Chloé’s designer visits the archives to explore the label’s long-standing love affair with the ultra-feminine blouse, shown off by some of the clients who inspire her. Photographs by Lorenzo Agius
Sitting calmly going through look-book images with her French PR in an east London studio, Clare Waight Keller is filling up time having turned up half an hour early for her por-trait sitting. She is perhaps one of fashion’s most unassuming creative directors, batting off too much hair and make-up styling as she steps up to be photographed wearing her favourite oversize blouse from her spring 2015 Chloé collection with a denim skirt (also Chloé).
Waight Keller, 45, who has twin daughters and a son with her husband, Philip Keller, an architect, has an enviably relaxed no-fuss air about her. This resoundingly low-key attitude rings through her work. Having led the Parisian house for four years, she has been quietly putting her touch on the label to the point where it is now having what fashion types like to call ‘a moment’.
‘I think when you come in [to a company] you feel like you can cope with a lot, and the reality is that you can, but you sort of helicopter over a lot of things because you are just absorbing it all,’ she says of her Parisian baptism, which came after a six-year stint as the creative director of Pringle of Scotland, before which she was a senior designer in Tom Ford’s Gucci atelier alongside Christopher Bailey and Francisco Costa (now the creative director of Calvin Klein – Ford clearly knows how to spot talent).
‘When you start you’re always try-ing to mesh yourself into the whole brand and culture,’ she says. ‘Moving to France was a big part of the change for me – it took a while to get into the cultural side of life. I brought my family as well, so there was a lot of just setting things up.’
Waight Keller is following in illustrious foot-steps: previous incumbents of her seat include Karl Lagerfeld (1963-78 and 1992-97), Stella McCartney (1997-2001) and Phoebe Philo (2001-2006). ‘I’ve really tried to evolve Chloé from what it was before and what it has been known for over the past 15 years and try to bring it into this era,’ she says. ‘Every designer at Chloé has really worked in their moment; it’s about a spirit and capturing a moment in time, so for me it’s important to have my take on what I think fashion is about today, and what’s relevant.’
This translates into ‘the mix of the very feminine with the boyish, or let’s say street, feeling. I like the mix and the tension of those two things, which I think creates something quite modern.’ Her a/w15 collection includes elegantly louche 1970s-inspired maxi dresses tempered with military-tinged coats and lace-edged slip dresses worn with chunky black ankle boots (albeit fastened with thick velvet ribbon). The show’s soundtrack was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and there was more than a whiff of Stevie Nicks about it (setting the tone for fashion’s current affection for all things 1970s). ‘I grew up in that era,’ Waight Keller says, ‘and I think it’s something that still has a massive influ-ence in the brand; it has always dipped into that spirit.’
Mixed in with this, Waight Keller says, she was influenced ‘a lot by the Bloomsbury set. I wanted to keep an urbane feel to the collection and also reflect that the set was a mix of men and women. The more structured, military pieces refer-enced masculine tailoring, then all the flute dresses with botanical prints were influenced by that era.’
With a label such as Chloé, which was established by Gaby Aghion (the woman said to have invented the phrase prêt-à-porter) in 1952, there is always a significant sartorial back story, but it takes a confident designer to be able to embrace an archive and run with it in their own way. Waight Keller laughs and explains, ‘I literally arrived as we were doing a 60th anniversary retrospective exhibition, so I had a massive immersion into the archive. We have an extensive amount of Karl’s sketches from his era.’
What surprised her, though, were the images by ‘more avant-garde photographers such as Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton’. She says, ‘There is this perception of Chloé being overly girly – not sexy, not a confident woman – but then seeing these images you get another perspective, of quite a powerful look and of strong women, which was actually very much Gaby herself.’
As she riffled through the archives of Chloé, one thing stood out as the archetypal piece: the blouse. ‘It was the first piece that Gaby felt expressed a sense of freedom in an everyday wardrobe,’ Waight Keller notes. ‘She said that men have it so easy, they just put on three pieces every day, a shirt, a trouser and a jacket. She wanted that same ease for women. The blouse was something she felt could be that everyday staple. It was always her starting point with the collections.’
The silky, easy, flattering voluminous blouse has become a signature piece. This season Waight Keller offers black and cream silk versions with elegant silk-covered buttons and trailing neck ties, which at the same time look perfectly modern and charmingly retro. They are the ideal classic pieces. To test this theory Waight Keller has brought a selection of archive blouses from the Lagerfeld 1970s era as well as new-season Chloé for us to shoot as worn by her current muses – all women who, like her, have that natural confidence with a slightly bohemian air.
‘Lace has always featured quite heavily, and crêpe de Chine is the iconic fabric we use,’ Waight Keller says as she flicks through the pieces selected for the shoot today. The three women she has chosen to wear them epitomise the sort of ‘raw-ness’ that she believes the Chloé woman has. ‘Someone who is very immediate, incredibly natural, free-spirited and confident.’ Which all sounds like an appealing proposition. Rather like Waight Keller herself.
Valeria Napoleone, art collector
Clare and i met about 15 years ago; we’ve always connected and kept in touch. i love fashion and art, so we have a good exchange of ideas. i’m a very practical person, but i love to be well put-together – though not in a stiff way, i want comfort and freedom. i never want to feel self-conscious. i’m not a fashion victim – i have things in my wardrobe that have been there for more than 20 years that i adore. that’s a difficult thing to do with a fashion brand, but Clare is building loyalty with her customers, her pieces have that longevity. i think the other important thing about her work is that she’s not feeding the obsession with youth. she is really nurturing a woman no matter what her age; her style is for women in their 20s and in their 70s, which i really appreciate.
Cecilia Chancellor, model
My style’s relaxed, borderline scruffy, which can work if the clothes are great quality. Skinny trousers, jeans, shirts, scarves, boots and sandals are my staples, but I might go for some silk and sparkle and a heel to dress up. A blouse can express many moods. It can be quite prim and proper, or relaxed and rock’n’roll. This gold blouse felt light and luxurious, simple and understated in its cut and a great length. It’s from the 1970s but not in the least bit dated-looking in my view – boyish and feminine at the same time, which I’m very at home in. I’d love to wear it out to parties.
Jemima Jones, cook
Day to day I wear what I’m comfortable in. I’m on my feet doing long hours cooking, so it’s usually jeans, Converse and a baggy T-shirt. But I love getting dressed up in long, floaty dresses. I think of myself as a bit bohemian and having that 1970s mentality of not really caring too much even though it might have cost a lot. I’ve just moved into a new house in north London and it’s exciting having big cupboards and being able to put all my dresses on rails, whereas before I was living in New York in a shoe box. It’s a joy to look at everything – like shopping in your own clothes. tart-london