To mark International Women’s Day, FOCUS continues to profile female business leaders in the UK and China to hear their tips on correcting gender imbalance and discover how they got to where they are today. Here, Robynne Tindall speaks to fashion designer Jehanne de Biolley
Jehanne de Biolley has been living and working as a designer in China for 30 years. Born in Belgium, she lived in London for over 12 years, where she owned an Asian art gallery prior to moving to China.
What inspired you to get into your current industry?
I was inspired and encouraged by friends in fashion who had visited the latest theme exhibition I had curated at my Asian art gallery in Mayfair. The exhibition was about antique Chinese belt buckles mixed with my own first range of fashion accessories…I had become well-known in some artsy circles for creating crossover exhibitions, mixing antique Asian art with contemporary know-how or immersed in a contemporary display.
Have you ever experienced a tough time that made you want to give up?
There was a time when I had just moved my studio to a nearby temple, just walking distance from where we lived at the time. I had spent a few weeks cleaning, renovating and decorating the new location and had set up my workshop and studio there; it was a lovely 350 square metre space on the top floor of a 1950s building within the temple grounds. Within three months of being operational, the ‘new boss’ of the temple did a deal with an outside hotel developer and I had to pack up and go; the only compensation I got was a few bags of delicious Dongbei rice for Lunar New Year and they paid for my move…
I was so disappointed and discouraged; I told my husband that I would stop working. But he told me that ‘we will find a better solution,’ and that is when we managed to rent the former Ming dynasty temple library of the temple where we lived. It was a magnificent space of similar size, but it had the original open wooden ceiling with painted beams. It was a unique space that became a part of our home and work, and I would not want to have missed that turn of events!
How important is it to have a role model or mentor? Who is your role model?
Gandhi and the importance of weaving in his vision [have been influential for me]. [Through my work with fashion and design] my aim is to create a platform to weave a world together.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
I am an early riser; I like to read or write when the house is quiet, even just for 30 minutes. I prepare breakfast and help the children before they go to school, then I get dressed. I usually select what I want to wear the night before so all I have to do is hop in the shower and get ready.
After that, every day is different. I try and make plans so I have a full day dedicated to this or that project so that I can be fully immersed in the tasks. The only common point between all the days is that whatever I do, I try to be fully ‘present’ in harmony with the task I have set myself to do.
I am currently working on a collection to be presented at a fashion show inspired by the Miao minority of Guizhou, which will be presented in Beijing at the end of May. For this collection, I am also designing porcelain and other home decoration items. So the pressure is on… I am juggling meetings, creative time, and some travel back and forth between Guizhou and Beijing to supervise the production of the different elements of the collection. I like to describe what I do as “slow fashion in the fast lane” because everything happens so fast in China, with a sense of urgency to get there first.
What is one thing people can do at work to help eliminate gender bias in the workplace?
I have not come across a lot of gender bias in fashion and design. I think it’s important to just keep going with the flow and enjoy different ways of thinking and creative energies. Even if you do not work in art and design, these energies are everywhere — try to see them, feel them.
If you could sum up your best bit of business advice in one sentence, what would it be?
Write a clear job description when you want to work with someone or hire someone.