a niche collection of exclusive pieces that travel the world in style

INTERNATIONAL NEW YORK TIMES - Doing Exactly What You Dreamed About

Posted on

Marie France Van Damme ignored her father’s wish that she get an M.B.A. and a law degree.

Q. Did you come from a family of entrepreneurs?

A. Not at all. My father is an academic — he was a mathematician — and my two little brothers each have a Ph.D. Attending school was always very important in my family, and not just for one degree but many degrees. If it had been up to my father, I would have started with an M.B.A., then gone to law school. So when I told him one day I wasn’t going to pursue my studies, well, it didn’t go down too well. I’d interned as a summer job for a fashion house in Montreal, and I’d really enjoyed it, so I decided I wasn’t going to finish my degree and I was going to join that fashion house full time. It was a very small company and I got a chance to do everything, and that’s what I enjoyed about it. I really think that’s the best school to learn in, and even today we’re a small company, and when new people join I do expect them to multitask.

Q. How old were you when you started managing others?

A. I was working with Fenn Wright Manson, a fashion company. I was very involved with the manufacturing of the products, regularly going to Hong Kong, where the clothes were being produced, and one day one of their manufacturers told me he wanted to open an office in New York to enlarge its customer base. So at the age of 21, I became his partner. He gave me a huge percentage of the business, which was quite generous, and I basically had $100,000 in the bank account, which was not a small sum in the early ’80s. I had to set up an office in New York City, hire a few people right away and make it work.

Q. What were the early difficulties?

A. I would go to department stores and offer to design a collection under their label and it would be manufactured in Hong Kong. Some already did “private label,” but very basic, and I would offer them more premium products. In those days it was still very new for many, although Macy’s already had something. There was a lot of skepticism. It was something so new, and the fact that I was so young and a girl was not helping.

I also had to learn some tough realities quickly. I still remember the first time I got an invoice from a contractor who had come on a Sunday when we were closed and still billed me for the trip. The lawyer told me you can fight, but it will cost you more. New York can be very tough, very competitive. But my toughest experience was when I had to fire someone I had become very close friends with; to this day it still bothers me, but I didn’t have a choice. That’s when I realized you have to be careful and you can’t mix business and friendship.

Q. Today you are mixing business and family, as your three sons are working with you. How are you managing?

A. When I started my current business three years ago, I told all of them, “If you want to work with me, this is the opportunity. Choose now what you would like to do, as we’re starting from zero.” So my oldest son wanted to be on the creative side, the P.R., the communication, and casting of the models [laughs]. The middle one, who was a golf pro in Thailand, said he would look after our stores there if we opened there, which we did. My youngest was coming from a financial background and decided to work on the systems and sales. He’s the one who is with me nonstop; I guess I could almost say he’s my boss now [laughs]. I’m careful. We don’t bring the business home because I don’t want it to be too much for them. The good thing is that when we have disagreements, it goes on for five minutes and then we get over it.

Q. You moved to Hong Kong in 1984. What do you remember of your early years working there?

A. It happened progressively. I started a trading business, working with the buyers and giving orders to the factories. One of my customers was La Redoute [the French catalog sales company], and their orders could be huge or could also be very small, and it was very difficult to manage with the factories. That’s when I told my husband, we need to get into the manufacturing business, which was a whole new ballgame. We opened a small factory in Hong Kong.

Someone told me I should really check out China, because I could produce for half the cost than in Hong Kong. It seemed too complicated, so at first I let it go. But as all the manufacturers in Hong Kong were closing down and moving to China, I didn’t really have a choice in the end. Maybe I got very lucky but I found the right person from the start, someone I could really trust.

I know a lot of people have bad stories to tell. I think the main issue was that many mainland Chinese thought about the now, not the tomorrow, and if there was money to be made now, that’s all that mattered. My Chinese partner was different. We built a nice business, and at one point I had 1,500 people on the factory floor, with clients like Camaïeu, Auchan, Promod, Marks & Spencer. But then the business changed.

First, costs started to go up, everything started to be about saving pennies, and for five cents the buyer would go to Bangladesh to put their order. And for all their requests about having minimum workplace compliance issues in China, clients didn’t want to hear about cost going up.

One day I woke up and I decided to close down everything. I just wasn’t enjoying work anymore. I just wanted to work without having to look at cost anymore, use the most beautiful fabrics and do exactly what I had always been dreaming about doing and go the other extreme way.

Q. Tell me about the early days of your current company. 

A. I designed my first little niche collection and asked a friend who worked at Bulgari whether she knew anybody in Harrods. She got me an appointment the next day with the head of merchandising.

I actually really was not ready — in fact, I was a bit embarrassed going through their floor; they had everything and it all looked too fabulous. I went in, and she just loved the collection, called in the buyer and an hour later I had my first order. I got out of the meeting and told my son who was at university, “What do I do now? She needs to see the clothes on a model.” And he said, “Get undressed!” So I modeled them.

Q. As you moved from manufacturing for others to creating your own brand, what have been the challenges?

A. The world of luxury is certainly very different. There is so much already out there. I think you have to be different, find a gap. In my case, I felt there wasn’t enough choice for resort clothes, and what I found to go to the beach was very colorful and could only be worn there. I’m more of a black and white person; that’s what my designs are about. It’s also about versatility, because when you sell something at $500 to go to the beach, at that price point you want to be able to wear it again, and not just at the beach but back to the city.

Q. What would you tell your younger self?

A. You need to be very disciplined. If you’re going to work for yourself, you’ll need to put in the hours. There will be sacrifices, but it’s very rewarding, too.

0 comments

Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing

Let's Keep In Touch

SEARCH THIS STORE