Bedtime Stories

Jean-François Birac, the fifth generation head of French family business Blanc des Vosges, chronicles its progression from bed linens to home lifestyle products.

Today, it is rare for someone to have only one job throughout his career. Jean-François Birac originally planned to work in finance. Although he grew up playing near the family’s factory where cotton was woven, dyed and sewed into luxurious linens, he eventually got his MBA from the UK’s University of Bradford after majoring in business at EM Strasbourg. Upon graduation, his father offered him an internship at Blanc des Vosges, in the north eastern French town of Gérardmer. The experience ignited his passion for textiles, and he took over as its CEO in 1998.

“I never had another job,” says Birac with a grin. In Hong Kong last month to oversee the launch of Blanc des Vosges’ fall/winter collection at Sogo Causeway Bay’s recently renovated home department, he explains his company is best known for its super soft, high-thread count jacquard patterns. “It is what sets us apart,” he says, explaining the process behind the jacquard involves a complicated programme to weave the various tones and textures into a subtle brocade pattern.

“The cotton industry didn’t exist in 1843,” he notes. “My great, great, great uncle François Hans opened the first factory for weaving in Vosges. Initially, we sold our textiles by the metre, so that people could make their own linens at home. “We didn’t offer ready made products until the 1960s. And about 10 years ago, we launched bath accessories, home fragrances, throws, table runners and bathrobes. We are already known throughout France and much of Europe for our linens. We want to be known now as a lifestyle brand.”

Blanc des Vosges employs 130 people in its Gérardmer factory, with 90 of those specialising as seamstresses, cutters, stylists and embroiderers. Birac oversees an in-house design team of five, putting out two collections per year. For every collection, there are about 40 designs. Ranging from the quiet and understated to the bold and striking, the product’s quality can be seen in the flawless hand stitched ladder hems (jour échelle) using machines that date back more than a century. Bed linens are available in soft combed cotton of 200 thread count percale, 280 thread count sateen and 460 thread count jacquard.

Duvet covers come with different, yet complementary patterns on either side, to add visual interest when they are folded over. “This was my idea,” he says proudly. “Before I took over, we didn’t have a co-ordinated design to our linens.” Designs are now available with thoughtfully matched pillow cases, fitted and flat sheets, shams, towels and even kimono bathrobes.

“Since we own and control our factory’s production, we can customise our products,” he explains. “We had one client who wanted to have linens for five round beds on his boat. We were able to customise fitted sheets to their exact dimensions. We offer a custom embroidery service, popular with customers who want their initials monogrammed onto linens or towels. About 25 per cent of our turnover is in custom designs.”

Currently available in 25 countries, including Lebanon, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, Birac intends to open 50 Blanc des Vosges shops in Mainland China over the next five years. As for the sixth generation? “Well, I’m only 48 years old,” he says with a chuckle. “My daughter seems to be more interested in our products than my son right now.”