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PARIS — When Gilles Dufour was contacted last September by Erdos, the massive Chinese conglomerate that runs cashmere mills as well as biochemistry and metallurgical activities in the country, the seasoned designer didn’t know what to expect.
This story first appeared in the July 21, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Dufour, however, was up for a new challenge and talked with the company with an open mind.
Now, less than a year into the job as artistic director for Erdos, which runs some 2,000 boutiques in China, Dufour couldn’t be more pleased.
“I’ve been super impressed,” said the designer, who has worked with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and did a stint at Balmain. “They have incredible technical mastery and they are eager to try new things.”
Dufour was hired by Erdos to give its cashmere line a more fashionable spin in order to broaden its appeal. His arrival at the firm illustrates how Chinese companies, which are known for their manufacturing muscle, may now be looking to create their own brand identity.
Though Dufour has taken on a plainly visible role at Erdos, numerous European designers consult for Chinese firms. Most, however, prefer to keep quiet on their Chinese gigs, which often bring in more money than their own brands make.
Dufour said Erdos has been particularly eager to try novelty and has embraced his ideas — even the complex and costly ones — with an eager attitude.
“They have all of the best and latest machinery and they are able to produce quality as high any European company,” he said.
Dufour has remarked on many differences, too.
“The differences with European culture are there, of course,” he said. “And they aren’t all bad. The Chinese respect people with experience. They aren’t so impressed by youth, which is not the way it is in the West.”
Dufour said he’s had to adjust to cultural quirks.
“They never go straight to the point,” he said. “You have to be very polite and take things step by step. When they ask something, it’s important never to say no. You can’t make them feel like they are being humiliated in public.”
Erdos’ factories are located in Mongolia, where the company runs a so-called Erdos City that groups all its operations.
“It’s incredibly modern,” said Dufour of Erdos City. “The collection is sold there to 3,000 buyers. Outside of the city, though, Mongolia is incredibly wild. The contrast is striking.”
Dufour said he’s so far been designing clothes that look expensive in order to meet Chinese customer demand.
“The Chinese customer wants the garment to be expensive and to look expensive,” he explained. “This year, all of the buttons I’m using are in jade or quartz. There are a lot of embroideries. Swarovski is a triumph in China.”
Needless to say, Erdos hired Dufour to take its cashmere line more upscale. The designer has been working hand-in-hand with the daughter of the president, Jane Zhang, and her husband Dylan.
“They understand the West,” said Dufour. “They are Cambridge educated and very evolved.
“What I really love is the willingness to try new things,” he continued. “They don’t say, ‘Oh, this is too expensive.’ So far I have no limits. I did 30 intarsia designs for the fall collection. They want me to push their savoir faire and take them in new directions.”
For Dufour’s first collection for Erdos, which was presented in a big inter-company fashion show last fall, the designer juxtaposed European and Asian style with sweaters inspired by the Great Wall of China and maps of Paris and Beijing.
Dufour said the collection was well received and that Erdos plans to show his next collection with a big event at the Beijing Fashion Fair in November.
In the meantime, the designer continues with his own collection with limited editions for Browns of London.
He travels to China one week every month to work with his team of four assistants in Beijing or Hong Kong. He said he does two collections a year with some 500 pieces for both men and women.
“My image for the moment is very young,” said Dufour. “But we are designing also for women and men of 30 and 40 years of age.
“I want to bring a bit of European style to China,” he added. “I feel like an ambassador of French fashion.”