(2 of 3)
If work was hard, adjusting to life was even harder. Social life, Tia recalls, meant seeing "the same 10 people over and over." The sisters flew to Hong Kong at least once a month just to buy groceries. But major moves had become something of a specialty for them. They had left Libya for Vancouver as young girls, and it wasn't long before the Cibanis adapted to their trial-by-fire China immersion. Ports International grew into the perfect hybrid of foreign cachet and local sensibility that Chinese woman craved. Many customers believed that the clothes they were buying at Ports' growing chain of stores were imported. Chan's marketers encouraged that perception, using high-profile models like Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer in their ad campaigns. Ports had obvious advantages over competition from other foreign luxury brands: it was less expensive and had much wider distribution. But its real assets were the intangibles the Cibanis picked up by living in and traveling around China. "We gained an amazing experience from being here, with the economy growing the way it was and the local people and the evolution they were going through," says Tia. "And that's why I felt like, 'This season I can do bandeau tops,' because I was here living right along with them, and I saw the girls in the office, what they were willing to accept from one season to the next."
Today women's fashion, Ports and the Cibanis are fixtures in China. Ports International, which Fiona has designed since Tia branched off to launch the 1961 line four years ago, has some 300 stores selling its classically feminine clothes to a loyal clientele of business executives and wives of government officials. Tia's line is targeted mainly at customers in North America and is carried by Saks and smaller boutiques, like Curve, in Los Angeles.
Stepping into their atelier at the Ports headquarters in Xiamen feels like transcontinental travel. Outside, hawkers are selling bowls of noodles in front of a ramshackle warren of storefronts. The air is sweltering, and amid a sea of Chinese faces, not a single foreigner appears. Inside, the sisters work with some 35 foreign designers, dressed as if ready for a night out in New York City. Fiona, in a blousy navy silk jacket and sky-high heels, balances an Hermès Birkin in the crook of her arm as she makes adjustments on samples of raincoats. Tia, in a silvery bolero thrown over a gray cotton tank and white pants, is finishing up a resort collection inspired by Lulamae Barnes, the poor Southern child bride who goes on to become Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Bouquets of spearmint from Fiona's garden adorn drafting tables, and the staff members' afternoon snack consists of cupcakes, iced expertly in shocking pink by Fiona's daughter Bella. It's hard to imagine how an ordinary Xiamen resident would react if he or she walked into the studio by accident.
But Xiamen has rediscovered its cosmopolitan roots. The city has a tradition of international trade that dates back centuries. More recently, companies like Kodak and Dell have set up shop. Fiona can send her kids to an international school, and the sisters dine out at a French restaurant where the chef is Israeli.