Before departing on a recent trip to Hong Kong, my aunt gave me an article from Hello magazine about Montreal-born, Hong Kong-based, fashion designer, Marie France Van Damme. I instantly became fascinated by Marie France’s story and soon found myself at her super stylish, Kowloon atelier!
After a tour around her workshop with rooms packed with exquisite fabrics and braids, we arrived at Marie France’s enormous office suite, elegantly styled in muted colours of grey, white and black. I settled in on an incredibly comfortable, over-sized lounge and Marie-France began explaining how she ended up in Hong Kong over thirty years ago.
Marie France: I started out studying business, and then one summer, staff at my university went on strike, so I took a job in a fashion company. There I met a Chinese manufacturer with a factory in Hong Kong and he gave me the chance to open my own office in New York – an amazing opportunity for a 20-something girl, who had very little experience, but was very hard working! I started a private label company; this was back in the 1980s when no one had ever heard of this kind of business… so if a large international department store needed a range of sweaters under their own brand, I would design them and have them made in Hong Kong.
Knowing that she had studied business, I was interested that she was designing, too. So often, creative people don’t have a business brain, so I was keen to find out more.
Marie France: Initially I did employ a fashion designer from London and he came to Hong Kong for a couple of weeks. But I soon discovered that he was a complete prima donna, taking up so much space, and costing me a fortune with all his demands… this was no way to build a business, I had to let him go! I had no choice but to quickly design the first collection myself. I believe that unless you do things yourself, you never truly learn. So that’s how I started designing, because I felt I just couldn’t trust anyone else!
At this point in our conversation I happened to look down at the coffee table which was covered in stunning design and fashion books; I then had to do a double-take, as I noticed one of the large glossy books was authored by Marie France!
Marie France: I met a gentleman called Herbert Ypma, who is a photographer and author, and at the time he owned the Hip Hotels series of books. I told him that I was interested in sharing my ideas on entertaining at home. At a very young age I became interested in Moroccan food and how they entertain; for them food is giving and sharing and you can serve the food at ease… it doesn’t matter if a guest is thirty minutes late the food won’t be overcooked. So I created a book called RSVP: Simple Sophistication. Effortless Entertaining, and Herbert took the photos.
After flicking though her stunning book and seeing she obviously had a creative eye for style, I was curious to discover why, and how, she came about launching her own brand, Marie France Van Damme, in 2011.
Marie France: After the book was launched I told my husband that it was time for me to do something new. Over the years we had taken holidays in various resorts and I realised that none of them sold resort clothing that you would want to wear again back home. It appeared to me that there was a gap in the market, so I decided to design a little collection of resort wear. I happened to be in London and was talking to a friend about how I would love to show my collection to a buyer from Harrods or Harvey Nichols. After our conversation, she phoned be back thirty minutes later and said I had an appointment the next day at Harrods! I wasn’t expecting this, but I knew it was too good an opportunity to miss. I had to have my sample pieces shipped overnight from Hong Kong to London. By the end of that meeting, Harrods had placed the first order.
The rest, as they say is history. Today Marie France has her own stores in Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Bangkok, and Phuket, and her collections can be found in The One and Only hotels, Aman Resorts and departments stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Harrods, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Ave and Le Bon Marche.
After our interview, Marie France and I exited her office towards a darkened room across the hall. As we entered, she flicked on all the lights and as I blinked my eyes a couple of times, I found myself standing in the middle of wonderland! Everywhere I looked the most exquisite silk gowns, floaty skirts in gold and silver; I was looking at the secrets from her latest collection. The next thing I remember is Marie France insisting I try something on – a magnificent ankle-length jacket that somehow made me look three feet taller! At this moment, as I stood looking at myself in the floor to ceiling mirror, I realised Marie France Van Damme is an understated creative genius and one of the most interesting people I have ever met!
For more information about Marie France, and to view some of her beautiful collections, click here.