Chloé transformed into modern master of femininity
British designer Clare Waight Keller has transformed French fashion house Chloé from a vintage veteran to a modern master of femininity
Chloé's creative director, Clare Waight Keller, had a clear vision for the French fashion house. "I really wanted to break away from the very vintage spirit it had. It felt it needed something fresh and modern to be brought forward, in terms of silhouette and attitude," she says.
Looking chic in a crisp white shirt and slim-fit cropped trousers, Keller is in Hong Kong on a fleeting Asian tour.
The English designer, who worked for Calvin Klein in New York, Gucci in Milan, and headed up Pringle of Scotland before landing the top role at Chloé, has been credited with bringing a blast of modernity to the Parisian house.
"For me, trying to capture what women want to wear today is very important - keeping it real, but at the same time putting a new vision forward."
Before Keller joined the brand four seasons ago, many had forgotten just how pioneering Chloé was. Founded in 1952 by Gaby Aghion, an Egyptian émigré to France, the brand transformed women's fashion by coining the term "prêt-à-porter". Aghion, who was friends with artists such as Pablo Picasso, was the first to do ready-to-wear in an industry dominated by couture.
The brand's 60th anniversary exhibition last year also served as a timely reminder of why women should be grateful for how Aghion transformed fashion.
Her style focused on comfort, femininity and an easy freedom - a radical departure from the stiffness of the big French couture houses of the 1950s, and Christian Dior's"New Look" (think ultra-tailored, big skirts and tiny cinched waists).
"We meet almost every time we do the shows," Keller says of the 92-year-old Aghion. "She is a real force of nature who still has a massive interest in fashion and is always commenting. When I was researching the archives, I really found that essence and spirit - a Chloé attitude. I'm trying to interpret that for a modern woman now."
Keller has adopted "incredibly classic Chloé items", such as silk blouses and pretty dresses, using a modern mixture of British and French styles. Critics and customers alike have been charmed and no longer is most of the attention lavished on the brand's iconic bags, such as the Paddington.
Under Keller, the brand's ready-to-wear range has shone, too - fitting for the first luxury off-the-rack brand.
And in an industry dominated by male designers, Chloé also stands out as very female-focused. The list of previous designers is illustrious and mostly female: Martine Sitbon, Karl Lagerfeld (Aghion's appointment after she stepped down), Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. The company's staff base is also reportedly 80 per cent female.
And that's not entirely coincidental. "For sure, it affects the sensibility of the brand," she says. "I think, as a woman, you always automatically bring a little bit of yourself to it.
"You always think how you are going to wear the clothes, how they are going to feel, I always put things on, and talk about how it feels on me … I'm always saying this feels too bulky here, and I would wear this with that but not with other things … so it's more personal."
Creating what women want is all-important for Chloé spirit and Aghion's legacy. To balance the beautiful with the practical is key, Keller says.
You can see this in her most recent collections. Spring-summer 2013 was all light, liberated white cotton and feminine sheer organza - a modern, almost sculptural and sporty wardrobe.
Autumn-winter 2013 was, by contrast, more masculine and grounded with references to uniform. Light blouses and delicate gem-encrusted tops contrasted with beautifully shaped heavy capes.
"The autumn-winter collection started quite strict and graphic, but it slowly evolved into things that were more feminine towards the end. The more lacy dresses, the tiered skirts," says Keller. "It's about showing breadth and balance."
"Chloé is about simplicity and purity," she adds. "But there is always a sense of effortlessness - there is nothing that feels too forced, it's always very free."
One of Chloé's biggest-selling attractions under Keller is the fashionable French-British mix of sensibilities, which has created an aesthetic widely coveted both on the high street and in high fashion.
Keller believes the history of British fashion and the diversity of London's pop cultures and subcultures coupled with "the rigor, strictness and properness" of Parisian fashion and the "polish" of how French women dress, has created an "incredibly vibrant mix".
"It absolutely has influenced me living [in France]," she says, "because you live the life and understand much more about Parisian culture. The immersion translates into design."
The Birmingham-born designer, who still loves to travel, says working in all four fashion capitals has given her a new perspective. "Travel is about discovering new things, and being refreshed by other cultures," she says.
Even on this short trip, she has found seeing how women in Tokyo and Hong Kong dress in Chloé fascinating.
"Well, in Hong Kong they wear everything a lot shorter," Keller says. "And with a much more glam, party spirit - I think it captures the Hong Kong mood."