Here, Marie France Van Damme tells us what she's learned in the process...
You set up your own brand after working for the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue. Why did you decide to branch out on your own?
I decided it was time to change my life! I set up my office in New York in the early 80s, working on private labels with department stores, then moved to Hong Kong and eventually opened my factory in China in the early 90s. I set up my eponymous brand three years ago. After designing and manufacturing all those years for others, it was a natural step to take.
How does having your own brand differ from being an employee?
I was actually an employee for only a very short time (about two years) before I set up my New York office. But having my own brand is very different to anything I’ve done before. I have more control but of course there's also more risk. As liberating as it can be, it also demands dedication and hard work.
What's the best thing about setting up your own brand?
The best thing is actually having the whole family involved in this new project, and working every day with my wonderful sons.
Are there any negative aspects?
Many! I have always worked very hard, and have not had many holidays or free time in the last thirty years of my career. Having my own brand is such a huge challenge: I have to work harder, better and faster than I ever have before - and I’m not getting younger. I have to compete daily with the “heavies” of the industry.
What sets your brand apart from others in the industry?
I am in a completely different "niche" and market from most brands. I have chosen to do a collection that looks like no other. I make clothes that you could say are superfluous and that people probably don't "need" but, on the other hand, many customers of mine say that they couldn't live without my clothes. "For the woman who has it all" was my initial motto. After three years, it has changed to "Women should have it all!"
How did you get to where you are today?
Work, work, and more work. Twenty-Four-Seven. Seven days a week. There are no shortcuts.
What is it about the fashion industry that you love?
The fashion industry changes all the time: you always have to question yourself, the way you think and the way you do business. There is never a dull moment but I like that. Fashion is also a business - I need to manage people, whether that's sample room and factory people or my office and store teams. I also need to deal with landlords, lawyers and bankers, but I like that too. At the end of the day, fashion is my passion. I create and design every garment, select and buy the fabrics, fit each sample produced in my sample room and fit every sample coming off the production line. I also present the collection to the buyers from Harrods, Bergdorfs’, Selfridges and Saks. I even design my stores - I love all of it!
What would your advice be to other women thinking about taking the leap to set up their own brand?
Follow your dreams! But you do need to be pragmatic. There is nothing glamorous about having your own brand.
What are your workwear wardrobe staples?
A dress that makes me look chic and comfortable, and which I can throw on in two seconds. I can go to work in that dress and go out at night in the same thing, and look great wherever.
What's next?I went to Paris last week to see girlfriends for lunch. One told me that there was a small boutique for rent on the street close by, and that it could make a great Marie France Van Damme store. That was Thursday. Five days, the store is mine, and I will open Marie France Van Damme in Paris in May… Marie France Van Damme's store is located at 177 Draycott Avenue, Chelsea.
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