The long interview : Stéphane Janin, Director of Advanced Design Studio Europe at GAC (China)

This is a behind-the-scenes look at an advanced design office based in Italy, the European subsidiary of Chinese carmaker GAC, and run by a French designer. From Milan to Guangzhou, Stéphane Janin, formerly in charge of concept cars at Renault, guides us through a magical place with surprising methods.

Nearly a quarter of a century of design at Renault, Nissan, Infiniti… Here’s the expert eye of designer Stéphane Janin at the service of an advanced design studio in Milan, for a Chinese manufacturer.

But before we open the microphone, let’s start by explaining who this Chinese manufacturer is. GAC (Guangzhou Automobile Group) was founded in June 1997. It is headquartered in Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou, China. It is a carmaker listed on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges. Its main activities cover six sectors: R&D, vehicles, parts and components, commercial services, financial services and mobility services.

The aim of the group, which currently employs 113,000 people, is to transform itself into a technology-based company with a global reach. The design teams are grouped together in studios in Guangzhou (head office), Shanghai, Los Angeles and Milan (the first centre in Europe). The latter is designed to consolidate the Group’s design tradition. This innovative space is located in Milan’s Via Tortona design district.

INTERVIEW STÉPHANE JANIN

For even better reading comfort, download the bilingual PDF of the interview below, with an extra bonus:

In 2022, after 24 years with Renault and then the Renault-Nissan Alliance, you decide to leave for other horizons. Was this due to weariness?
“I didn’t really intend to leave. The Covid period turned our world upside down quite a bit. At the time, my family and I were in Japan (Infiniti NDA) and we were happy there. When we came back to Paris to return to Renault, we felt that the brand was at the end of a cycle. Already, when Patrick le Quément left (2009 NDA), I asked myself the question: am I leaving too? I stayed because Laurens van den Acker was young and had just come from Mazda. So I had to prove my skills again by starting from scratch. Then Luca de Meo arrived with Gilles Vidal, and I didn’t want to start all over again with a manufacturer that I knew so well. The people were lovely, and it would probably have worked, but I just didn’t feel like it.

Stéphane Janin with, on the left, Laurens van den Acker and Antony Lo, and on the right, Patrick le Quément.

GAC is virtually unknown to the general public in France. What about you at the time?
“I didn’t know GAC, but I was talking to people in the business and thinking about leaving. And then I was told that I should contact Zhang Fan – the head of design for the GAC group – who was looking to recruit. Since 2018, GAC had invested in an advanced design studio in Los Angeles, run by Pontus Fontaeus, whom I knew from his work at Renault design.”

The team at GAC’s advanced design studio in Los Angeles. They were responsible for the interior design of the ERA concept car. From left to right Pontus Fontaeus, Zhang Fan, Tae Ho Kim and Dieudonné Kabongo.

So, after the USA, GAC is targeting Europe with another advanced design centre?
“It’s logical that Chinese manufacturers want to go international. GAC hasn’t yet decided on a strategy for Europe, but they have decided that if they want to sell cars here, it would be good to have a European design studio. After all, it’s a way of getting designers with experience other than those from Guangzhou (where GAC’s head office is located in China, NDA), without having to move to China. Zhang Fan was well aware of this because he lived in Europe while working for Mercedes.

Zhang Fan, centre, with Gorden Wagener, Mercedes Group Design Director, on the right.

How did the choice of Italy and Milan come about? Why not Turin, with its dense network of subcontractors?
“In fact, the management was quite keen on Munich. There’s Nio there, among others, and quite a few subcontractors too. And for management, Munich is BMW, and Ingolstadt is not far away. What’s more, China and Germany have fairly strong trade links, and that reassured them.

But you may not like German food, so…
“…my wife is German! But she didn’t want to go back to Germany. And then they asked me where I wanted to go. Turin was an option. There’s Changan on the Chinese side, with Bertrand Bach in charge of design, with whom I went to school. In Turin, there’s also the whole Italian Stellantis galaxy, and a lot of subcontracting. But I wanted something different. C