French designer Gilles Dufour breathes new life into a Chinese company
Walking into Gilles Dufour's Beijing office, one thing immediately strikes the eye: the amalgam of Western and Eastern culture. Colorful traditional Chinese silks are strewn around and on the sofa and desks, and European artworks, most of them abstracts, hang on the walls. Together they add up to an unusual mixture of soft harmony and romantic flair.
"Don't you think it is amazing ... the two different styles together?" says Dufour, a former art director for Chanel who helped the French fashion powerhouse's chief designer Karl Lagerfeld for almost 15 years.
"One is reserved and peaceful, while the other is enthusiastic and free."
It was enthusiasm that brought Dufour, now 60, to China to work for the Erdos Group, which makes cashmere wear.
The world famous designer says working here is about much more than money or fame. Being here, he says, has led him onto new paths of creativity that have revitalized his life.
After being engaged in the European fashion industry for 37 years, he says, what he fears most is a lack of inspiration.
"The Western fashion industry is exciting, of course, yet fast developing China, this glorious country with time-honored history, attracts me very much. I (wanted) to change my life path and immerse it with the development of this country."
As for Erdos Group, for whom Dufour is design director, it needs to change a lot to attract more customers and expand its international market, he says. Erdos, reputedly China's biggest cashmere brand, needs to change because in the past its design has been aimed mainly at elderly people, he says.
Erdos had a turnover of 7.74 billion yuan ($1.22 billion, 953 million euros) last year, a 13.8 percent increase compared with 2010.
The growth in sales figures has been accompanied by marked changes to the company.
"The general public usually held the stereotype that cashmere clothes are out of date and mainly for middle-aged people," says Dufour, who has worked as chief design director for Balmain, Pringle and other major fashion brands.
Modernizing the designs and pitching them to younger people is a big challenge, he says.
"If using one word to describe why I chose Erdos, this domestic brand, as a new starting point for my artistic career, 'change' tops the list. Not only for Erdos, but also for me.
"When both sides meet and want to revitalize together, sparks emerge. So I became the first European designer to be hired by the Chinese company."
He believes that blending European and Chinese aesthetics in the designs can help the brand revitalize itself and become internationally competitive.
Once a month Dufour, who splits his time between Paris and Beijing, flies to the Chinese capital to show to his Chinese colleagues designs and pictures he has collected in Europe, and then decides which patterns should be put into production.
As part of the makeover for the product line, he has introduced new materials such as cotton and leather into the cashmere clothes to rejuvenate them.
"If all of the clothes are just made from cashmere, they are boring. What the European (design) focuses on most is diversification. It is like making up your cashmere doll. You can make up its face and decorate it with different ornaments."
Given Dufour's undoubted position in the lofty heights of the global fashion industry, anyone meeting him is likely to be surprised at how down to earth he is, which may well be reflected in his designs.
Unlike many European designers who are keen on extravagant designs that can be impractical as everyday wear, Dufour wants his products to be readily accessible by the public.
"A designer should make products tailored to the target customers, and since Erdos wants to attract customers from all ages and social groups, I do not go to extremes."
Well aware that his knowledge of Chinese culture is limited, Dufour sometimes watches Peking Opera, visits the renowned 798 art zone in Beijing and strolls the streets of the capital observing what people are wearing.
"A domestic brand such as Erdos needs to establish a strong customer base domestically first and then (enter) the overseas market," he says.
Under his leadership, the brand catalogue has become a lot weightier. In 2008 the autumn-winter catalogue consisted of 800 items; these days the line-up is about 1,200, Erdos Group says.
It is also largely because of Dufour's influence that the way Erdos shops look has changed, the aim being to offer customers a more enjoyable shopping experience in elegant surroundings with the help of better lighting, decor and displays.
Zhang Yiling, general manager of Erdos Garment Co Ltd, who directly oversees design, says: "What attracted us most to Dufour was not his fame in the fashion industry, but his idea of innovation. We can provide him with the best platform to bring his innovation into full play."
Dufour says he was excited to join Erdos as it was going through a transformation.
"I can enjoy greater freedom to realize my design ideas in this fast developing company than in other established fashion houses like Chanel."
He says he is eager to see some Erdos products sold in Paris.
"A lot of my friends are amazed by my products for Erdos, even though they just get glimpses from the product catalogue. They always ask me where to buy."
His success in China has proved his choice to work for Erdos was the right one, he says.
"When I took the position as Erdos design director, lots of my friends said I was taking an adventure. In many people's minds, China still lacks the favorable conditions for arts and fashion. (It's) mainly famous for the cheap labor and relatively low prices. But I am confident that domestic brands will experience fast growth and enjoy long-term success."
Dufour says China has many advantages in design because it has accumulated a lot of experience in doing OEM for big foreign brands.
"And now Chinese companies are also making efforts to establish their brands. I strongly believe they will realize their goals, but branding requires time and patience. It can take dozens of years to catch up with the foreign names."
He has exerted his considerable influence in the industry to help the group tap the international market.
With his help, Erdos Group has successfully developed several original equipment manufacturers of international brands such as Chanel to work for the Chinese company to produce evening dresses and jewelry such as necklaces.
And whenever and wherever he meets old colleagues, he shows them his Erdos designs.
"I am also a marketing person for Erdos group, not just a designer," Dufour says, grinning broadly.