Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shanghai Social Diary

HAN FENG in Shanghai
Soprano Ying Huang (NY MET), arrives for her costume fitting for her role as Semele.
by Jeanne Lawrence

Shanghai. Even among the many attractive and accomplished women here, ebullient Fashion and Costume Designer Han Feng stands out. When people have trouble pronouncing her name, she says, “Think ‘Have fun.’”

Costume Designer Han Feng, in her own design, for opening night of Bonesetter's Daughter opera.
She’s one of China’s most celebrated designers and her creativity extends to opera costumes (Madame Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella), museum exhibits (London’s Victoria and Albert Museum), movie costumes and more.

We first met at the Asia Society on Park Avenue in New York for a pre-opening party for the American opera, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, for which she also designed the costumes. Based on Amy Tan’s book, it debuted in San Francisco in 2008.

We met again in Shanghai the following fall, at the glamorous opening of the elite members-only KEE Club. Once we discovered how many people we knew in common, we became instant friends.

Educated at China’s Zhejian Art Academy, Feng moved to New York City to follow her dreams in 1985 and in 1993 launched her first ready to wear collection.

She began by designing her signature pleated scarves (coveted as gifts; available at the New York Asia Society) and today she has hit her stride, living between New York and Shanghai and globe-trotting for various projects.

Her Shanghai atelier or studio is in the French Concession district, in the art deco Grosvenor House that is an enviable address and is comparable to Manhattan’s Waldorf Towers as many prominent people have lived there.
The Grosvenor House, built in 1931 in Art Deco style. Han Feng's Studio in the historic Grosvenor House
Han Feng shows her original designs the studio's Chinese elements.
A costumes designed by Han Feng for the Bonesetter's daughter. A wedding dress she designed and featured in a magazine.
Light and airy, with white walls and white furniture and a lovely view of the garden below, her atelier is the ideal space to showcase the kaleidoscope of bold colors with which she works.

Her designs are contemporary, cutting-edge, elegant and fluid, and they’re ideal for travel. Feng herself says, with a laugh, “If a dress is too wrinkled, I just wrinkle it some more to create a new look.”

When you find what you like, you select the fabric. Fabric is key to her designs, perhaps because she grew up in Hangzhou, one of China’s silk capitals.
Adrianna wanted an evening cape for a big black-tie event.
Jeanne Lawrence with Han Feng, trying to decide which stole to buy.
Stephanie Lawrence liked the romantic lavender organza dress. But, she bought this colorful silk work of art, instead.
Katrina Chang wanted a special dress for the opening of Pavillion Club.
If she’s in town, she herself takes your measurements, and your custom-made outfit will be cut and sewn on the premises, ready in no time, and sure to fit perfectly.

Recently Adriana Grimaldi Mannering, who 15 years ago moved to Shanghai from Rome with her husband Jeff Mannering, took my daughter Stephanie, who had just arrived from New York, and me to Han Feng’s studio.

Stephanie fell in love with a dreamy, multi-colored organza dress, with hand-sewn rosettes—another Feng signature. But she found the neckline too high, and to my amusement, Han Feng whipped out her scissors and snipped away until it was right.

When I had Hang Fen make me a beautiful silk coat, I asked for it in plain black. (But then, what else does a New Yorker wear?)
Originally she became known for her colorful pleated scarves.
She uses brilliant colors, creative fabrics and silks and often uses rosettes.
Adrianna shopped for gifts to take to Italy, and we stayed and chatted most of the afternoon as it seemed like a cocktail party in the atelier. One by one, le tout Shanghai stopped by: French P.R. guru Yann de Montby and Cecile de Villers and their two children; Shirley Young (Chair of the U.S. China-Cultural Institute); Katrina Chang (Shiile Lifestyle Center); and Wagas Restaurant owner Jackie Yuri.

As we were about to leave, in walked Lady Linda Wong Davies with Shanghai-born Metropolitan Opera soprano Ying Huang, whom I had recently met her in New York at a party given by Angela Chen.

They had come for a fitting of Ying Huang’s costume, designed by Han Feng, for her role as Semele in the new production of Handel’s Semele. Linda underwrote and co-produced the opera that debuted in Brussels’ La Monnaie Theater last fall.
She shows us her costumes she designed for the opera Semele.
The opera Semele debuted in the fall at Brussels' La Monnaie Theater.
Soprano Ying Huang (NY MET), arrives for her costume fitting for her role as Semele. Artist Zhang Huan videoed fitting the costume for historical purposes.
Chinese experimental artist Zhang Huan, directed the opera that mixes Western and Eastern mythology, and designed the set with a 450-year-old Ming Dynasty temple as a backdrop.

“Let’s stay,” I said to my daughter. “This is history in the making.” We watched, fascinated, as Han Feng draped, cut, and redesigned a costume right there on Ying Huang, while Zhang Huan’s videographer documented it all.

I’ve never had so much fun shopping.

Han Feng left the next morning for Beijing, where she would spend three months working on Jackie Chan’s new movie, Kung Fu Kid. She keeps expanding her horizons. I wonder what project she’ll do next.
The tailors work in the studio - cutting, sewing and designing.

One of my favorite things do in Shanghai is put on my walking shoes, open up my guide book, explore the city and discover its little gems one at a time.

