BEIJING — In February 1956, the accounting department of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, sent two men to Shanghai to recruit tailors to dress the top leaders of China. They came back with 12 young tailors trained in the best shops in Shanghai. The 12 men formed what was then the Fashion Department to the CCP, and later became the elite, VIP-only tailor shop named Hongdu (Red Capital).
As the tailors set to work, they found that dressing the Communist elite was not an easy job. To start with, putting Mao in a Mao suit was difficult because he refused to be measured up. Tian Atong, the tailor designated for Mao, was told to gauge Mao’s measurements from a five-meter distance. Sensing Mao’s plump figure, he loosened the neckline of the Mao suit and enlarged the collar as well. Essentially, this is the only difference between the Mao suit and the Sun Yat-sen suit (which is the name for the Mao suit inside China).
Since economic reform began in the Eighties, the Chinese leadership gave up the Mao suit for a business suit and tie. It was a conscious decision to look more international and welcoming to western business.
Until 2009, when, at the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Hu Jintao, chairman of the CCP, came out to greet the masses on Tiananmen yet again with a Mao suit. At the same time, the Chinese military flexed its muscles in public by parading around tanks and warplanes.
Right now, China and the world are waiting for the March announcement of the next line-up of who will rule China. The fashion industry is anxiously waiting for a possible fashion moment and anticipating a fight to be the power-dressing brand.
First, will the first-lady-to-be, the beautiful singer Peng Liyuan, be allowed to accompany her husband on official functions? And if so, who gets to dress her? Will the government allow the Chanel suit to stand next to the Mao suit? If so, it will definitely be a fashion moment.
China has a cultural tradition to separate women and political power. There is even a proverb that says beauty and power is a formula for disaster. Keeping true to this tradition, the various first ladies we have presented in the past 30 years are antithetical to the idea of a fashion icon. It would almost seem that someone was ordered to dress them as homely as possible to avoid any cultural stigma. Peng Liyuan, if allowed to take on the first lady’s public image, will be China’s first decent opportunity to present a fashionable first lady along with Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama. We hope.
Secondly, Hongdu as the official tailor for powerful men is nothing but a notion in present-day China. It’s been long rumored that Armani suits dominate the corridors of power these days. Nevertheless, competition is on the way: On Jan. 13, Zegna announced the launch of a luxury line for men named Sorgere, with Francesco Fordell as creative director. The line is specifically designated for the Mainland China market. Its Chinese name is “Sheji,” literally meaning “princelings.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Huang Hung is a China-based journalist in print, television and digital media. Her WWD column, ChinaFile, appears on Wednesdays.