Designer Olivia von Halle talks silk pyjamas, Coco Chanel and Shanghai
The designer who conceived her chic silk pyjama label while living in Shanghai talks about how China remains at the root of her brand
"My husband Hugo and I married very young, we had only known each other for a year but often discussed how wonderful it would be to live abroad. I suggested Russia, Brazil, India or China - he vetoed all but China. It all happened very quickly and three months later we were in Shanghai and enrolled at Jiaotong University to study Mandarin. It is pretty challenging and I wish I could speak better Mandarin than I do.
We had so much fun there, and I made lots of Chinese girlfriends during those 21/2 years. I had studied fashion management at Leeds University and worked in trend forecasting for The Future Laboratory before moving to Shanghai [in 2008] and did a few projects for them and WGSN [also a trend consultancy].
I grew up on a farm and as a child I only had a school uniform and my riding kit to wear because my mother hates shopping - but we had a wonderful dressing-up box of my grandmother's and aunts' vintage clothes and I would wear those to parties. I once cut up my grandmother's original '20s flapper dress - which I never forgave myself for doing. I am hopeless at wearing casual clothes and love getting dressed up in long dresses - any excuse.
While living in Shanghai I found this amazing tailor. I am six feet tall and when I walked into fashion shops the assistants would say: 'too big, too fat!'. I could see that pyjamas were going to become a big trend and so I got my tailor to make me a couple of pairs in silk. I wore them for my 25th birthday party, to dinners, even walking our dog. I dressed them up, dressed them down and gave them as presents to friends. They adored them and I returned from a trip to England with a huge order list.
My tailor gulped and said, 'I do have other clients'. So I thought maybe this is something I could do properly and set up a brand. I always thought my husband's surname von Halle would make a pretty good brand name.
It took 18 months, with my assistant and I driving all over Hangzhou and Suzhou to find silk factories. We launched the collection at London Fashion Week in 2011 and by the following Christmas had built up a solid stockist list including Harrods. The hardest thing of all is having the confidence; fear of failure is very strong.
However, sales were up last Christmas 100 per cent on the previous year and I have finished a bridal trousseau collection that will launch in March.
Coco Chanel introduced silk pyjamas in the 1920s having borrowed them from her lovers. They were the first trousers women wore, going to parties in lounging pyjamas and to the beach in beach pyjamas. I love that era and you still get a great sense of it in Shanghai, which was then known as the Pearl of the Orient.
Asia is a huge source of inspiration and for our A/W 2013 campaign I asked my friends, stylist Leaf Greener and photographer Ele Jin, to do the shoot presenting my pyjamas through Chinese eyes.
That shoot [photographed in Shanghai's Peace Hotel, which was originally built by one of her husband's ancestors, Victor Sassoon] has been our most popular, and was my way of tackling my critics head on.
They couldn't understand why as a luxury brand we were manufacturing in China, but silk comes from China. Chinese silk is the best in the world and I am very proud of the fact that we manufacture there. That shoot was a tribute to that heritage."