(Foreword: A couple of weeks ago I approached Laichan of Laichan boutique and Peter Kor of Studio 55 to allow me to take pictures of their cheongsams for the blog. While making the request, an idea formed in my mind of puttting up a series of posts on the cheongsam grandmasters. Each post will feature the designer’s background and design philosophy.
I am really pleased that both Laichan and Peter are supportive of the idea, and are willing to spare time answering my questions despite their busy schedules. I like to express my deepest appreciation to both great designers.)
Bespectacled, soft-spoken, with a slim physique, Laichan impresses me with his sincere and humble personality. Though I call him a cheongsam grandmaster, he designs gowns and other attires as well. But I am only interested in the qipao, and this is what I will focus on.
Laichan boutique is located at #02-10 Raffles Hotel. The interior has the feel of an art and fashion gallery because high on the display shelves, above the racks of vibrant-colored dresses and tops, are interesting sculptures made by Laichan’s brother, Eddie. And they are for sale as well. I was there at the shop a few times, and during the photo taking, Eddie was very kind to help me with the mannequins and clothes, and gave me a bit of history as well.
Upon entering the boutique, what caught my eye was a mannequin in a lavender cheongsam top with exquisite detailed embroidery of flowers and a bird. It is an attention-grabbing piece which would pair nicely with a pencil skirt.
Laichan’s cheongsams and tops are famous for their iconic bead buttons, which go from the collar down across the right chest and run along the side. Here is a dress with pretty floral appliqués.
On another mannequin is this Japanese fabric cheongsam with gorgeous print. The fabric is a combination of cotton, viscose and lycra.
A cheongsam top with the iconic bead buttons on a beautiful tropical print.
Laichan’s repertoire goes beyond the classic cheongsam. He showed me a few modern designs, such as this stylish-looking pale grey linen dress with front flaps. I thought it reminded me of the classic trench coat.
The excellent workmanship is clearly seen in the pictures. And just like those dresses shown above, the same skill is applied on the lined underside as well. Doesn’t the workmanship remind you of a well-made jacket?
I am amazed by Laichan’s attention to details, like having piping along the inner seam.This is the first time I’m seeing this. It’s absolutely amazing how even the underside of the dress or top looks as good as the exterior. I think it is due to his desire to create the best for his customers. Laichan told me that he doesn’t believe in only showing a beautiful exterior, he wants his customers to know that the tops or dresses they are wearing have the same quality inner details as well. I thought about it, and realized the significance of such thoughtful care. You can judge the attention put in by the designer and the craftsmanship of the seamstress by how the underside of the attire is sewn. It is a reflection of excellence!
You must have a fabulous back and physique to wear this!
A simple but absolutely elegant cheongsam evening wear with the iconic bead buttons.
All the clothes in the boutique are unique, one-off piece. The regular cheongsams are made in the standard M size of the midi length, which is also the traditional length. Of course you can have it altered, within a reasonable range. Eddie told me that they will make sure the dress fits well on the customer. If they can’t alter the dress to fit, they will rather not sell it. He cited a recent instance of a very petite lady who wanted to alter a cheongsam, but he told her it couldn’t be done because the alteration would be too drastic and would make the dress looked odd. He suggested she had one custom-made instead.
On another occasion, there was a lady who would only buy a dress that fits her because she has had bad alteration experience. Eddie persuaded her to have the dress altered, and if it didn’t fit her, he would refund fully the cost in cash. She relented, and when she tried it after, she was very pleased. Naturally this bespoke service comes at a price. A regular cheongsam dress sets you back at S$788, but you can be assured that you have bought a beautiful unique piece worthy of collecting.
Laichan believes in continuing to improve his techniques. He is passionate about innovation to make the cheongsam better fits the customer, as well as to make it comfortable. You will have noticed by now that his dresses are mostly in the classic form, and that is because he wants to improve on the basics. He likens it to a tree that has to have deep roots before stretching its branches outward.
Laichan believes that strengthening the foundation in what you do is very important. But even when it is strong, you cannot be complacent in what you have achieved, and there is always room for continuous improvement and innovation. This applies the same way to designing: when a strong foundation is laid in the basic cheongsam form, can a designer then branches out to other fashion trends like the flare skirt for instance. Laichan is like the master ramen chef in Japan, who is always striving to perfect his craft, and the classic cheongsam form is his craft.
Laichan showed me a dress which he is working to refine before putting it on the rack. This is an amazing red cheongsam in a wool/synthetic knit that is pure gorgeous. It is not made in the conventional way because the fabric cannot be cut, otherwise it will unravel. Instead the dress is hand-knitted on a machine according to the specs give by Laichan. You will require a fabulous figure to wear it, given the figure-hugging material.
