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Top tailor continues to measure up

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From his humble origins as an elevator operator 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, and 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 of 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 said 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 a strong desire to learn, so I didn't really feel tired," he said 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 had spread throughout the country.

Tian was known as an expert on the Zhongshan suit, which is a modern Chinese suit known for its four military-style pockets and simple collar. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of China's 1911 Revolution, 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," said 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 said 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 recalled.

He said nerves got the better of him during his first visit to Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound containing the offices of both the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council, in 1990. Today, however, he said he's used to meeting Chinese dignitaries and said most leaders are not at all different from everyday customers. Most are easygoing and friendly.

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

In 2009, he made a dark gray Zhongshan 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 fills me with joy," Gao said.

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

The Hongdu clothing store was established in 1956 in Beijing after the merger of seven clothing brands. The company was named Beijing People's 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 Lantian, Zaocun, Huabiao and Shuangshun clothing brands.

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

In making a suit, Gao said every customer is the same. He first chats with the customer and observes their 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 suggestions," he said.

The next step is more critical: measuring the body. For Gao, the measure is not simply about shoulder width, the 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 said. "So when I measure them, I have to get figures for every part and think about how to deal with these shortcomings."

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

The Zhongshan suit, which was most commonly worn in the 1960s and 1970s, has been gradually replaced by Western-style suits since the 1990s. Gao said 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.

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