Journey to the West
Li Xiafang, who was born in Shanghai in 1946, only switched to qipao designing at the age of 52 but soon hit the pinnacle. She has already designed more than 1,600 qipao, including one for former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
When Clinton prepared for the senate election in New York State in 2010, her think tank approached Li for a tailor-made qipao.
“The dress had to be Chinese and also Western, and gorgeous so as to suit her status. I bought top-quality skyblue silk and made a dress with a standing collar and a V-shaped neckline,” Li said.
She received a letter of thanks from Clinton in November that year.
“I didn’t see it as a personal achievement. I (merely) was delighted because qipao was appreciated in the West.”
Li graduated from the Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1966 and was a soloist of pingtan, a storytelling and ballad singing form in Suzhou dialect. Performances were banned during the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-76) and she became an office worker.
However, she never gave up her dream of performing. She has sung part-time since the early 1980s and founded a private art troupe that gave singing and dancing performances in 1987.
Qipao began its revival in the 1990s and Li believes it a duty for people at her age to bring the dress back to prominence. “I saw my mother and teachers wear them when I was a little girl but it had been neglected for three decades. We must not fail to pass down this national treasure to future generations,” she said.
Li attended China Textile University, the former Donghua University, for a course of advanced fashion design for a year in 1998 and opened a store selling her designs.
“The ultimate goal for a singer is a solo concert, which I’ve achieved, and for a costume designer it is a show of his or her collections,” Li said.
She has since held four collections showcasing her latest masterpieces. After Li was designated a representative inheritor of Shanghai-style qipao, an intangible cultural heritage, in 2007, she established a troupe that combined showcasing qipao designs with dance performances. They performed in Shanghai and Hong Kong and, in 2003 and 2004 they went to Paris.
“I was touched when the show was held beside the River Seine. The French were fascinated and nobody left even when rain suddenly poured down,” she recalled.
Li’s dream is to take the troupe on a world tour to show the grace of the Chinese garment and Chinese women.