Retail in Asia had the pleasure to meet Marie France Van Damme, the designer of luxury resort wear of the eponymous brand.
Together, we discussed her label, business during COVID, her commitment towards more responsible fashion, young designers and the future. Let’s (re)discover Marie France Van Damme, a brand that has had to reinvent itself in times of COVID.
After working for 35 years manufacturing womenswear for the United States and European high-street retailers, Marie France Van Damme launched her label in 2011.
The French-Canadian designer created samples in 2011 that were picked up by Harrods in London and Bergdorf Goodman in New York.
“When Harrods’ chief merchant saw my samples she said, ‘This is what I want to wear on holiday’,” says Van Damme.
The namesake label of luxury resort wear was born. She opened a shop in Hong Kong in 2013 followed by stores in some of the world’s most iconic tourist destinations such as Phuket, Miami, Marrakech, Dubai and Beverly Hills. Today Marie France Van Damme has 10 stores worldwide.
The COVID pandemic battered the economy, however, Marie France says, that business in Hong Kong was already badly affected by the protests in 2019. Despite a very interesting offer, she had to turn down a shop in one of Kowloon’s most prestigious malls because it was too risky at the time. It turned out she was right to decline.
Since the beginning of 2020, store closures and a lack of inbound tourists due to the outbreak were a heavy burden, while she still had to bear all operational costs and rents.
“In Hong Kong, 90 percent of our clients are from mainland China. Beverly Hills remained closed for more than one year and Miami was closed for a long time too. Unfortunately, I got little to no support from the landlords,” she says.
Luckily for her, the shops globally were not closed simultaneously as waves took place at different times across the world. Sales figures in the United States have improved since, with many of her clients returning to the United States for holidays. It is the same for Dubai, and Marie France is confident that Dubai’s Expo will boost the economy and traffic in the shops.
The outbreak accelerated the brand’s digital transformation as they understood they had to embrace progress to survive. The brand’s e-commerce platform had been a work in progress and the CRM system was implemented earlier.
“We had to reinvent our business. I told my team members ‘we have to be prepared in case nobody goes to our stores anymore’,” says Marie France.
“We emailed customers who could not shop due to store closures or because there is no Marie France Van Damme shop where they live. The conversion rate exceeded our expectations,” she adds.
Now that the world is reopening, the focus is on building a strong digital strategy. This is something she is discussing with her sons who are running Marie France Van Damme brand with her.
Indeed, Marie France Van Damme is a family-owned and run business. Family is very important to the designer who is committed to a socially and environmentally responsible label.
“We are a modern-day organisation striving to develop and implement a business structure that fulfils the following: Care for people, care for the planet, redistribution of surplus. We just happen to make beautiful clothes,” says the designer.
Her kaftans, tunics, swimsuits, beach cover-ups and kimonos are all “Made in Hong Kong”. Each item takes half a day to produce and the micro-factory in Kwun Tong produces about 600 to 700 pieces per month. Twenty seamstresses are stitching and sewing intricate seams before the unique pieces are being sent to stores in different parts of the world. Her seamstresses have been working for the brand since the beginning, and Marie France knows them all – she can even tell who worked on each specific creation. Her suppliers are small to medium sized enterprises that value generations of tradition and practice. They conduct internal audits of all their suppliers to ensure they meet their quality and environmental guidelines.
As the pandemic threatened the perenniality of many independent designers she launched a new platform called “Curated by MF” where she supports artisans and craftspeople. From jewellery and bags to fragrances and homeware, she introduced artisans from all over the world and allowed them to showcase their creations. The feedback was very positive and clients are still ordering some of her friends’ creations.
Speaking of the future, Marie France admits that China is on her radar.
“I would love to open a shop in China but we are not yet ready for this market,” she says. When borders will reopen, she might consider opening pop-ups.
“In 2019 we worked on opening pop-ups in different locations such as the Hamptons, Capri and Saint-Tropez. Everything is ready. We are waiting for travel to resume,” she adds.