Interview : Clare Waight Keller and the poetry of Chloé
Since taking over as creative director in 2011, Clare Waight Keller, inspired by her passion for music and her British roots, has brought out a free and boyish side in the brand’s DNA, adding a hint of spice to its subtle, timeless elegance.
Numéro: There’s something in your CV that intrigues me. Why did you choose to specialize in knitwear at fashion school? It doesn’t seem the most glamorous type of clothing...
Clare Waight Keller: When I was 16 I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer. But first of all I took a general art-design study course. Afterwards I was still sure that fashion was for me, so I took a bachelor’s degree in general fashion design, and then did my master’s degree in knitwear, because it was an area that I’d known since I was really young. I used to knit myself, and I liked the technical aspect to it, and also the fact that you create everything from one thread. It was a really interesting course at the Royal College of Art, and there were only six of us. John Galliano came for a few days, Margherita Missoni, Yohji... So it was amazing to be there. It made me very passionate about it.
What drew you to fashion in the first place?
Was it the way your mother dressed? My mother was very much on the sweet, feminine side of dressing. She wore a lot of florals, and always skirts and dresses. I never saw her in trousers until I was 20! But I guess I was hugely influenced by what she taught me. She liked to show me how to do things. And since she’s a real perfectionist, I’d always want to do it right. She liked the idea that I had an eye and a creative mind, and she would put a bit of rigour behind it.
Did she knit?
Yes, she taught me everything: knitting, embroidery, pattern cutting, sewing. Her mother had taught her. So even though she was an amateur, when I would sew something and say “That’s okay,” she would take it all out and say, “No, do it again!” She was a total perfectionist.
You could say that at that time, Tom Ford and Hedi Slimane pretty much invented fashion marketing as we know it today. Coming from a design background, weren’t you disappointed that marketing took up so much space?
Actually no, because having worked in America, which was very marketing-driven, it was interesting to see the two come together. Because whatTomdidwastoputalotofenergy behind the total image, so that in every single aspect it was crystal clear what the vision was. I think that’s the reason why Tom was such an important figure. Everyone knew Gucci at that time. He shaped an identity that was understandable from a high to a mass level. It was ground-breaking, and really is the model for how a lot of brands have evolved now. He started that whole movement of design houses becoming brands.
And you yourself put some of those lessons into practice when you went to work for Pringle of Scotland.
Yes. That experience was really interesting because the company was so small. And so different in every way. It was a heritage brand, and cashmere knitwear is not really sexy so you have to put a story around it. The Scottish roots were really important. Scotland is a very creative place: there are amazing artists and performers. It led me to the thought that someone like Tilda Swinton and other such artists could really help to galvanize a new vision of what Scotland represented in terms of creativity. And their influence through a simple product, a cashmere jumper, could help people look at the brand in a completely new way. From that I built ready-to-wear collections around it and I really put all the force behind the knitwear and the seasonal collections, things that fitted the heritage of the brand. It was a very hands-on business. I was visiting the factories, liaising with art directors, working on the store design, the advertising, everything. It was quite time consuming because the team was so small. It was a time of great expansion for the brand but it was also a lot of work, but in a good way, because I really learnt about the roots of the business. You realize cause and effect, the complete parallel between design and business. Also the flow of deliveries. You become aware, and it’s really great to feel that you’re becoming intelligent about what you’re doing, because you know so many facets in detail.
What was your perception of Chloé before you joined the brand as creative director?
It’s a brand that I always loved. I collected a lot of vintage blouses, and I knew of it because of the big transition when they hired Stella [McCartney] and Phoebe [Philo]. So I was quite conscious of what the brand stood for. And I knew that I had a natural inclination towards the brand because I always liked quite feminine things. But I didn’t know exactly what to expect of a Parisian house. Working in Paris house is very different from what I thought. Of course there’s a very high level of workmanship and a heritage about the way of working. But when I got there, I started to ask the team what it meant to be a Parisian brand and they said, “We don’t know exactly, because Paris only compares to Paris.” [Laughs.] It was extraordinary, because everywhere else people were very aware of what was going on during fashion week, but here noone would talk about it because Paris only compares to Paris! That’s really interesting, because you’re comparing yourself to one of the best cities in the world for fashion, with the highest level of craftsmanship. And that’s the right attitude to have, because here it’s another level of perfection.
In Paris Chloé is very different from other firms because it was never a couture house, but was founded as one of the first ready-to-wear brands.
For me, as a first step into Paris, it felt Iike the perfect place to be, because I like the fact that Chloé stands for something immediate. There’s no logo you have to like or not like, there’s no specific silhouette or aesthetics that you have to understand. Chloé is very democratic in the sense that it’s for every woman and is more about an attitude. And I like the slight timelessness of the brand, the fact that you can buy a blouse today and wear it five years from now. It’s very subtle, an allure, about the clothes becoming you rather than making a statement about something.
How exactly would you define the codes of the Chloé style?
