My little shopping guide in Shenzhen, for men
I went on shopping trips to Shenzhen and Lowu a couple of times and I thought that a write up of my experience may be useful to some people. I went shopping mostly for bespoke men’s clothes so if you are looking for something else, your experience may differ. My goal was to have some decent suits and shirts made, so I didn’t aim for the cheaper stuff.
I spent most of my time in the Lowu Commercial Center (aka "Lowu"). So while most of the shops sell useless trinkets, it also holds a fabric market and a large number of tailors. The red “Shop in Shenzhen” book was useful but certainly not fully necessary.
I had two suits made by Tai Cheong Tailor, because this is one of the most professional looking shops. They also have a shop in Sheung Wan (i.e. in Hong Kong). According to the staff, the price in Hong Kong is identical to the price in Shenzhen, which made me feel a little dumb about coming to Shenzhen in the first place. I gave them a good suit to copy and they assured me that they could make copies in a week without having to do a basked fitting. The salespeople were also quite nice and not "in your face" like in the other shops. They let me look at sample books for hours. Which allowed me to witness quite a few expats coming in and out. From this tailor I ordered a suit for Y1500 and another with a heavier fabric for Y2500. The next day, I went by the shop and one of the shopkeepers rushed out to tell me that the fabric I picked was not available so I had to pick something else, which was really annoying. I paid a total of Y6000 with two pair of pants for each suit.
The suits turned out fine. However, all the pants had a big horizontal wrinkle in the back (the original doesn’t have one) and they all had to be reworked. A tailor in the shop did it in two hours. Similarly, the copy is not perfect. The fit is right, buy they only made a copy of the major details. Anything not visible will not be copied.
I also had them make 14 shirts, again based on existing custom shirts I brought. All the shirt fabrics I’ve seen either in shops or in the fabric market are either really basic or absolutely awful. Pink, Nodus or Arrow certainly buy their fabric somewhere else. Nevertheless, I think that Y140 for a custom shirt is a pretty good deal, even if the fabric is simple.
I then went to Sam's, which is in the “Shop in Shenzhen” book. He was a little more "in your face" than the previous tailor. He took my measures and I paid Y3600 for two suits (solid charcoal and navy pinstripe) with two pair of pants. He scheduled a fitting for Wednesday and delivery on Sunday. It was quite obvious that he plied the "a suit in two days" trade. The fitting went fine but I’m not sure that they were actually listening to me. He also forgot to write down some of the details I asked, such as working buttons. On the finished suit, the buttonhole was missing. I don’t mean that the buttonhole was not open; I mean the embroidery was just not there!
Finally I went to John Chi's (also in the book), which is in the fabric market and therefore looks a lot more "amateur". I had him make a linen suit for Y750 and a sport jacket with a very cool “Double Fish-pattern” lining for Y780. I think that John is the worst of the three (but probably not the worst in Shenzhen). As I tried the suit I could see that the fit was not very good but he tried to explain away the issues. Since I’m not a professional, I can’t really contradict him but it is hard to take to their explanation at face value. The suits also had some quality control issues, such as nicks in the fabric.. Nevertheless he was quite willing to accommodate my requests and to help me find what I wanted in the fabric market.
BTW, the fabric market is interesting, but really only for women or unusual garments. The selection for shirts or suits is small and limited to "best sellers".
In the end, nope of the suits made by those 3 tailors turned out perfectly all right on delivery day. They all had to be fixed. So if your tailor gives you a delivery date on a certain day, make sure that you can stay for a least 24 more hours in order to take leave them time to fix those issues. If the fit is really not right, or if the tailor forgot something, you should not have to pay for it. However, if you just want something major modified once the suit is “finished” (thinner pants for example) it will cost you extra.
After the modifications, I am reasonably happy with the suits. We’ll see how they far as I use them.
I hoped that the fact that I was looking for very standard suits (both in terms of style and in terms of personal shape) would help me get good results. I think it did. If I wanted something more specific, it may have been more difficult. All the tailors I went through had little to no sense of style. Or maybe they are used to the Asian style and don't know the Western ones. Expect overly baggy pants, sleeve cuffs that cover your palms and pants that start breaking from your knee.
Furthermore, during a fitting, the tailor will try its best to make you accept the current state. I've found that tailors that were overly pushy during the initial negotiation where just as pushy during the fitting. But if you push back, they should accept your requests.
