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The tailor they trust
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Shopping in Beijing is an easy task now that the city has so much to offer that one is spoilt for choices. But if you have something specific in mind, it can be a real headache trying to find it. And when you finally get that perfect top or well-cut jeans, chances are you'll see someone else wearing the same thing on Wangfujing shopping street.


In Beijing, people drive fast, talk fast and think fast. However when it comes to clothes, tailor Wu Caiping recommends that you take your time. Wu thinks that the best clothing can't be found on shelves, they have to be made.


Wu fits a jacket on a foreign customer. Photos by Guo Yingguang


"People don't mind spending time waiting for satisfying outfits as long as they get what they are expecting," he says. "In other cities, made-to-measure clothes are reserved for the rich and privileged, but here they are still normal practice, like devoting time to a really good coffee. In fact, the two often go together."


Tucked away in an alley of East Fourth Ring Road, Wu, from Jiangsu province, southern China, has been making clothes for 34 years, first for other stores in his hometown and then in Shanghai, before he opened his first tailoring store opposite the Central Academy of Art and Design in 1984.


Beginning his tailoring career at 17, Wu spent days reading fashion magazines and practising. "My hometown is in a small village where no one knows what fashion is. But since I had been reading fashion magazines from Japan and America, I became fascinated about it," Wu recalls.


Most of Beijing has had the token silk jacket or qipao made, but Wu is not your typical tailor. Unlike other tailors who are reluctant to try new styles, Wu knows how to take risk and give suggestions.


"I want my clients to feel like themselves in the clothes and I believe everyone can be just like a Hollywood star on the red carpet as long as he or she dresses well," he says.


Now boasting a staff of 12, Wu's store, Pingma Clothing, is home to rolls of fabric, and scores of smiling tailors. The closets are bursting with sartorial masterpieces, from ball gowns in the finest embroidered silks, suits, to wedding dresses.


"I don't know how many clients I have worked for. But there are more than 1,000 telephone numbers in my cell phone, who are my long-time clients," the 51-year-old says. "Ninety percent of my clients are foreigners so I often joke that my company may be located in a small corner of Beijing but my clothes can be found all over the world."


Tackling the language barrier, Wu taught himself English and other simple clothing-related non-English phrases, like Korean and Japanese, which opened up more opportunities.


"My first foreign client was an ambassador's wife from Germany. Despite my feeble explanations in broken English, I tried to draw sketches which were persuasive," he says. "The lady was very happy and satisfied and she introduced many of her friends to me, most of them were from foreign embassies in Beijing."


While taking classes at the Central Academy of Art and Design, Wu expanded his business. He copies clothes from magazines, drawings, or clients bring in their favorite garments which he duplicates.


To meet deadlines, Wu sometimes works 18 hours a day. "It takes time to take care of every detail from a button, pocket to a collar. Clients put their trust in me and after days of waiting I don't want to disappoint them," he says as he fits a jacket on a young businessman from Germany.


Tailor Wu Caiping believes the best clothing is not found on shelves - they have to be made.


Wu's prices are fairly reasonable. If you have your own fabric, Wu will charge 300-500 yuan ($41-69) for the labor, depending on how tricky and time consuming the design is. It usually takes between three days to a week for the completed item. But if you're dissatisfied he will make suitable alterations.


Wu says he never thought about seeking fame by building his company into an international brand.


"I started off my career by preparing the fire and heating the irons for the master worker in the factory. I came to Beijing with nothing but a pair of scissors and a sewing machine. Now I have my company and many clients," Wu says. "You keep working hard, a lucky break comes along, and you never know where that lucky break could be. You can't manufacture them."


Does he think his children will be interested in his profession?


"I think appreciation of fine craftsmanship is coming back. Everything is cyclical. With children, you can set up the situation for them, but you can't make things happen. At present it doesn't look as though my oldest daughter will be following in my footsteps. But perhaps my second daughter, who's majoring in clothing design, is more likely to."


(Xinhua News Agency February 19, 2008)


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