The French Concession is known for its tree lined streets.
That’s how I found Ferguson Lane at 376 Wukang Lu (Lu the word for street in Mandarin).

Like Paris and New York, Shanghai is a city of districts, each with distinct charm. Ferguson Lane is in the tree-lined French Concession district, where you find many buildings in the international architectural style of the 1920s to the 1940s.

The renovated Lane isn’t a secret, but it’s not in a tourist section. Its specialty shops, frequented by both Chinese and expats, include art galleries, gift shops, a dress shop a spa, a tiny flower shop, and wine boutiques—wonderful for browsing.

One day before shopping, my daughter Stephanie Lawrence with her friend Alixe Laughlin and I, popped in for a quick espresso at the Coffee Tree café.

This is also an tranquil haven for sipping a cup of coffee and leisurely reading a book.
One of the neighborhood mansions.
Entrance into the tranquil Ferguson Lane off Wukang Lu.
A director of the retail stores in Ferguson Lane.
An art gallery. A gift shop.
We stop for a quick espresso at Coffee Tree Cafe before we head out shopping.
Mary Ching, for Luxury Shoes

Afterwards, we dropped in on Alison Yeung at her flagship store named Mary Ching, which features her luxury shoe and accessories brand.

With roots in London and Hong Kong, Alison is among the new breed of entrepreneurs who have moved to Shanghai to start their own business and find their fortunes. “I couldn’t do this in London. It would be too expensive,” she said.

The store is what shoppers seek: a one-of-a kind boutique with the individual vision and style of its creator. Her custom-made brand of shoes and bags blends Asian influence with European style in an elegant mix. “Conceived in Shanghai and made in China” is how she describes it.
Stephanie Lawrence and Alixe Laughlin (NY'ers) meet Alison Yeung in the Lane.
Shoppers love this light and airy Mary Ching boutique overlooking a garden.
For gifts, I buy these cashmere slippers and eyeshades to wear on the plane.
Alison Yeung, the owner of Mary Ching, sews the bracelets we bought.
I wish I had bought these.
You can pay with cash (Yuan) or credit cards.
Some of her designs from her collection.
To give others (and myself!), I bought some cozy cashmere slippers and matching eyeshades that you can carry on the plane in their own purple quilted satin pouch.

I’m going back for more of her luxurious leather, snakeskin, suede, and velvet shoes, some sexy and others cozy, and bedecked with such touches as Chinese characters and Mao coins.

Allison is so friendly that we chatted like old friends as she sat in her tiny workshop/boutique, its open windows overlooking a little garden, sewing pompoms on my slippers. What a relaxing, personalized shopping experience, with no loud music and such original wares.

Stop by her shop if you’re looking for something unique in Shanghai. I predict she’s going to be a major hit.
Ferguson Lane, a tranquil spot to spend the afternoon.
Franck French Bistro

When I’m in the mood for French cuisine and ambience (zinc-top tables, wooden floors), I head to the charming bistro Franck, named for its owner. Just as in France, the daily menu is hand-written on a blackboard.

After shopping at Mary Ching, stopped for a light lunch on the umbrella-covered outdoor terrace, although the café was packed inside too.
Franck, a very French bistro, popular day and night.
Of course, there’s French wine and, in the “epicerie” (fine grocery) section, imported European cheese and other foodstuffs to take home. Though in China imported foods and wines have a steep tariff, the delicacies are worth the price.

Franck also has specialty “Wine Tasting Dinners” that would be a wonderful evening to spend an evening out with friends.
Franck, the French owner of this chic cafe.
As in France, there are daily specials on the menu.
We choose a light lunch and sit outside.
You can also buy imported wine and foodstuffs, but will pay dearly.
A view of one of the Lane's courtyards.

One day walking, I stumbled onto the Shanghai bird and flower market, where I stocked up on orchids, roses, and other fresh-cut flowers that were new and exotic to me.

So were the birds—some in brilliant blue, green and yellow, others stunning in grey and white (ideal complements to a minimalist décor.)

Birds are favored pets in Shanghai. Locals meet up in the morning in the park, bringing along their caged songbirds for an outing.
Only one of Shanghai's Flower Markets.
During the summer, you can buy pet crickets here, too—a tradition that dates back to the Tang Dynasty. In The Last Emperor, Puyi returns to his childhood home, the Forbidden City, later in life, and finds his cricket just where he left him.

Though I hear that cricket fights are another means of gambling, crickets are generally valued for the “music” of their chirp. So along beautiful bird cages, you can even buy cricket cages here. Made of gourds, wood, ivory, and jade, they’re just as beautiful without the cricket!

You can also pick up frogs, turtles and ornamental fish at the Market. My daughter, Stephanie, couldn’t resist bring home a little baby turtle—but feeding it became MY job!
The most efficient method of delivery.
Stephanie Lawrence selects her turtle for a pet.
Celebratory flower arrangements.
Bird market ...
Crickets for sale for their music ... or gambling.
Choosing the perfect cricket.
Cricket cages are works of art.
Cricket pots.
Ornamental fish.
Free delivery.
Photographs by Jeanne and Stephanie Lawrence. New York based Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in Shanghai and San Francisco, and wherever else she finds a good story.