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What should you actually wear to the beach? Resortwear designer, Marie France Van Damme has some radical ideas

What should you actually wear to the beach? Resortwear designer, Marie France Van Damme has some radical ideas

Blue skies forever

Text: Andrea Sim


Known for flouting the zeitgeist of modern beachwear, Marie France Van Damme's style and holiday guide is not your average affair

Sun, sand and sea. Those three words are akin to an incantation that conjures up butt-cheek grazing denim, pom-pom sandals and colourful, billowy dresses. Call it the beachside de rigueur, give or take a pair of too-large-for-the-face sunnies and a fresh coconut in hand. It's a protocol we've assimilated from lounging on the beaches of Boracay, and flicking through Instagram. Then we emulate; like turning up to a black-tie event in a tuxedo because well, dresscode.  

Marie France Van Damme disagrees. The Canadian native and Hong Kong-based designer has a rulebook all of her own, and these atypical believes are steeped in the design language of her eponymous label — its very defining factor. Colour codes? White, black, gold and silver. Hem length? Likely the knees onwards. Though, it's not particularly to do with the creed of modest fashion, but one woman's idea of elegance. And through beautifully milled and embroidered kaftans, tunics and swimwear, Marie France sure paints a convincing picture. The designer on her label, personal style and ideal vacays below. 

Having produced ready-to-wear for department stores before founding your own label, what made you decide that it was time to set out on your own?
I designed and manufactured for departments stores for over 30 years and enjoyed it, but then it became a price war; I wanted to do what I love best and that is to design beautiful pieces. I saw a void in the market for luxurious resortwear, created a curated ten-piece collection and presented it to the Chief Merchant of Harrod's who bought it on the spot — that's when I knew it was time for me to move on.

Were there challenges that surprised you with the transition; getting your own label off the ground?
Many, and every day. The first challenge was to rethink my whole manufacturing process: from mass production, to making a luxury product. From producing one design, into thousands of garments. Mass production is a whole different process where one person only sees a sleeve and another, a collar. I had to set up an atelier in Hong Kong with ladies that can produce a garment from beginning to end — similar to haute couture, using the finest of silks, intricate embroideries. It's an art.

"Mass production is a whole different process where one person only sees a sleeve and another, a collar."

Tell us more about the craft of your garments.
I use silks, from chiffon to satin to crêpe de chine. It is most difficult to work with the finest silk chiffon, and intricate embroidery and craftsmanship can turn these diaphanous materials into luxury pieces. In my new collection, opulent fabrics range from French lace to metallic-toned Italian weaves and featherweight Chinese silks. In signature pieces such as the 'Boubou' caftan, it's instant glamour. The silhouettes fabrics provide simplicity, comfort, and femininity. My goal is effortless dressing that can take you easily from day to evening. We are also proud of the production capabilities we have built in the past 30 years; our couture and tailoring facilities in-house, and embroidery produced across the border in China.

While most resort labels tend to favour a whole host of colours for their wares, yours stands out in its monochrome palette. Why the preference?
I have always been a white and black person, and have worn all shades of whites and blacks — greys, navys and creams included — all my life. I will not wear colours because I happen to be at the beach. My colours come through gold, silver and bronze accents. I live in Hong Kong, and spend a lot of time on the beaches there, and also that of Thailand. It is a zen environment. We don't wear froufrou coulorful dresses on a Phuket beach. But yes, I can very well imagine a beautiful colourful dress in Capri. The first collection I presented was black and white, gold and silver, to which buyers asked me why. My second collection then had hints of blue and rose, and they said, "We don't come to you for colour, we come to you for what you do best."

What or who inspires you the most?
I have been greatly influenced over the years by some of my favourite hotels such as the Amanpuri in Phuket, an oasis of zen tranquillity where I have been going to for years. Some of my favourite escapes are to Phuket and Marrakech. Capri too, the birthplace of the modern resort, and the Côte d'Azur.

What sparked the Beach Bridal line?
The idea came from seeing a young bride in Amanpuri, Phuket, who came down to the beach with her high heels and a puffy long dress. She sank into the sand and the dress overwhelmed her. A bride who marries on the beach should dress to feel beautiful and at ease throughout her entire wedding week and honeymoon experience. Also, brides and bridesmaids can take these wardrobes back to the city and wear such timeless separates again and again; a white lace dress can be worn on many occasions. Much of the collection can work for any woman anywhere in the world, even if she's not getting married.

What are your don'ts when it comes to dressing for the beach?
Dress comfortably and appropriately. Sarongs are not worthy for a beach lunch unless they are accessorised. Layered necklaces work, or armfuls of metallic shiny bangles. I see girls in gym shorts or cotton dresses which can look uncomfortable and hot. Instead, I recommend a kaftan. I think it is so much sexier to show less. A kaftan is timeless and can easily carry you from the beach to lunch and dinner.

What are some of your must-haves on summer vacation?
The kaftan — it embodies elegance. It's about packing light and packing right, and being able to effortlessly dress pieces up and down. Whether it's a beach holiday, a cultural holiday, or a complete dépaysement (translation: scenic) holiday, I always select around ten pieces in my wardrobe, and mix and match for them to become 20 outfits. I keep colours to black, white and neutrals so I only need one pair of sandals or shoes.

"I think it is so much sexier to show less."

What are some of your favourite summer getaway spots in Asia?
I try to spend as much time as I can with my husband and children in Phuket on our boat. We have discovered some beautiful, small deserted white beaches going down to Malaysia. The water is turquoise blue and the weather is always warm. If I'm looking forward to some peace and rest, that is my choice of holiday. 

Would you rather... 

A bikini or a one-piece swimsuit?
A one piece. My metallic Nageur one-piece is the perfect suit to wear from day to evening under a kaftan.

Chic sandals or fuss-free thong slippers?
Both! By day, Havaianas sandals in grey or black, and by night, heels. 

Lay by the beach or swim in the ocean?
A swim in the ocean. I was a dancer as a young girl and I'm still as disciplined today. I see a trainer three times a week and have never stopped working out! I don't believe in diets or those new fads. It's really all very simple: eat less, eat well and work out, for the rest of your life. Except on Sundays, when we should all indulge!

Shop Marie France Van Damme, also available on Net-a-Porter.

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