Laichan’s staff have specific tasks when making the cheongsam or other attires: he has a couple of cutters and the rest are sewers. Eddie told me that the cutter is responsible for cutting out the fabric according to the draft, and this requires someone who is highly skilled. If a cutter doesn’t do her job well, regardless how good the sewing is, the attire will be out of shape. Of the cutting staff, one has been with the company for more than 30 years and is already 80 years old. I asked Laichan about looking for new cutting staff, and he admitted he hasn’t done so because he feels that the younger generations have different mind-set and they are very reluctant to take on the job. In fact he even admitted that he had no plan for anyone to succeed him.
Laichan hopes that with my blog, I can keep his work as well as the cheongsam culture alive.
Q&A with Laichan
Q: When and why did you start learning sewing?
A: I started designing first and sewing came along naturally. It started in the 80s and I am still excited that there is always something new to learn and improve on everyday.
Q: When and why did you learn to make and design the cheongsam?
A: I started designing Qipao for my mother back in the 80s. Qipaos were of the usual standard designs so I decided to rethink the way cheongsams are cut and made.
Q: What is the biggest challenge in designing the cheongsam?
A: The biggest challenge for designing the Qipao would be making the dress comfortable to wear while looking gorgeous at the same time.
The modern women lead an active lifestyle. The usual technique to cut and make a traditional Qipao does not allow the mobility and comfort.
I am constantly developing different cut and techniques and fabrication to make the Qipao wearable and flattering.
Q: Do you think that cheongsam designer must have the technical knowledge of sewing/tailoring?
A: It is helpful if the Qipao designer has some technical knowledge of sewing. Or at least a practical imagination of how the cut and tailoring can work for or against the woman wearing it.
Q: How do we attract more younger women to wear the cheongsam? Can the cheongsam be further modernized?
A: Basically, any woman younger or otherwise wants to look good wearing any type of dress. So one way to attract more younger women to wear the Qipao is to make it beautiful, practical and wearable.
I also believe that while the Qipao can be further modernised, it is equally important to respect the tradition and essence of the Qipao.
Q: What do you think of the proliferation of online cheongsam retailers offering modern versions like flare skirt, addition of side pockets and shorter collar?
A: I think it is only natural when designers, myself included, start to offer variations of the Qipao with anything and everything possible for the consumers. Flare skirts flatter some women better, while the shorter collar are more comfortable.
However, such dresses that are totally modernised are just an ‘extension’ of the Qipao. The correct approach is not to remove too much of the original and replace with things foreign.
What is more challenging and interesting is to retain the essence of the Qipao while redeveloping the technique of the draft and cut to make it wearable and comfortable.
Anything else too unrecognisable from the original Qipao and without its DNA would not quite qualify as a Qipao anymore.
Q: What is the biggest influence in your designing?
A: My beautiful family and friends are my greatest influence and strength in my design.
Q: I notice that certain dresses have lining, but not others. Like the light grey linen dress has lining, but not the cheongsam made from the Japanese fabric.
A: Yes the lining is there or excluded for various reasons, some of which are technical. They are left out or included intentionally.
Like the cheongsam in Japanese fabric (mix of cotton, viscose and lycra), the reason for not adding lining is to work with and not against the fabric. The lycra is in the fabric for comfort and stretch. Adding a layer of lining would restrict the effectiveness of the lycra.
Mobility is so much a part of a woman’s active lifestyle now, so this fabric choice is most suitable and appropriate.
Q: Where do you usually source your fabrics and what is the type of fabric that you most often use?
A: I source my fabrics from anywhere and everywhere so long as they are suitable. I usually consider the weight and texture of the fabric together with prints and colours.
Q: You have separate cutters and sewers. Can you have one person doing both, or is it better to separate the tasks with only the experienced person doing the cutting?
A: This is probably different from the earlier era when Qipaos were entirely made slowly by the one same old master tailor. Lifestyle and consumer demands are different now. The way any products, Qipao included, are made have undergone changes. The assembly line is organised to make the best of time, skill and talent for both practical and economical reasons.
Q: your brother told me that you have a reason for making each dress. What is your reason for making the red knitted cheongsam?
A: The reason remains the same. It is always the continuous search and exploration to develop new Qipao for the future. Can the traditional Qipao find itself relevant now and in the distant future. If it does not move ahead, will it be left behind? I cannot take un-calculated risks to assume it can be relevant based on its original form. I have to keep it alive and that would include both the very original and its new improved versions.
I like to end here by expressing my deepest gratitude to both Laichan and Eddie for allowing me to put up this post. It has been a wonderful experience knowing both.
Finally, given that today is Chinese New Year eve, I like to wish everybody a great and healthy year ahead!