“I opened stores in my favourite cities,” says the designer, who moved to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s.
We are chatting at Tirpse, a new French-Japanese fine dining eatery at K11 Musea
. I notice Van Damme has a keen eye for styling when she starts readjusting some of the dishes for our photographer, who is taking food shots nearby.
“I can’t help myself,” she says, rearranging the plants and ornaments for the background of the video shoot we are about to begin.
She started her self-named label Marie France Van Damme in 2011 after many years of manufacturing for brands such as Marks & Spencer and Saks Fifth Avenue.
“I was working with Marks & Spencer and I was in London because my youngest son was studying there,” says the Montreal-born designer. “I put a small resort collection together and brought it to Harrods. I arrived there with a bag and they loved absolutely everything and said, ‘We’re gonna place an order right now, don’t leave’. And then when I went back to my flat and saw my son I said, ‘I just got an order from Harrods’, but actually [at that moment] I didn’t even have a brand. I just had samples and ideas and that is how the brand was born.”
For the next few years, Van Damme put together her collection for various department stores and resort groups such as Aman Resorts and One & Only, all while continuing to design a private label for Marks & Spencer and other European customers. By 2013 she wanted to open her first store.
“I called IFC [in Hong Kong] and asked if they happened to have space and the manager said, ‘Nobody knows who you are. Give me a call in a few years when you are selling in 35 different countries,’” she said. “Three months later, I called him and said, ‘By the way, I am selling in 35 different countries’ and before I could finish my sentence he said, ‘I have space for you.’
“I then decided that I couldn’t just have a resort collection, it had to be a full collection but with the same DNA,” continued Van Damme, whose husband and three sons all work with her in the family business. “So, easy dresses that you just throw on. And it was successful right away.” They now have stores in Miami, Bangkok, Dubai and Singapore, to name a few.
As we chatted, the dishes started to arrive. We tried the executive lunch menu, which began with a scallop tempura – two black pieces on black charcoal that looked very dramatic. It tasted tender and delicious and set the tone for the dishes to come.
Next up were the stone bream sashimi with fermented tomato and green caviar, and the corn mousse with shaved foie gras and smoked salmon with salmon roe and yuzu, both impeccably presented. The dishes went down well with our guest, as did the beetroot with crabmeat and hazelnut. The food was deliciously light, and we started talking about our favourite restaurants in the city.
I don’t eat out much,” said Van Damme. “I entertain at home a lot because I travel so much and eat out in restaurants, so when I come back to Hong Kong I just want to stay home. But we did go to La Petite Maison [LPM Restaurant and Bar], which I love. I am a fan of simple food, [not] elaborate dishes. If you ask me today what I ate at some of those elaborate restaurants, I don’t have a clue. That’s what I love about La Petite Maison – everything is fresh, simple. I also like Gaggan in Bangkok.”
For mains, Van Damme ordered the lobster with lemongrass and avocado, and I chose the Miyazaki Wagyu tenderloin with mussels and red paprika. The conversation stopped while we enjoyed the food – always a good sign. We ended with a mandarin orange with white bean paste laurel, although my favourite dessert there is definitely the white cloud made with white chocolate, damask rose, Tahitian vanilla, lychee and raspberry atop a coconut base.
Van Damme has impeccable style, and not just in fashion. She has also revealed her love for tableware: she has an online platform called Curated by MF, which features tableware collections.
“I also published a book in 2012, RSVP: Simple Sophistication. Effortless Entertaining ,” said Van Damme, “with photographer Herbert Ypma of the Hip Hotels [brand, which encompasses a series of photography books].” The book is about how entertaining at home should be a joy, not an anxiety. She believes the best entertaining is simple.
“People say it is easier in Hong Kong to entertain as we have helpers but I say, no, you are wrong. I have a little flat in London and find it almost easier in London because I just go and get food from Marks & Spencer, put the food on a beautiful plate and throw tons of herbs like mint and whatever [over it] and make it look beautiful.
“I learned how to cook when I was like 17, and I actually cooked for 20 to 30 people. All my life I’ve entertained for big dinner parties. I wanted to explain that in the book – that it is possible to learn how to cook using fresh produce and to make a beautiful table with flowers. It’s about table setting, it’s about lighting, music, you know – how to create a nice ambience.”