When Gaby Aghion established Chloé in 1952, French fashion was dominated by the refined femininity of Dior's New Look: wasp waists, full skirts, and soft shoulders. But Aghion, an Egyptian émigré who arrived in Paris right after the war, had in mind a different kind of elegance, one that was no less luxurious but lighter and more free-spirited in mood. She also thought fashion should be more accessible, coining the term prêt-à-porter for her off-the-rack looks. Other labels soon followed.
It was in the late 1960s that Aghion began the tradition of bringing on younger designers to create collections for Chloé. In 1966, she hired Karl Lagerfeld as director of Chloé, and it was during his 22 years with the house that it produced some of its most iconic looks: chiffon layers, gossamer silk blouses, and long, fluid skirts. For the past four decades, a succession of other notable designers has interpreted the house codes of chic Parisian femininity—among them Martine Sitbon, Stella McCartney, and Phoebe Philo. Now, though, it's Clare Waight Keller's turn. The 41-year-old Royal College of Art grad who has worked for labels such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Gucci, and, most recently, headed the luxury knitwear brand Pringle of Scotland, joined Chloé in June 2011, and in her brief tenure thus far, has already brought new life to the brand. Along with preparing her Spring 2013 collection, Keller has lately spent time combing through the archives, not only to immerse herself in Aghion's esprit Parisien but to help prepare for a major 60th-anniversary exhibition of Chloé's designs, on view at the Palaias de Tokyo in Paris through November 18. She recently spoke with Stephanie LaCava about the show and taking the reins at Chloé.
STEPHANIE LaCAVA: In the past there have been Chloé girls like Jackie Kennedy, Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly, and Maria Callas. Who do you see as that girl nowadays?
CLARE WRIGHT KELLER: If anything, it's more unknown people—they're less about being iconic and more about being a real person. That's so much about what the Chloé spirit is. I sometimes like to call it a "sister" style. It's someone you gravitate toward. You just love the way they put things together. It's more personal.
LaCAVA: A quieter muse. I read that you took a trip to Egypt with your family recently. Did your wanting to go have anything to do with Gaby Aghion being from Egypt?
KELLER: No, I didn't think about that at the time. Egypt was somewhere I'd wanted to go back to for a long time. It's interesting because you really feel a cultural difference when you go to the Middle East, and in a way, maybe I have a sense now of what Gaby went through when she moved from Egypt to Paris. There's a massive cultural difference. I can imagine how she must have felt like an outsider. And then to create something that was particularly for Parisian women and to become iconic for Paris is quite an amazing feat.
LaCAVA: She was the one who did ready-to-wear first and turned the tide away from the New Look. How does what she did play into your day-to-day design and what you want for the brand?
KELLER: Because Chloé has had so many designers through the years, it's been a very evolving brand. But I think that's actually one of its strengths, that a new spirit comes through with each new person. But at the same time, there's a constant thread, and that comes from Gaby, who is still alive, remarkably. What she really instilled from the beginning, which is something really true and a bit humble but incredibly beautiful, is that she wanted to dress women for their everyday lives. My favorite quote of hers is, "I lived the life I wanted." She instilled that idea in her brand and in the clothes, and I think that's something that each designer who's been here has tried to achieve for their era, and that's what I'm trying to do now.
LaCAVA: When you met Gaby, do you recall what she said to you? What were your impressions of her?
KELLER: Not anything specific that she said, but you gravitate to her. She's an incredibly powerful woman. There's absolutely no question that she knows what she wants and has incredible self-confidence and is quite alluring—even in her nineties. I can imagine her when she was young—she must have been a real force. It's been fascinating to hear interviews with her throughout her life. She really understands what it is to go through hard times but come out with strength. And she's great fun.
LaCAVA: There've been so many people moving around lately at the various houses. Does any advice come to mind that you would give someone taking over an iconic house?
KELLER: You do things by emotion when you are in fashion—that's part of the excitement about this industry. I would say do it from your gut. That's something that makes you very true. That means a lot, I think.
Stephanie LaCava is a writer and journalist working in New York City and Paris. Her literary debut, An Extraordinary Theory of Objects (Harper Collins), will be published in December.