«I figured that going back to school at IFA Paris in Shanghai would open me more doors!»
Born in Lebanon while being Italian, French and Chinese by heart, IFA Paris graduate (MBA Fashion Business) Corinne Tehini, a fashion designer who went through almost all the fashion professions before being named Senior Research & Development of Arket in Shanghai, a new brand of the H&M group, she has taken up residence in China. «My real home» she says.
Michel Temman: Where are you from? What is your background? What is your life before and after IFA Paris?
Corinne Tehini: I am often asked the question at H&M! I am often taken for an Italian but I am Lebanese. My name is French but I am Lebanese. I was born in Beirut, during the war in 1980. That’s where I went to school, in a French Catholic school, very catholic, very strict. Due to the war, I lived part of my childhood in Cyprus – and in the end I have spent almost 15 years in Lebanon, interspersed with Cyprus. Then I lived again in Lebanon and joined Esmod Beirut before flying to China where I have been living and working for 14 years. Because where I am best, is still in China!
M.T .: What brought you to China then?
Corinne Tehini: Like IFA Paris, Esmod Beirut was helping students to find a job. During the Beirut Fashion Week, I was offered a position in China, in Guanghzou (Canton, editor’s note), as a chief designer. I took the interview and got the job, in a Syrian-Canadian group led by 3 brothers to whom the father had entrusted a knitwear factory established in Hong Kong. This company was looking for a designer who could produce collections with its suppliers – the agents responsible for brands like Walmart, Motivi or Rocco Barocco. It was a stylist-product developer position. They had little budget but I had a good contract, an expatriate status and an apartment. My father – a real Lebanese dad – followed me to Guanghzou: he wanted to see the place, to make sure everything was fine. I started working directly with stylists and merchandisers and immediately started to study Chinese. Especially as around me, the whole team – 12 people at first and then 50 after 5 years – spoke only Cantonese. A cultural shock and a real challenge. I stayed despite everything.
M.T.: Then, how did you land in Shanghai?
Corinne Tehini: By spending a weekend in Shanghai! I wanted to discover the city and immediately loved it. I also came across the IFA Paris Facebook page highlighting a study program in Shanghai and Florence. I applied. I resigned from my job in Guanghzou and joined IFA Paris in 2009 in Shanghai.
M.T.: You already had professional activity in China, as a chief stylist. Why did you want to study again?
Corinne Tehini: Because I needed it. I thought that going back and strengthening my studies would open doors to me. It also seemed to me that it was time to go to Shanghai to see what was going on there. I was lucky because a little later, I met there the Italian man who became my husband!
M.T.: Which IFA Paris program did you join then?
Corinne Tehini: The MBA Fashion Business & Retail – the MBA has since expanded with modules on luxury management. The teaching was then provided by Professor Adile Cretallaz. Luxury in all its dimensions. It was great to come back to this academic world, to meet students from all walks of life – some were already involved in fashion. There were lots of projects to present and I loved it. We also learned to speak, to express ourselves, as part of the job. I was less interested in design classes and was mainly interested in theoretical ones: market entry, fashion business, luxury or customer relations. Then the MBA allowed me to study in Florence – within the IFA Paris – Polimoda cursus, where I reinforced my knowledge of the history of fashion. A strong experience in every way.
M.T.: You then came back to Shanghai…
Corinne Tehini: I joined a Chinese company, Asobio (Cobest group), as chief stylist. Colleagues were coming from Zara and Mango. I was interested in the technique: the structure of the materials, the suppliers… Then I joined a French group, Network Sourcing – the agents of the Beaumanoir Group. We worked with Sandro, Mage, Morgan and fast fashion brands… A little later, in 2013, I was hired by H&M.
M.T.: It wasn’t only a giant step then: you joined a giant of the fast fashion business and moreover in China!
Corinne Tehini: H&M, with its’ 4000 stores worldwide – and it’s changing every day – is pretty big indeed. Here, in the China Region offices, we are 500 and in Shanghai, we occupy over 5 floors.
M.T.: What was your role at H&M then?
Corinne Tehini: I was a trend-developer. I received trends from headquarters and developed them. I created buyable and viable materials and the design needed to be coherent with the right mills. Events and exhibitions were also organized internally. But after 6 years, let’s say that I needed a change. A position was then available at Arket. The group was looking for a profile with experience in style, fashion and trends, with a technical background. It suited me and so I jumped in!
M.T.: What is your mission now at Arket?
Corinne Tehini: I am a Senior in Research & Development. I have 2 very involved and high-level managers under my authority and we work with the purchasing office. At Arket – a new entity with just 18 stores around the world -, we are in touch with other brands within the group. Coming from H&M, I provide support to suppliers. Arket is a beautiful lifestyle brand, for Women, Men, Children and Home, eco-responsible and transparent. Online customers have full transparency on sustainable and mills that produced fabrics and garments.
M.T.: Exactly, there is a lot of talk about this eco-responsible conscience in the fashion industry – a highly polluting industry… A fashionable trend also?
Corinne Tehini: That’s the future anyway. The subject is now taught in fashion schools – IFA Paris does it and that’s good. It is also necessary that the subject wins the universities, of engineering for example. The knowledge is huge. China is also ahead. When we talked a lot in Europe about recycled cotton or polyester, China was already doing it. China is the market that is probably trying the hardest to recycle materials. The government has adopted restrictions and countless brands and companies apply them.
M.T.: You are an expert in trends, how do you see changing the fashion market in Shanghai?
Corinne Tehini: I am less in retail than in the production and I am especially witnessing evolutions on the prices or new restrictions in the factories. I see that the small brands hold good in Shanghai thanks to an easy and stylish clientele who wants to dress with a certain exclusivity. That said, the mass market continues to peak. And what we are witnessing is the explosion, still, of online. Even at H&M, the online area is so successful and especially on Tmall (platform of official shops, reserved for brands, which is accessed via Taobao, editor’s note). H&M opened on Tmall nearly a year ago and the result is exponential.
M.T.: The little girl born in Beirut did not suspect, as a child, that she would act, later, for the destiny of a big international fashion group in China!
Corinne Tehini: I’m talking about fashion in China, mass market, but I owe you a confidence: at the beginning of my story, I did not want to work in fashion. My dream was to be an architect and an urban designer. I passed the contest at the University of Beirut and was accepted. But at the time, these studies were so expensive and I turned away. I finally applied for a fashion school! Sometimes we do not do what we want and life takes us on another path. And why not? Fate led me to Guanghzou, in this rather industrial and fairly old-fashioned South China, and this country made me. This is where my career and personality have evolved the most. That’s where I grew up and matured. I live and work today in Shanghai and feel so good. I speak 5 languages, including Chinese and here I am, married with an Italian! I went back to Lebanon several times and I felt a stranger in my own country… My real home is China! It’s Shanghai, more than any other place!
For more information on the program Corinne graduated from, please see: MBA in Fashion Business