TALK ABOUT PERFECT TIMING. When Clare Waight Keller, creative director of Chloé, joined the company almost two years ago, the maison was in the midst of organising a retrospective celebrating its 60th anniversary, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. “I literally came in and there was a room full of vintage…bits of paper, magazine cuttings,” says Waight Keller of her first encounter with the archives. “And it was very fascinating to see all of that. People kept donating things and we were discovering new things on a monthly basis, which was quite exciting.”
Although she was already planning to rummage through Chloé’s back pages before designing her first collection, this cram session allowed her to uncover a different side of the brand. As she explains, “It was fascinating because you really had an idea of what Chloé was, but when you actually go through the archives, particularly the older stuff – the things from the ’60s and ’70s – it wasn’t what I imagined at all. What stood out more than anything were the surrealism, the sense of humour and the playfulness.”
A relatively young house when compared with other Parisian labels, Chloé was founded by an Egyptian émigrée to Paris, Gaby Aghion, who revolutionised the fashion world by creating the first prêt-aporter brand without a prestigious haute couture collection to complement it. Chloé has maintained this youthful attitude throughout its history, something that Waight Keller always keeps in mind.
“Everybody has an idea of what Chloé is – very feminine, light and I guess not girly, but there’s something that feels very accessible about it in terms of the way you wear the clothes, the way you put your wardrobe together, and it was something that I wanted to capture,” she says, well aware that she faces the daunting task of propelling the brand forward after a decade of relative turmoil.
When Stella McCartney and then Phoebe Philo helmed Chloé in the late ’90s and early noughties, it quickly became one of the hottest labels around – who can forget runaway hits such as the Paddington bag and those ubiquitous sunglasses with rhinestone hearts? But after the two Brits each parted ways with the Richemontowned label, a slew of creative directors hired to take their mantle proved not to be the right choices, making Waight Keller’s job a daunting one.
As she admits, the focus in the last few years has been on “the lot of designers coming through the house, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m in a new decade now and it needs to feel really right for now.’ I believe that the whole Chloé spirit is a little bit more international – it’s the mix between French and British style, the fact that we wear such a variety in our wardrobe these days – it’s not like we really have a spring wardrobe or a winter wardrobe anymore.”
The three main collections Waight Keller has shown so far have all been well received by retailers and critics alike – it almost feels that after so many failed attempts to set Chloé on the right path, the fashion world is sincerely rallying behind Waight Keller, and for once doesn’t want her to become yet another victim of the designer musical chairs we’ve been accustomed to.
To show her commitment to her new role, Waight Keller has also made a decision that deeply affected her personal life. Unlike creative directors who often commute on a weekly or bimonthly basis to Paris or Milan from their bases (think Phoebe Philo, who helms Céline from London, or Hedi Slimane, who designs that quintessentially Parisian brand, Saint Laurent, in Los Angeles), Waight Keller moved to the French capital – husband and children in tow (her third child was actually born there). “I think if you come and commute, you don’t really have this sense of the city because it’s always just a work thing, like going on a business trip, and so living here, you almost feel you own it in a way. You feel more invested in it because you’re so immersed in the whole culture. I think it’s a great part of what makes the process so promising,” says Waight Keller, who finds Parisian women “very proper in their style – they’re certainly not slaves to fashion”.
The close bond between Chloé and women is something Waight Keller can’t emphasise enough throughout our conversation. In spite of a short yet successful period when Karl Lagerfeld headed the design team, Chloé will always be associated with women – from its legendary founder to McCartney and Philo – an aspect of the house that apparently is also reflected in Waight Keller’s studio. As she describes her workplace, “You feel it immediately when you walk into the building: the place is overrun by women. Everybody who’s there identifies with the Chloé style and is there because they love the brand, and so you feel that there’s a sorority feeling to it. Being a woman who works in this industry today, I think that it’s really nice to suddenly have a brand that encompasses all of that as well – it’s great.”
Waight Keller, however, doesn’t think only of London girls on the go or chic Parisiennes as the typical Chloé customers. “I like to look at women from all over the world, I think to only have one point of view and to only think about people in Paris or in London is not so relevant today,” she says about her global and commercially savvy approach to design, which she honed during her days working at Gucci under Tom Ford, who in the ’90s changed the role of the designer into a jack-of-all-trades who’s involved in everything, from the architecture of the boutiques to the paper used for the shopping bags.
“It’s very much the way that I approach Chloé now,” says Waight Keller. “At Gucci, Tom would say, ‘What’s the shoe she’s wearing with that dress? Or that bag?’ You think of all the components of creating a look – and the attitude. The attitude was very critical in how he put together that Gucci girl and I think that’s the same thing for me here – the attitude of Chloé is completely different but it’s critical in capturing the spirit of the girl.”
The positive energy surrounding Waight Keller right now makes her feel energised about her new job. She’s very pragmatic about it and has a clear vision of Chloé’s place in a woman’s closet: “You can have T-shirts and denim and evening dresses and capes and leather – they’re all part of the Chloé spirit – whereas other houses are known for one thing or another or a certain way of tailoring. I think that’s our appeal: having a broad collection is a clever way to approach a brand in a way because actually, women are very individual in the way they select things.” In other words, real clothes for real women designed by a woman and her – undoubtedly chic – sorority of real girls.