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Women's Wear Daily

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WomensWearDaily
By Ellen Sheng
HONG KONG — In a city better known for its appetite for buying fashion
rather than producing it, Marie France Van Damme is something of a rarity
here.
Originally from Montreal, Canada, Van Damme has lived and worked in Hong
Kong for 30 years. After decades running a manufacturing company in China
that designed and made women’s wear for western brands such as La
Redoute-Redcats, Marks & Spencer and Saks Fifth Avenue, Van Damme started
shifting her attention to the high-end market a few years ago. In the
summer of 2011, she launched her namesake brand of luxury resort wear
featuring caftans and day-to-evening dresses retailing in the $500 to $600
range.
Happily for her, her vision has resonated with buyers. Today her line is
carried in more than 12 major department stores, including Bergdorf
Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Harrods and Selfridges, as well as specialty
stores and resorts in more than 30 countries, she said, declining to give
sales figures. Next month she will open her first standalone store, a
600-square-foot boutique that will be located next to Lane Crawford in
Hong Kong's IFC mall in Central. There, she'll carry her resort collection
as well as an assortment of basics such as tank tops and white shirts.
Van Damme said she wanted to work with luxurious, expensive materials such
as silk chiffon and hand-sewn glass and crystal beading to escape from the
constant price pressure that’s the reality of working in the mass market.
“Working with high street retailers, you can’t go over a certain price
point. I always wanted to work with beautiful fabrics. So here I decided
that I would use the most expensive, the most beautiful trims in the
world. This was almost more about creating a collection just to make me
happy and I didn’t know if it was going to go any further. I just had a
few beautiful samples,” she said, during an interview at her art-filled
office and design studio in Kwun Tong.
Though Van Damme accomplished a great deal with her luxury line in a short
amount of time, it’s not been without challenges. As a high-end designer
in Hong Kong, Van Damme has had to overcome some prejudice about the “made
in China” label. Some buyers balked at the fact that her products are made
in China.
“I was surprised that people didn’t think that we can make beautiful
things,” she said.
Van Damme sees plenty of advantages to being based in Hong Kong. For one,
she can stay close to production. Her staff in Hong Kong go back and forth
to China every three days or so. She can see samples the same day and make
changes immediately, she said. She has a small factory in neighboring
Shenzhen, China where her high-end pieces are made by hand, including
embroidery.
Being close to her production facilities in China, she can keep a close
eye on things and maintain quality control. She showed several pieces from
her newest collection of caftans and day to evening dresses, pointing out
how the patterns in the material line up, careful stitching, the
time-consuming hand embroidery and other details.
Van Damme’s journey from mass-market producer to the high-end luxury
market highlights the challenges that many Chinese manufacturers face
today. While many would like to move up to the high end of the market, few
have been able to do so.
With labor and other production prices rising in China, Chinese factories
have been losing business to cheaper factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh
for about a decade. Van Damme continues to do some mass market
manufacturing for retailers such as Monoprix and Saks.
She and a business partner maintain a factory in Dongguan, China that
employs 1,000 workers. But that's down considerably from the peak when she
had 1,500 workers. The business has gotten more difficult and “mean” over
time, she described.
Van Damme’s resort wear collection stands out not only for its use of
luxurious fabrics and trims, but its muted color palate of neutrals and
metallics.
“When I look for bathing suits or caftans all I could see were really sexy
things you would see on posters and that’s really not who I am. Also, I’m
a black and white person and to me, resort is always colorful. And I
though, why would I war those colors if I don’t like them?” As her line
started to gain momentum, she realized “there is a market for resort wear
that isn’t your conventional sexy or colorful,” she said.
For now, Van Damme is busy working toward her Hong Kong store, for which
she worked with interior designer Deborah Oppenheimer. She hopes that
having a standalone store helps show prospective buyers the show off the
brand’s concept and lifestyle. Next up, she’s eyeing the U.S. Her label
opened a pop up store in Los Angeles in November of last year and she is
actively exploring the market.
“The Americans seem to really like what we do. If I could have a second
store, it would be there,” she said, adding that she would love to open a
store in Beverly Hills.

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