Similarly, during the final fitting, none of the 6 or 7 tailors and shop attendant I dealt with acknowledged the obvious flaws even I could see. They just said “looks very nice on you.” I guess they hope that you’re not going to see the flaws and that you’ll just go away. So you have to really understand how a suit is supposed to fit, in order to point out the issues.
A few other things…
On my first trip, I went to a couple of tailors and for suits they all quoted me "two weeks, cause it's busy in this period" (before Christmas). I had only one week so of course I was quite annoyed. They also told me that some tailors can do it faster but that the quality is not as good. Fair enough. Thankfully, I did found some tailors willing to act faster.
All tailors accepted a deposit of 50%, I'm sure they could accept 30%. I heard about some tailors asking for 70% but that's just too much.
All the tailors have pretty much the same sample books, even for shirts. They all say "Made in England", "Made in Italy" and “100% cashmere” but most kind of admitted that it wasn't true. As if I was going to believe them... I still can’t make a difference between polyester and wool, so for my suits I pretty much had to rely on the tailor. Tailors will sometimes burn one bit of both types (polyester and wool) to show you the difference in smell and texture. Also, tailors tend to use the same sample books, so a tailor tries to pretend that a certain book is 100% wool while another one admits that it is actually a blend of polyester and wool, you know that something is fishy.
Don't trust the announced fitting and delivery dates. Unless you can give your tailor some time (one week for fitting and one week for final delivery), those dates can shift really easily. Similarly, don't expect two fittings if you're having two suits made by the same tailor: "other suit, same fit!"
Overall, I got a good feeling with most tailors. Unlike all the other shops in Lowu, they seem fairly honest and prices are pretty much fixed. They don't hide the fact that they all work with only a couple of factories. Many of them speak English reasonably well, and even very well. Just don't expect any style advice from them. They just gave you a "this is nice" and show you pictures from old Japanese magazines. However I believe that if you come at a time which isn’t too busy, and if you give them time, and especially if you really know what you want, you can get some decent suits made in Shenzhen.
Regarding the price of suits and shirts, the benefits of coming to Shenzhen are questionable. Yes, you can have a suit custom made for Y750, but it is with the cheapest polyester fabric. With a 100% wool fabric (supposedly), it jumps to Y1500, and then Y2500 for heavier ones. Shirts are Y150 for blended fabrics and about Y300 for a pure cotton shirt. All the tailors use the very same sample books, and probably the same factories.
Now for the other stores in Lowu… They all sell pretty much the same junk, but one can get a couple of decent deals. But really, the fun is in the negotiation. The first quoted price is usually totally absurd. For cufflinks, I've been quoted anything from Y150 to Y250 for a product that sells for $1 on the Internet. So the offered price is 25 times the real price! Getting a feel for the "real price" by going to a couple of shops and then walking out is absolutely required. Making up one mind and sticking to a price is the only way to go. When you walk out the door, if they don't match your price, it probably means that you hit below the real price. I can't believe that they think that I can be stupid enough to pay such huge price. And they act so shocked when I made counteroffers with 20%-30% of the price. And I even think that I could go lower.
The shops display lots of fake stuff, but usually the good fakes are not on display, it seems to roam around, in a black bag, ready to be called. The really annoying thing: I don’t usually buy fakes, but for example for cufflinks, Tiffany fakes were the only decent cufflinks around!
Finally, I went to the Dongmen market as well, and had lunch in the first McDonald to open in China, in 1990. They managed to mess up my order, sot it felt just like home. Dongmen is interesting, but not for men's fashion. It's a lot larger, and the touts are a lot less aggressive. There's lot of "shopping malls" with hundreds of small shops selling fake handbags, watches and electronics, but also a couple of big malls. Dongmen is only a 20 minutes walk from Lowu and well worth a visit.
I had a lot of fun in Shenzhen, it was a great experience. However, it was not a great “shopping experience.” Shop keepers are never actually rude, but the aggressive sales tactics are brutal on the nerves. Furthermore, I’m not sure that it’s such a good deal anymore, especially since lots of tailors in Hong Kong produce in Shenzhen. Going to Shenzhen is a hassle compared to going to a tailor in TST or Admirality, and the shopping experience is so much nicer.
You’ve be informed!