People in fashion: Jehanne di Biolley - Jewels of the Orient

Only the most opulent fabrics will do for designer Jehanne di Biolley - fortunately she lives in China. By Hester Lacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Chinese, says Jehanne di Biolley, are very good at keeping their secrets. They have as many varieties of jade as there are kinds of marble in Europe and their fabrics and embroidery are rich and bright. Such stones and textiles are the staples of the Double Happiness collection, which she brings to Europe from her home base in Peking.

Her offerings for this season from the Orient include heavy wraps in Chinese brocaded silk inspired by the Beijing Opera, with matching evening bags, garnished with surprising details: little fur pompoms, tiny carved jade Buddhas. The scarves of long Tibetan goat wool in soft, smoky shades are a very elegant version of the old hippie afghan, backed with Chinese brocade with accents of gold. To go with them there are heavy ropes of semi-precious stones: black agate from Tibet, strings of freshwater pearls, globes of grey agate, jade and delicate rose quartz. The necklaces each have a solid Chinese carving: perhaps a jade butterfly for happiness, or a charm for good luck, long life and the "double happiness" from which the collection takes its name.

Although all of this sounds like the most blatant luxury, it is surprisingly practical. The brocade bags are dainty but capacious enough to swallow a mobile phone and diary and the straps are long enough to loop round the wrist, so you don't have to juggle. "You can have a cigarette and a drink at once," says Jehanne. "For a more austere look, the pompoms are detachable. And everything goes with everything else: you can mix a necklace of black agate with a luxurious burgundy velvet scarf."

When she tosses one of the embroidered silk wraps around her shoulders, the heavy fabric drapes beautifully. One of these would solve that perennial problem, dressing from office to evening. "It's the ultimate accessory, instantly glamorous," she says, twirling about to show off the sheen on the fabric. This sheen, she says, has a rather magical effect on the wearer. "It makes your skin, eyes and hair glow because it has reflections."

For summer, she has lighter silks in pinks and greens, with butterfly and flower motifs hand-embroidered by the women who used to embroider for China's imperial court and delicate beading in jade and garnet. Six of these (now elderly) ladies moved to Peking from south China to work for Jehanne; it takes a day and a half to embroider each wrap and the workers take a lively interest. "They help me choose the colours and they say things like `Tsue Tsue, unless you put a bit of brightness in the butterfly it won't fly'," she says. Tsue Tsue is Jehanne's Chinese name, given to her by her Chinese friends: it means a particular shade of green with a hint of blue, and the characters that make up the word are also the symbol for kingfisher.

Jehanne is Belgian by birth and her background is in antiques rather than fashion. She started a gallery in London in the early Nineties, branching out into exhibitions featuring the work of young architects, fashion designers and photographers. At the end of the recession her building was bought and she realised it was time for a change. She had already visited China and decided to move there.

"Living in Peking had romantic appeal," she says. "It was winter and I took my ice skates." Then Elle Decoration got in touch: they were running a feature on China, and could she send some appropriate pieces? She made up a few bags and a wrap, sent them in, and was encouraged by the enthusiastic response. The first Double Happiness exhibition was in a Belgian boutique a year ago, followed by another in Paris; from here, Jehanne was spotted by Japanese buyers and Bergdorf Goodman of New York. Her accessories are available in London too; a wrap retails at around pounds 330, the matching bags at around pounds 120 and the necklaces range from pounds 120 to around pounds 450.

Sourcing fabrics and materials for the collection entails travelling all over China. "I go on motorbikes to all the little workshops. I'm careful to dress according to local customs and not offend people," says Jehanne. China, she tells me, is so vast that it is like many nations rolled into one, with different languages in different areas. "In some parts nobody speaks Chinese. My knowledge of Chinese is limited but I know words like beads, stones, silk - and food!" Because of her early training in antiques, she says she is influenced by the balance of different materials and the ways that shape relates to function. "I have a big library in my mind of images and shapes." There is a huge choice available. "The Tibetans like gold- embroidered brocade that is very baroque in style. The more traditional fabrics are finer, inspired by imperial court dresses, which in turn were inspired by the West - it's like two different worlds, but it's all China."

Both have a place in Double Happiness; where the central theme, says Jehanne, is femininity. "What I love about my fabrics is that even women who've never worn or liked colour, who think they don't like colour, have a passionate reaction to them. I like to bring out the feminine glow that every woman has."

Stockists: Carden Cunietti, 83 Westbourne Park Road, London W2; tel 0171-229 8559; Mimi, 309 King's Road, London SW3; tel 0171-349 9699.

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