Threaded through modern history

Updated: 2012-04-20 08:46

By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)

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Threaded through modern history

Gao Liming has tailored Mao suits for many Chinese leaders. Zou Hong / China Daily

Renowned tailor recounts early days of designing suits for leaders of China

From his humble beginnings as an elevator operator, his apprenticeship under a renowned Chinese tailor in to a nervous visit to make a suit for former president Jiang Zemin, 54-year-old Gao Liming has come a long way.

Over the past three decades, Gao, who was born in Hebei province and grew up in Beijing, has tailored suits for President Hu Jintao, the king of Cambodia and the president of Fiji as well as countless government officials in China. At a time when China's time-honored brands are slowly fading, Gao is proving that his trade and the desire for traditional suits are still alive.

He found his passion 31 years ago when he saw legendary tailor Tian Atong in a workshop at the company campus of the Hongdu Group, where he worked as an elevator operator and later as a warehouse guard. Sitting in the warehouse adjacent to Tian's workshop, he says he was so impressed by the beautiful suits that Tian made that it inspired him to become a tailor.

Without any skills in making clothes, he learned the 30 or so procedures of making trousers. He says he spent 15 hours a day learning how to make trousers and also studied through the weekends.

"I was young and had strong desire for learning, so I didn't really feel tired," he says with a smile.

His efforts were eventually rewarded when he passed the company's assessment for tailors. The Hongdu Group then selected him as the apprentice to Tian, whose reputation for making suits for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping spread throughout the country more than 60 years ago.

Tian was known as an expert in the Mao suit, which is a modern Chinese suit for men known for its four military-style pockets and simple collar. Sun Yat-sen first introduced the suit and Mao Zedong later popularized it after the founding of the People's Republic of China.

"My idea was very simple," remembers Gao. "Just love what you do and concentrate. Meanwhile, learn as much as I can from the best master Tian."

One of his best early experiences was assisting Tian in making a suit for former president Jiang Zemin. Gao had to write down measurements that Tian made and says he learned a lot from that experience.

"My master said we needed to be meticulous because if we made it wrong, we couldn't just come back and measure again," Gao recalls.

He says nerves got the better of him during his first visit to Zhongnanhai, the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China, in 1990. Today, however, he says he's used to meeting Chinese dignitaries and says most leaders are not at all different from everyday customers. Most are easygoing and amicable.

"Usually they greet us and make us relaxed when we arrive," he says. "Then they tell us on what occasion they will wear the suits, what color they like and their wearing habits, whether they like the suits to be close-fitting or loose-fitting."

In 2009, he made a dark gray Mao suit for President Hu Jintao that was worn on Oct 1 of that year for the National Day parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

"Sometimes when I watch TV and notice that some leaders are in my suits, it makes me filled with joy," Gao says.

He says whether it's a Mao suit or a Western-style one, the minimum price is 6,000 yuan ($952, 724 euros).

The clothing store Hongdu was first established in 1956 in Beijing after the merger of seven clothing brands. The company was named Beijing People Garment Factory in 1966 and changed its name to Hongdu Group in 1993.

Only from 1984 was the company allowed to take orders from the public. Suits before then were only made for people who came with a letter of introduction from ministerial units. Hongdu Group currently has eight direct-sale stores in Beijing and also operates the clothing brands Lantian, Zaocun, Huabiao and Shuangshun.

"Wearing suits made by a Hongdu master was a symbol of high social status," Gao says.

In making a suit, Gao says every customer is the same. He first chats with a customer and observes each customer's figure. He then gives suggestions on the choice of fabric, color and patterns.

"Sometimes customers think they will look nice in things they choose, but I know they won't, so I have to give my suggestion," he says.

The next step is more critical: measuring the body. For Gao, the measure is not simply about shoulder width, waistline, or the length of the body. To him, every detail is important.

"Some have drooping shoulders, some have big bellies, some have humpbacks," he says. "So when I measure them, I have to get figures of every part and think about how to cover these shortcomings."

As for the state of the suit in China, Gao says he has seen great changes over the past decades. "In the past, as long as it fit, it was OK," he says. "But then customers gradually put forward higher requirements on the designs and materials."

The Mao suit, which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, has been by large replaced by Western-style suits since the 1990s. Gao says he now makes more Western-style suits.

Nonetheless, Hongdu suits are selling well. It sells thousands of suits a month and Gao personally tailors at least 300-400 suits a year. There are currently 45 tailors at Hongdu.

Oddly enough, he has never made a suit for himself.