March 16, 2012 9:49 pm

Beware of black velvet in Beijing

The best strategy for shoppers is to focus all of their energy on a single district

As would be expected in a city of more than 20m, traffic in Beijing moves at the pace of a blood clot and feels equally lethal. The best strategy for shoppers is to focus all of their energy on a single district. I went to Opposite House, a new, posh, modern art gallery-cum-hotel flanked by the Sanlitun shopping villages.

Sanlitun Village North is modelled after traditional siheyuan (housing quadrangles) and features high-end international luxury designer showrooms. The Alexander McQueen unit was in the final stages of construction but most others were open. At Balenciaga, I saw a black crepe asymmetric skirt with khaki accents around the low-slung waistline (Rmb4,350, £440). Balmain hooked me with a heavenly silk blouse with artfully deconstructed edging (Rmb11,200) that was beige enough to minimise see-through action but not so beige that it felt like it was trying to minimise see-through action.

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Most of the other items in the store induced some degree of sticker shock, such as the various red and black safety-pin laden evening gowns priced in the same range as a mid-sized sedan. I was told cash was preferred to credit, which explains why my next stop was a cash machine.

In the same courtyard as the cash machine sits the IT Beijing Market, a multi-storey style-fest proudly modelled on Comme des Garçons’ Dover Street Market concept store in central London. Even though at least half the merchandise is for women, it felt overwhelmingly male, thanks to the industrial feel of the building: wide-open spaces and exposed staircases.

The clothing, shoes and accessories are more curated than displayed. I was told by the staff that there were 15 different lines from Comme des Garçons in the store, as well as designers such as Maison Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Lanvin, Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy.

Four sales staff tracked my every move, and while I know some people appreciate that level of attention, it made me feel like I was an exhibit rather than a customer.

About a block away sits 3.3 Fashion Plaza where stores are all numbered (not named) and the layout is designed more like a logic puzzle than a mall. None of the boutiques takes credit cards, so come prepared or the “conveniently located ATMs” will add about 5 per cent to your tab.

At the first store I saw, 1100, I walked out with a fluttery long-sleeved black silk shirt that had multiple tangles of attached pearl necklaces around the neckline, two chunky plastic necklaces with black and white muslin skulls, and a softly looped chain-link belt made of black and silver grosgrain ribbon. After some negotiation, I managed to bring the total price down to Rmb1,560.

I then discovered store 1099 was nowhere near 1100; 1098 was nowhere I could find at all; the display case at 1091 was filled with crystal-encrusted cell phone cases priced upwards of Rmb3,000 that didn’t fit my phone or that of any of the other half dozen customers.

Somewhere in the 1080 range I was surprised to find a store with no number but an actual name, Made in Korea, which only offered items made in China.

At that addled point, I fully intended to find my way to the exit when I noticed stretchy black velvet dresses in the window of 1017. (Who doesn’t stop immediately for stretchy black velvet?)

I tried on a Rmb2,800 cheongsam (or qipao) mini with fuchsia piping along the edges that fit like an anti-gravity body glove. But, as I was walking back into the dressing room, I noticed three male stylists at the 1027 hair salon giggling and pointing at me.

Out of curiosity I approached and asked what they thought. “You look like a super-hot hooker,” said the immaculately coiffed, bespectacled, and overly belt-buckled hipster.

Slightly taken aback, the only thing I could think to reply was, “Oh, thank you”. I moved on to Sanlitun Village South.

The space is vast but a little easier to navigate than IT Beijing Market, since it was designed like a traditional hutong.

This collection of stores is probably the most diverse in all Beijing: it’s home to both Apple and the world’s largest Adidas. I browsed through neutral blazers at Reiss and cashmere knits and flannel plaid shirts at Uniqlo.

Nearing the end of the day and short on cash, I cruised into a pharmacy to pick up some essentials and noticed a quirky little store called Devil Nut next door.

Here, the fabrics were a little stiff, and the sizing and cut were more appropriate for a teenage boy than, say, a “super-hot hooker” – but I saw the humour in their zip hoodies, T-shirts and skater shorts featuring dragons, Lucha libre wrestlers and aliens.

I learnt two serious, and probably universal, lessons: cash is always better than credit cards and no stretchy black velvet.

The Mystery Shopper is a globetrotting executive who shops as she travels for work

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