As a young graduate in her 20s, Angela Zhou loved to buy discounted Chanel and Louis Vuitton items at end-of-season sales. But when she found success in her 30s as one of the mainland's top luxury yacht brokers, she could finally afford to buy the priciest items.
Each time she closed a sale on a multimillion-dollar yacht, Zhou would treat herself to a dress from a famous design house. Then, last year, the sight of first lady Peng Liyuan appearing elegant and confident in mainland-designed and tailored dresses on her overseas trip with President Xi Jinping piqued her interest in upmarket custom tailoring.
Zhou is typical of younger wealthy mainlanders who are seeking out a growing number of bespoke tailors in major mainland cities.
"European or American luxury brands are often the first choice for many rich Chinese when they dress up. But, thanks to the first lady, my business doubled last year," said Mu Yan, founder of M.Y.Bespoke, a custom tailor in Shenzhen aimed at wealthy customers.
Mu started her high-end tailoring career in 2007 and counts 3,000 entrepreneurs, socialites and celebrities, some in their early 30s, as clients. In busy seasons, monthly orders can reach more than one million yuan (HK$1.25 million).
The Hurun Report, which tracks China's wealthy and their spending habits, reported recently there were 1.05 million individuals each with assets exceeding 10 million yuan. Of those, 64,500 were deemed "super rich" - those with assets of 100 million yuan or more.
When Mu started out in Shenzhen, few of the city's wealthy used bespoke tailoring. "It took nearly eight years to develop the market," she said.
To generate a buzz, Mu ran her shop like an exclusive club. "In the first few years, I held theme parties every month to attract entrepreneurs and high-ranking officials," Mu said.
"I required all the participants to wear something I had made. They came at first to network, but soon they started ordering tailor-made suits and dresses."
Prices for a dress begin at about 12,000 yuan and can be as high as 10 times that much. A single item can require hundreds of hours to make, including the final fitting stage.
"Fabrics are created by top Chinese designers and come from the best European weavers and mills," Mu said. "Each client is served by at least 20 people, including consultants, designers, dyers and tailors.
"The fabric is cut by hand, the pick stitching is very neat and the horn buttons are top quality."
In Europe and the United States, women make up 95 per cent of haute couture customers, but Mu's clients are an equal mix of both sexes.
"My male clients are usually bankers or senior executives of listed companies who want tailored suits to build their image. They usually make a one-time credit-card payment of between 100,000 and 300,000 yuan for their clothes each season or year," she said.
However, Mu admits many of Shenzhen's wealthy still prefer to buy foreign luxury brands, though there is a growing interest in setting oneself apart through mixing and matching an array of designers.
"To be honest, about half of my clients buy original designs by domestic designers. The rest still come and order an improved version based on the hottest Chanel and Dior design of the season," Mu said. "They just want a similar design, maybe cutting short the sleeve or braiding the neckline, hem and cuffs of the dress."
Not everyone is impressed, though. "I won't spend a lot on bespoke clothing by domestic designers," said Kitty Yu, a Shenzhen celebrity who spends between two and three million yuan each year on clothes, watches and luxury handbags from overseas brands.
"Six months ago I ordered a locally designed dress. I had to wait too long, and the final design was not as perfect as I expected.
"If a tailor-made garment costs 60,000 yuan or more, why not just buy a Valentino piece? It costs the same but is made and designed by the world's top designers. Besides, we are already VIP clients of many brands like Celine, Dior and Chanel. In early winter, those brands offer us their collections for the following spring. We are the first batch of clients to dress up in these luxurious dresses. That's already unique and flattering enough, don't you think?"
Another fashion-conscious buyer agreed. "I'm not confident they can offer the best fabric from top European weavers and mills as promised. I have my doubts," said Hannah Lu.
"But you don't need to think of these problems when wearing a Chanel or Celine. I think mainland luxury designers and tailors have a long way to go before they earn the luxury bespoke title."