Tang'roulou's atelier is a small and colorful workshop at the intersection of two narrow alleys in Beijing where you can still feel the charm of the old city. It's the kind of place where one is more likely to see trucks loaded with cabbage than brand new SUVs, where little emperors still run around in their open-crotch pants and old fellows gather on the corners to play Chinese chess. Imbued in hutong culture and far from any design superstructure, Amelie Peraud and Pierre-Yves Babin draw inspiration from this rich environment to create unique garments and accessories for kids. We stopped by their workshop recently to learn more about the backstory behind Tang'roulou.
How did you come up with the idea of Tang'roulou and the first line of clothing for kids?
Peraud: I was in Beijing for more than two years and I had many friends in France who were pregnant at the time. I wanted to give them baby items as presents, but I wanted to offer something quite personal and that could represent my life here in China. So this is how I started designing blankets, the ones you can find in the hutongs. My friends were quite impressed by my first crafts and they encouraged me to do something more. I started with a small shop between the Drum and Bell towers, and then in 2007 I met Pierre, who was quite interested in the project and we started working together. We don't have any background in design, I was working in publishing and advertising and I didn't know anything about fabric design but I think there's a lot of crossover between different fields. Anyway, if you have passion and ideas, then you can always find professional people that can help you to improve the technical aspects.
Babin: It's not like becoming an engineer, you don't have to study. I had been studying management and then I opened my own little art gallery with a friend in France. I was exhibiting some Chinese artists for a couple of years and I was often coming to China, selecting artists and then going back to France. We were not making any real money so we decided to stop this, but I wanted to come back to China. I had a chance to help Amelie with Tang'roulou's logo design and that's how we started working together.
The name Tang'roulou literally means sugar-coated hawthorn, a traditional snack which is sort of an icon of old Beijing. How is your design linked to the city's past?
Babin: This is hutong-inspired design, we are inspired by yesterday's China: old street architecture, handmade clothing—and by yesterday's China I mean the 1980s and 1990s, because cities like Beijing started to get bigger with high towers and skyscrapers around 1995, maybe. Rather than doing research we're inspired by what we see every day—living in the alleys, we see kids wearing handmade clothing made by their grandmothers and this gives us a lot of ideas.
Peraud: It's more about a traditional lifestyle, here in the hutongs it feels more like a village and it's still quite genuine and authentic, like they put outside the blankets to let them dry, and all these little details.
In China it is not so easy to find such attention to patterns and details, and good handwork can be rare. How does your production work?
Babin: All of our products are limited editions. For each design we produce only 20-80 pieces and then usually change the color or slightly modify the design. We do not design fabrics on our own but we source them from local markets. So sometimes we buy about 20 meters of one single fabric which limits the amount of pieces we can do. We care a lot about patterns—or I should say we're a bit obsessive about that—and we pay huge attention to detail—we cut the pieces one by one in order to not cut the patterns, this is something quite unusual here, especially for childrens' garments.
Peraud: I feel it's more fun to work like that because if we produced massive quantities, then we couldn't have so many designs. We do the samples here in our house and then we send it to our handmade expert and tailors. When we need more than 20 pieces, then we collaborate with other workshops in Beijing. Our handmade expert is a lady who learned from her mother. She was helping her since she was 16 and she's really good at it. Now she's 48 and before working with us she was doing buttons for qipao, and other elaborate crafts.
Tang'roulou's selection of clothing and accessories including their iconic Niao Niao Bao foldable mattresses, magnetic hutong brick toys and Baobao Angel's Nest blankets can be found online at their Taobao shop. Additional products are also available at their Sanlitun store in Beijing, along with other local retailers and at L'Atelier Mandarine in Shanghai. Images courtesy of Tang'roulou with additional photography by Alessandro De Toni