There has been a seismic shift in the bar, restaurant, fashion, skincare, gallery, art, photography and music scenes as the Tricolore turns up in Hong Kong’s oddest culs-de-sac. The wave of Gallic citizens residing on our shores, according to the French Consulate, stands at around 20,000, while government figures show the French to have the strongest growth rate among any expatriate population, with numbers increasing by five percent nearly every year.
Among the 800 French companies currently operating in Hong Kong – generating about HK$110 billion revenue annually and employing around 33,000 workers (French Consulate estimates) – is Studio Harcourt in the heart of Central. For more than 80 years the photo studio in Paris has created stunning visuals of movie stars, power brokers and captains of industry. The ensuing pages reflect what the house does with such panache, as it captures some of the most notable French residents in our city exclusively for Prestige. We had a little tête-à-tête with les mesdames et messieurs over champagne between shots, naturally.
Elisa Ghigo Barthélémy, General Manager, Studio Harcourt Hong Kong
Parisian Elisa Ghigo Barthélémy is the woman in charge of setting up the Hong Kong branch of Studio Harcourt, the iconic French studio with its signature style of portraiture: most often in black and white, with background strobes of light, distinguishing shadows, a gloss finish and the stamp and seal of approval that comes from the head office in Paris. It’s all so nostalgic and, dare I say, old-fashioned. Perhaps not an easy sell in Asia.
“There is a quality and a standard that Studio Harcourt represents that every French person knows about,” Barthélémy says as we traverse a corridor lined with large frames of Sophie Marceau, Cate Blanchett and Catherine Deneuve. “It has been a pleasure to introduce this style of portraiture to a new audience in Hong Kong. For the unfamiliar, it’s a glamorous inauguration and for those in the know, it’s an affirmation. When you get your picture, you look like a movie star, we capture your best attributes and frame it for you for posterity in exactly the same style it has been done for decades.”
In the Instagram era of instant gratification, do Hongkongers have the patience to sit for a session that can last an hour or two? “Yes, of course. What this city has and perhaps others don’t is a can-do spirit and an enthusiasm for ideas. We explain to our customers this rich history of Studio Harcourt, how it began in 1934, the method, the magic of it, how only the most important people had the means and privilege to be shot by this studio.”
So what’s causing the French exodus to Hong Kong and how did Barthélémy become a part of it? “Everything is possible in Hong Kong. And it happens very quickly. The lifestyle is nice, the landscape is nice, we can travel easily. But you are in Hong Kong because of the energy. For business, it’s really the place to be.”
And finally, it has to be asked: do people really look better in black and white? “Ah, oui. Always.”
Julien Loic Garin, CEO, Le French May
Picasso brought Julien Loic Garin to town in 2011. Le French May was preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary and something big had to be done, so Garin landed with the largest Picasso exhibition ever held in Hong Kong.
“Organising the Picasso exhibition is one of my strongest memories because I had just arrived, I knew nothing about Hong Kong, about Asia, I didn’t know how things worked here and yet this entire thing was organised in six months,” he reflects. “Everything was very exciting, very rushed, everything seemed impossible, yet we managed to make it possible. So I think this is what is amazing about Hong Kong.”
An annual staple in the social and artistic calendar, Le French May has been embraced by the local community. “I must say that we are very, very happy because Le French May started 24 years ago as a little event promoting French culture and activities and now it offers 120 events and has around one million visitors.
“But I do miss Parisian architecture and the old buildings. Everything else we can import from France: great wine, cheese, couture, art, artists, performers. We can’t bring in landmarks, obviously,” he says. “But then we managed to bring the Eiffel Tower … to Macau.” The entire French crew laughs.
Bertrand and Mathilde Thomas, Founders, Caudalie
Having created cosmetic skincare line Caudalie in 1995, Bertrand and Mathilde Thomas moved from France to Hong Kong in 2015 to inculcate themselves with their once-foreign audience. “We thought that we could never really grow our business in Asia without living in Asia,” says Bertrand. “We wanted to understand the culture, the geography, the people. We think it’s the best gift we gave to our kids. And to ourselves, to discover a new part of the world.
“What we love about Hong Kong is the freedom that comes from the safety. People are honest. Taxi drivers are honest, because business people are honest, because nobody is trying to do something to you that you don’t want. The rest of the world is not like this, my friend.”
“The French are mean – but they have a sense of humour,” Mathilde adds.
What’s attracting the youth of France to the shores of Hong Kong? “France is still in the 20th century. Hong Kong is definitely the 21st century and this gives one an exhilarating feeling. When you arrive here, the sky’s the limit! You can create your own company in less than one day, you can meet people, there’s a lot of energy, synergy, dynamism. It’s the opposite of the feeling that we have right now in France. That’s also the problem for France – anybody dynamic in France right now, they want to go abroad, to Asia, to Hong Kong,” says Bertrand.
Edouard Malingue, Owner, Edouard Malingue Gallery
A sojourn in Hong Kong turned into a life- changing move for Edouard Malingue, who came to Hong Kong in August 2009 and opened his eponymous gallery in September 2010. “I needed a vision for the next 30 years,” Malingue says of his sudden move, “and I thought that the adventure nowadays is in Asia rather than in the West. And the second aspect that led me to choose Hong Kong was the economic freedom that you find in the city, which you can’t find anywhere else.”
It hasn’t all been wine and rosé – there were of course teething troubles. “In the beginning, visiting galleries, enjoying art just for the sake of it, that was still in its early stages here, not ingrained in the local culture, but it’s changing very rapidly. A lot of galleries have opened since 2009, and the M+ museum when it opens should encourage people to spend more time looking at art.”
Laurent de Rougemont, Managing Director, Bluebell Hong Kong, and Sophie de Rougemont, CEO, Carven
Two fresh graduates took a chance and moved to Hong Kong in 1998, which became for them an island of opportunity. “These opportunities did not exist in France, where young people had to stay in the same job for years until they could be assigned an interesting task,” says Laurent de Rougemont of his move here with his now-wife Sophie, “so we decided to take our chance and come here.”
Both now occupy senior positions – Sophie with Carven and Laurent with parent company Bluebell, which was founded by Sophie’s grandparents – and what once might have seemed like a quixotic journey to a new land has transformed into them finding a new home base. “Hong Kong is a very vibrant city, there’s a special energy that you cannot sense anywhere else in the world. We arrived in this city 20 years ago without really knowing how long we would be staying. Today we can definitely say that this is our home.”