When I started, I discovered that the most striking code of the house style, the one that people spontaneously talk about, is the movement, the flowing hair, the flowing dresses, this idea of effortlessness. This really is the core of the house, and when Gaby [Aghion] founded Chloé she talked about women in movement, women who were free, spontaneous, the kind of women she wanted to dress. Women who enjoyed life. And so the codes of Chloé are more subtle but still quite evident. You can easily describe iconic pieces such as a cape, a wedge shoe, a jumpsuit, shorts, a long flowing dress. If you see a girl in the street wearing denim shorts and a blouse and a camel cape, that’s very classical in description, but you would immediately recognize it as iconic of Chloé. It’s very different from working at a brand where the identity lies partly in the presence of the logo.
Don’t you think that your hugely successful bags, like the Drew or the Faye, kind of play that role, standing in for the logo?
In a way because the roundness of their shapes immediately brings you into the codes of Chloé. My approach to that was to bring a bit of sharpness into it, so you have hardware or a square flap, something that brings contrast and modernity. But ultimately the bags feel very linked to the attitude and the silhouette. They are designed alongside all the rest. Because for a woman, a bag is a treasured item. You carry it with you every day, your entire life is in it, if you lose it you get very upset. It’s a very important part of the overall message of a look.
With the exception of Karl Lagerfeld, Chloé has always been about women designing for women. Do you think this is part of the brand’s success?
I don’t know if it was truly on purpose. But there is definitely a synergy because the brand has a girl’s name and the founder very much believed in femininity and the power of femininity. It’s much more obvious for a woman to design for a woman of course − I know instinctively what I would or wouldn’t wear. So I would imagine that’s why women have been at the helm of Chloé, because the brand is based upon this understanding of femininity.
The image of Chloé is also very rooted in the bohemian 70s. Do you think this is an advantage or is it sometimes a handicap?
It can be so clichéd, Chloé and the 70s. But in the end the designers at Chloé have always referred back to the attitudes of the 70s, and I think that’s because they were so much more free. Whereas nowadays everyone is so worried about their personal image. In a bizarre way, I think women were perhaps more liberated then than they are now. So this attitude of freedom is very important at Chloé.
Getting the femininity right must also be tricky. You don’t want to be too sweet or girly.
Yes, the sweetness is a very delicate balance. It’s a part of the house that people love. They come to Chloé to find lacy dresses and that kind of thing. But at the same time it’s important to make it more modern, because we don’t want it to be too nostalgic. So my vision has been to bring a more British side to it, something more boyish and sporty: something that feels much more off in terms of the balance. So that brings a freshness. For summer 2016 we mixed lacy tops with track pants: worn together they create a contemporary, relaxed, chic and cool style, which is what I think Chloé is about. So it was less of the romanticism and 70s look, and something more rooted in street style.
As a Brit, you also bring a lot of cross-Channel music culture to this very Parisian brand.
Yes, the music influence in the U.K. is huge. Today it’s less obvious, but I was lucky enough to grow up in a time when music pretty much defined how people looked. In the 70s you had the disco people, the pop people, the folk people and also punks. I remember passing by so many punks on the street when I was nine or ten. And sometimes I was scared! They had this huge stiff hair and pins, and these were people standing at the bus stop! The New Romantic-era, then the goths, then the Manchester scene that turned into rave culture.... All of this was so rich in terms of design aesthetic. I remember dyeing T-shirts at home when I was more gothic. It looked quite normal at the time, but I couldn’t think of a movement today that has such an influence on people. And I think that’s a bit sad. If anything probably Asia has it with K-pop and J-pop. They’re rebelling against tradition and trying to create their own aesthetics.
Were you ever very much into one of these movements?
If anything, I was into goth. I was very much influenced by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Jesus and Mary Chain. I was going to a lot of gigs in the Midlands where that was all happening. Everyone was passionate about their makeup, about how to create the look. It’s interesting looking back, because it seemed perfectly normal at the time, but I’d never go to those lengths today. My parents would say, “Oh no, you can’t go out in that!”
Where does the sporty streetwear side you bring to Chloé come from?
I think from music actually. Music and fashion for me are really closely related. Everyone is incredibly moved by some kind of music, and that’s exactly what I would like to achieve with the clothes. A similar reaction: “I have to have that top!” This kind of strong desire. And on the runway of course, music enhances fashion. Last season, if I’d chosen classical music for the soundtrack, you would have read the show in a completely different way. The fact that I chose reworked tracks of artists from the 90s introduced a reference without its being literal. I think it’s a great dynamic. And equally, in the opposite sense, these incredible artists that we lost recently, Prince and David Bowie, used fashion as a tool to create their image and complement their sound.
You’ve also made playlists for Apple Music.
Yes, it was the first time they went into fashion. This is part of my discussion with them, it’s so symbolic of the two things together, fashion and music − they’ve always worked together. It was important for me to offer something that’s personal but also fashion related. So some of the playlists contain tracks from the shows, but also from my youth, as well as more contemporary tracks. One of the words fashion reviewers often use to describe your work at Chloé is “realness.”
How important is it for you to be real?
To me it symbolizes a lot about who I am, but also a lot of the women I meet. I’m not pretending to do art pieces. What I do, I hope, is something that a woman will love and wear for years. I love the idea that it becomes part of her personal style. “That’s very me” is a great compliment. The idea of effortlessness is about not having to have the right trousers to wear with a blouse, etc. A woman can go to a Chloé piece and always know that she will be able to wear it with anything.
Propos recueillis par Delphine Roche.