WE'RE OFTEN TOLD the mainland is the future for luxury fashion brands. Western designers are flocking to open ever more expansive flagships in Shanghai, such as luxury conglomerate LVMH, which has just rolled out its first shopping mall, the ultra-high-end L'Avenue.
But in reality, the mainland is a terrible place to buy items from big Western brands because they are more expensive than in Hong Kong, being subject to an import duty of about 40 per cent.
The best shopping can be found at the smaller boutiques that stock quirky local brands, creations by emerging local designers and oddball vintage gear.
Changle Lu is "the street of eternal happiness", in Xuhui district. There are dozens of small boutiques at the eastern end.
It's home to Feispace, which hosts pop-up stores by young designers and concept brands, and is always stocked with surprising pieces. Next door is JDV, a menswear boutique from Wenzhou. It offers shirts, hats, belts and shoes inspired by '30s and '40s gentlemen's attire and updated for the 21st century. Shirts go for about 800 yuan, with shoes starting at 1,000 yuan.
Yamado, also in the same locale, stocks handmade leather bags for men and women. The pieces are classic, understated and well crafted, with prices starting from 4,000 yuan.
A few strides away is The Thing, a local streetwear label that sells T-shirts, jeans, hats, hoodies and accessories. The aesthetic is bold, colourful and cheeky, but the prices are excellent: around 150 yuan for a T-shirt and 300 yuan for a hoodie. The Thing stocks clothing for men and women, frequently working with musicians and graphic artists to create signature T-shirts.
- Feispace, 139 Changle Lu,
- JDV, 139 Changle Lu
- Yamado, 139 Changle Lu
- Thing, 276 Changle Lu
Follow Changle Lu westwards until it runs into Fumin Lu, where you'll find two of Shanghai's best spots for high-end designers.
The first is by pre-eminent designer Helen Lee, a graduate of Raffles Design Institute who worked in Japan before launching her own label. Her collections are colourful, playful and very wearable, with heavy graphic prints that reference traditional Chinese motifs. Pieces start at around 2,500 yuan.
On the same street is Dong Liang. Set in a peaceful villa, it's easy to miss, but once inside you'll find women's clothing by Vega Wang, Zhang Da (creative director of Hermès' Shang Xia brand), He Yan and Sara Yun, costing about 1,500 yuan for shirts and tops, and as much as 4,000 yuan for dresses. There's also a selection of menswear from Xin Xin, Xander Zhou and Simon Gao.
Around the corner is another hot spot- Xinle Lu, a hive of small fashion stores selling high and low-end clothes for women. The selection is very hit and miss, however.
The street itself has an interesting history, being known as "Er Nai Lu", or "second wife street", because it is said that rich men set their mistresses up with shops there to keep them busy. It's anyone's guess if this is true, but the street is perennially jammed with bright pink Porsches and canary yellow Mercedes, all driven by the petite and immaculately dressed young women who run the shops.
One nice exception is NuoMi, which sells one-off pieces of women's and children's wear made by locals who have special needs or are housebound. NuoMi teaches them tailoring and lends them sewing machines, and the resulting garments are surprisingly sharp. Head here for scarves, dresses and suits in classic cuts, as well as some elegant eveningwear.
- Helen Lee, 172 Fumin Lu
- Dong Liang, 184 Fumin Lu
- NuoMi, 196 Xinle Lu
Vintage and retro
Cross Huaihai Lu, one of Shanghai's most famous (and soulless) shopping streets, and you're in the former French Concession. This is where a younger crowd comes to pick up retro gear, most notably at Lolo Love Vintage.
Lolo's store is a jumbled haven of dresses and accessories, hats, scarves and shoes. Most of the merchandise comes from Europe, although there are curious finds from China, such as quirky crockery and homeware. The buyers have a penchant for fairy-tale dresses, costume jewellery and anything from the 1950s. There's a courtyard where you can escape the heat, sip fruit wine and watch Shanghai's coolest kids come and go.
Follow Fuxing Xi Lu east for the area's other great vintage boutique, William the BeeKeeper. Chinese-American designer Cairn Wu finds and imports retro fashion and sells her own creations here. The store also stocks a mishmash of books, bags and belts, plus organic honey made on Wu's bee farm in Honolulu.
For those who love wearing vintage and don't mind hunting through piles of clothes, there's the Anxi Second-hand Market - two huge warehouses selling old shoes, bags, coats, jumpers and shirts. It's about a mile southwest of the former French Concession.
The majority of the stock is left over, cheap Chinese-made clothing. However, it can be a fun day, picking over what's on offer and, if you're lucky, stumbling upon something that's so kitsch it's actually cool.
- Lolo Love Vintage, 2 Yongfu Lu
- William the BeeKeeper, 84 Fenyang Lu
- Anxi Market, 1335 Anshun Lu
Alter is a multibrand shop set up by Sonja Popo Xiao in Xintiandi. It mainly stocks Western designers - especially rare and under-the-radar labels. There are hats from Piers Atkinson of London, frocks from Sass & Bide, heels from Camilla Skovgaard and the most elegant eveningwear from Dion Lee. Alter also has a nice line of bags, wallets and jewellery but the prices aren't cheap. Expect to spend more than 5,000 yuan (HK$6,270).
In the mall behind Alter, you'll find hip Chinese designers at a similar price point. Central St Martins graduate Uma Wang has a boutique there. Next door is Even Penniless by designer Gao Xin, which is famed for its blend of deconstructed military cuts and street style.
On the same floor, One By One showcases works by Yifang Wan, Masha Ma (another St Martins alumnus) and the reclusive yet brilliant Qiu Hao, who is often tipped as the next big thing. Prices range from 1,500 yuan for a top or T-shirt to 3,800 yuan for a dress.
If all this is straying too close to the catwalks, make a final stop a few blocks west on Shaoxing Lu. This is one of the most pleasant streets in Shanghai, shaded and calm, with a small collection of cafes, tea shops and galleries. Triple Major sells art magazines plus an excellent collection of Chinese labels such as Shanghai's CRANE and Beijing's Digest Design Workshop, alongside items from New York, London and Paris. We love the origami-style bags from Digest, a design project by Dooling Jiang. Each is made from a single piece of leather, folded into the classic origami crane, with the body forming a handbag. At 1,980 yuan, it's quite a steal for such a playful and original piece.
- Alter, 245 Madang Lu
- Uma Wang, 2/F, 245 Madang Lu
- Even Penniless, 245 Madang Lu
- Triple Major, 25 Shaoxing Lu
- One By One, 124 Maoming Nan Lu