My business has been developed mostly through word of mouth. Some customers just call me when they need a dress for some event because I know their sizes and they trust my taste."
Besides her studio, Wu's collections are also available in the Helen Lee boutique on Taikang Road. She's planning to launch her own shop in the summer.
As warm weather is approaching, Frenchwoman Jessica Othnin-Girard, a former national champion in synchronized swimming, sees business opportunities because "Shanghai really misses a good an innovative swimwear brand."
Othnin-Girard, who has lived here for two years, recently launched the first collection of JOG (her initials) swimwear in a show at Highstreet Loft, during the Shanghai International Fashion Culture Festival.
"I have passed 16 years of my life in the water looking for the perfect artistic movement," says the 25-year-old. "I know very well about swimsuits, and I want to create a line for all the ladies and little girls who want to be beautiful both inside and outside the water."
Inspired by her past career as a synchronized swimmer, Othnin-Girard has created a glamorous, chic and elegant collection, all made of microfiber, which is soft like a "second skin," and hand-stitched sequins. According to her, JOG is the first brand in China to use the fabric.
Targeting mainly expats who looking for style and not finding it locally, JOG has launched its first store last month in Carrefour Gubei. The collection is also sold in five-star hotels around the city including the Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Four Seasons Shanghai, Westin Bund Center and Hyatt on the Bund.
The lack of stylish swimwear in Shanghai is not the only reason she started the brand in China, says the former champion. "I have a deep passion for Asia and live in China. I want my brand to be more and more present in big cities around the country," she says.
Othnin-Girard is also ambitious.
"I really hope to become the leader in China's fashion swimwear industry," she says. "After Shanghai, my next target will be Hong Kong and Singapore, and hopefully one day I will be able to extend the business back to France."
(Shanghai Daily May 20, 2009)