Lady Ullens started her business for the same reason so many other business founders started theirs: she was not satisfied by what was available on the market. She also had the faintest instinct that there were others who would share the same sentiments. In her case however, this reason came in the rather peculiar form of 300 suitcases.
The Belgian baroness is a perpetual traveller, and is in charge of an impressive list of initiatives that she and her team spearheads all over the globe. From the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing which she founded with her husband, to the Maison Ullens brand in Paris, and many more, her tasks are both demanding and globally dispersed.
“I had nothing appropriate and elegant to wear while traveling. That is why I decided to create my own brand, Maison Ullens,” Lady Ullens says. With this frustration in mind, she dreamt of a label which would forge a balance between travel wear, sportswear and city wear. Made entirely in Italy with the help of the best artisans available, the mission for the label was set clear from the start: to create comfortable, elegant clothes of great quality and versatility.
Although the goal itself is not original, satisfying the demands of a figure with such exacting standards is no easy task. “I used to be a loyal patron to all the different luxury brands like Dior and Chanel,” she says. “But now that I’ve established the Maison Ullens brand, I only wear my own clothes.” She then laughs, saying “I don’t buy from them anymore, so they cry!”
Signature hallmarks of the collection include its low-profile design, reversible (and therefore doubly versatile) pieces, and sumptuous fabrics. These fabrics include dipped lambskin, leather, treated sheepskin, and cashmere. The brand has no interest in trends, but rather possesses a relaxed, elegant quality that is both ageless and season-less. This approach is reminiscent of venerable French brand Hermès, which also distances itself from the whims and follies of the schizophrenic fashion industry.
Of course, running a fashion brand in today’s saturated market is no easy task. The luxury industry is littered with failures and behemoth luxury conglomerates like Kering Group and Richemont. But for Lady Ullens, these realities are part and parcel of achieving your dreams.
“My father pushed me a lot to realize my dream,” she remembers. “He was in the military, so that is where he developed self-discipline. As for me, I was in boarding school for twelve years of my life. It was a good school, very strong and very strict like the military.”
This strong work ethic and hands-on approach translates into a variety of tasks for Maison Ullens. Some days Lady Ullens talks and entertains customers at her Paris shop. Other days, she discusses sales performance with stockists like The Swank in Hong Kong. Other times, she works with current chief designer Kim Laursen on the brand’s product development. And sometimes, she visits the manufacturing factory to ensure the quality of her products is at its best. “If you have a dream, you have to realize it. Because dreaming is easy. To realize and make it happen is a lot of work.”
And with this strong mindset, the brand has grown and progressed considerably. Maison Ullens now possesses stores in Paris, London and Aspen, and is looking to open a standalone store in Hong Kong. “I aim to push Maison Ullens very high with all my team because I have a wonderful team.”
“I work with my heart. I talk with my heart. I look with my heart. And I live with my heart.”
- Madame Myriam Ullens, Founder of Maison Ullens
This philosophy to be steered by the course of heart also runs throughout the other parts of Lady Ullens’ life. This includes her non-profit organization, The Mimi Foundation, which receives one percent of the profits from Maison Ullens. Founded in 2004 after Lady Ullens recovered from breast cancer, the aim of the organization is to support those who suffer from cancer.
The organization gives patients the support they need during and after chemotherapy treatment. With a team of psychologists, beauticians and hairdressers, sufferers are cocooned and given the kind of dignity and everyday joy that would otherwise by robbed from the harsh treatments they must undergo.
“I was fortunate to be extremely well supported by my nearest and dearest.... [but] I was struck by the despair of many patients who were unable to enjoy the support that I had had– support that is nevertheless essential in enabling one to feel well in body and mind.”
And even Lady Ullens’ approach to collecting Chinese art is driven by the heart, rather than a calculating motive to make money. Her love affair with China began some 30 years ago, when she and her husband came to China . “We started to collect Chinese art a long time ago because my husband had business in Beijing,” she says. “We were [in the city] for ten days and during the weekend we went to visit the art galleries.”
Yet unlike the many art collectors clambering for a piece of China’s booming contemporary art industry, or in fact the many business who are now looking for a slice of China’s spending power, husband and wife were profoundly interested in a country that so many people in the world had no interest in. “Nobody looked after the Chinese artists 30 years ago. It was a passion immediately. It was very strong work, very intensive, that was the reason we started.”
“Many people ask us: ‘we would like to collect art like you. Can you tell us how you buy a piece?’ Well you buy a piece when you love the piece. We don’t buy what we don’t like. We don’t buy a piece of art just because one day we think it will make a good return. We buy the piece because we want to live with the piece in our house.”
If there is ever one maxim that defines Lady Ullens throughout her life, it is to follow that inner voice with whatever work she is undertaking. Whether that is in luxury, or art, or in charity work, her approach is always the same. As she proclaims with humility and sincerity: “I work with my heart. I talk with my heart. I look with my heart. And I live with my heart.”