While Marie France Van Damme is known for being a Hong Kong-based designer, the Canada native first plunged into the fashion industry by moving to New York City to run Dorshare Limited, one of the first private label manufacturing businesses, dealing with stores such as Lord & Taylor and Macy’s. It was during her jet-setting back and forth between the Big Apple and Asia that she met her husband and decided to relocate to Hong Kong in the early 1980s. During her first years there, Van Damme developed and manufactured ready-to-wear products for European retailers such as La Redoute, Marks & Spencer, Monoprix and the American department store Saks Fifth Avenue.
After years of travel and discovering her niche in the resort wear sector, Van Damme launched her own eponymous luxury label in summer 2011. The sophisticated collection of clothing, swimwear, jewelry and travel bags uses high-end materials such as silk chiffon, silk sateen and weightless jersey. Her flagship store in Hong Kong’s upscale International Finance Centre (IFC) Mall opened in fall 2013. We caught up with the chic globetrotter to discuss everything from the most stylish cities to her travel-inspired designs.
What are your favorite cities to visit?
St. Petersburg [Russia], Marrakech and Rome. I like St. Petersburg for the history and the architecture, because there’s just so much to see. You want to be there for the White Nights [May through July]. Marrakech is only a three-hour flight from London or Paris, but you’re basically landing on another planet when you get there. It’s in the desert; it’s a complete change of scenery. I love it for the colors, smells, souks [marketplaces], riads [Moroccan palaces with interior gardens], food, people, warmth and lifestyle. For Rome, it’s the history and the food. I also love it for its monuments and museums. I love to walk, and these are three cities that you walk through, and around every corner, you discover something new.
What are your favorite hotels around the world?
One would be Amanpuri in Phuket for the tranquility and beauty of the hotel. It’s on the beach; it’s very Zen. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Another one would be La Mamounia in Marrakech because it’s walking distance to the souks, and I love to walk through the city and go back to the hotel. It also has one of the most beautiful buffets in the world. I don’t like buffets in general, but La Mamounia has the most incredible breakfast and lunch buffet that ever existed. I think that’s something you have to see; it’s amazing. There’s also the Ritz Paris. Although it’s closed [until the end of 2014], it was like a home to me for 20-some years. I also have smaller hotels that I like, such as Villa Gallici in Aix-en-Provence, which is just an amazing little boutique hotel when you’re on your way to St. Tropez or Cannes. Another one would be Château de Bagnols, near Lyon, again in France.
What’s the most beautiful hotel you have ever stayed in?
I would have to say Amanpuri. I’ve been going there since the early 1990s. I have to say that’s been my biggest source of inspiration — whether it’s for my home, my office, my collection, my lifestyle, it’s been Amanpuri.
What are your favorite shops to visit when traveling?
Bergdorf Goodman, even though it’s not a shop, it’s a small department store — I just think Bergdorf’s is the best place to shop in the world. But then there’s also Portofino, [Italy], and the great little shops around the harbor. There’s this little boutique attached to the Belmond Splendido Mare hotel that has the best bathing suits in the world. That’s really a treat. There’s also Sabbia Rosa in Paris, and it’s got the finest lingerie, and everybody goes there for a little camisole or pajamas and silk. I could go on and on about smaller shops, but Bergdorf’s would be your one-stop shop for something.
What are your favorite cities for shopping?
The obvious ones are Paris, New York City, Milan and London. Although I don’t actually go to cities to shop, I just love walking. But in London, it’s more for home — shopping at John Lewis, Thomas Goode and Harrods — in Milan, more for fashion. New York has fantastic vintage jewelry. Every city has something different. For example, Milan has the great Italian designers, although maybe I’m not a Dolce & Gabbana or Valentino customer, but just to go into those stores is wonderful. But in general, it’s more browsing, not actually buying.
Does traveling inspire you?
Traveling should inspire everyone. I like to look at people and I like to discover new places, so yes, traveling does inspire me. In St. Petersburg, I remember going to Peterhof Palace and seeing the most amazing Chinese room and Chinese wallpaper, all hand-painted designs — we’re talking back to the 1700s and 1800s. If in the 1800s, Catherine the Great, who ran the country, was surrounded by Chinese artifacts, that could inspire me to create a collection.
What’s the most stylish city you have ever visited?
A few years ago, I would have said Paris. I remember going to Paris with my mother in the 1960s and 1970s, and she would always say, “Look around. Look how women are so chic.” And unfortunately today, I don’t see that anymore. The Parisian fashion is not what I remember. I would say Rome is the most stylish city. Every time I go to Rome, I’m quite surprised to see how stylish not just women in fashion are, but anyone and everyone is. The Romans definitely know how to look put together. An Italian woman always stands out from all the other women.
How would you describe the fashion scene in Hong Kong?
Women really know how to dress in Hong Kong, and it is very elegant. To me, it would be interesting to see a [story] on the difference between the women in Hong Kong, Paris, London or New York City. And Hong Kong would be one of the most elegant cities in the world. Women in Hong Kong spend a lot of money on their clothes and bags, and in the last year they’ve really developed their own style. To me, Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan city — a lot more so than London or Paris. It’s quite a chic city.
Photo Courtesy of Marie France Van Damme