Classical lines in French accent
Amelie Peraud, 37, taught French until her unique take on baby apparel proved popular among both Chinese and foreigners. To make the transition from teacher to designer, she opened Tang'Roulou in Beijing in 2004 selling baby clothes and accessories that incorporated traditional Chinese elements. She was joined three years later by another French teacher Pierre-Yves Babin, 36. She talks about why their designs have found such a large following in the capital and online.
Were you two trained professionals in fashion design?
When I was in France, I didn't have any experience in design. Three years after I came to Beijing, in December 2002, I started to design some blankets to offer to my pregnant friends in France because I wanted to give them a personal gift, not one you just buy in a store. I live in a hutong and many people brought their blankets out into the sun, and I liked the designs. My friends liked my gifts and encouraged me. Then I opened a little shop near the Drum Tower in 2004, and little by little I made a small collection. Pierre and I started working together in 2007, and he was not professionally trained either.
What makes your baby products unique in their designs?
Our inspiration comes from China, but we are also influenced by our French background. We also like vintage things a lot. Different elements are put together so it's difficult to say which parts are from China and which parts are French. For example, in China, babies don't use sleeping bags, but in France we use them a lot. So we make sleeping bags that use Chinese elements. The idea for the inscriptions on Bao Bao [the name of the sleeping bags, which means 'baby'] came from someone we know in the hutongs who embroidered the name of his grandson on a blanket, and we followed that. Another example is the dark colouring of a shirt we made. People in China say they don't put dark colours like black on children, only bright colors; but in France you see dark colours used more.
Who are your customers?
Most are foreigners. When the shop was near the Drum Tower, we became more and more known by local people. We also have customers from elsewhere in Asia who say they like the Chinese inspiration. Some buyers say the designs remind them of their childhood. Their grandmothers used to make such blankets, and so they want me to make them one.
Many of the fabrics seem like they would be hard to find in cities. How do you get them?
We spent a lot of time looking for fabric. That's why our products are always limited editions. Some fabrics come from the countryside. Each time we go outside Beijing we go to a fabric market and see if we can find some really nice pieces. For example, the fabric for one bag came from Fujian , and we bought only five metres of it. It was so beautiful that I wanted to keep it for myself. Eventually we made tiny bags out of it.
Do you two make these clothes by hand?
We have our own tailor who makes the samples and items produced only in small quantities, like 10 pieces. We also work with a local Beijing workshop, but everything must be perfect. We make all the buttons like they are in traditional Chinese apparel. They have to be not too soft, not too hard, horizontal and match the clothes in colour. We pay a lot of attention to details. We are really picky people.
You give your products unusual names, taking cues from the Shaolin Temple or a Chinese emperor's concubine? Why is that?
Each of our products has a name. For example, one blanket is named after a Chinese phrase 'the moon is white, and the wind is light'. A mouse pad is called Jianbing, the name for Chinese pancakes, because we put different layers inside, like with the jianbing. A luggage bag is called Yi Lu Ping An, or 'have a safe journey'. There is a story behind each product - probably not obvious to the client but meaningful to us at least.
Was it difficult to open a shop in Beijing?
It was as difficult as it is to open a shop in France. There are a lot of approvals needed, but you have to be patient and get all the documents. We are not in our own country, so we had to submit everything in Chinese. That's quite difficult for us, and we have to be patient with the people who work with us.
Do you think the style, even though it's based on traditional elements, has staying power?
We believe so. We don't expect people to wear Tang'Roulou every day. You can match our pieces with other modern clothes. One dress is called Mongolia but it's not traditional, and you can wear it with leggings. The idea is not to dress your kid like one would in the past, but you buy an outfit and mix and match with other modern clothes. Twenty years from now, when you look at the products, they will still look vintage, just like today.
How do the two of you work together?
We interact a lot. It's like a special recipe. When we design we elaborate our thoughts until we think it's perfect for us. We work slowly. Sometimes clients may say the shapes are simple, but if you care about the product, it is not that simple. We make sure each product is special. For example, we did a lot of samples for one particular blanket. We thought it was really nice, but too traditional. Then we put it away for three months. After we finally finished it and hung it up, the proportion [of colours and patterns] was really beautiful. It was like a painting. Sometimes it can get painful if we don't agree 100 per cent on the same thing. Sometimes one of us thinks it's perfect and the other brings up a problem. But we work until the finished products ends up perfect for both of us.
Where do you find your inspiration?
We both live in hutongs, and our office is located in a hutong. We like to walk around, go cycling and go to the market. I live in a courtyard, and you can hear a rooster in the morning. It has a very countryside feel, like living in a village. We love to go to second-hand markets. You can go to many places and see a lot of things, but you don't know where the inspiration will come from. One dress is called Shanzi - the name for a traditional Chinese fan - and comes from my visit to Yangshuo, Guangxi.
Do you think it's unusual that you were not professionally trained but have successfully designed clothes with many elements of a different culture?
You can work in a bank and like designing - you don't have to be trained. Sometimes you need to do something on your own, to express your ideas. Some people have ideas but don't express them - or perhaps it is because they have lived in China for a long time. Most of the details [in our designs] are very exotic. Many Chinese don't see it because they grew up with it. Embroidery on one of our notebooks for example is very special, but probably not to a Chinese. When you go to Guizhou or Yunnan they make all those beautiful things by hand, just like our grandmothers used to embroider. But this has not been handed down to new generations. Maybe someday it will disappear.