In the merry-go-round of designer appointments, where a familiar band of names is touted for every luxury tenancy, the announcement last year that Natacha Ramsay-Levi was going to become creative director of Chloé was a rare delight. Firstly, she was a new name; despite being a well-known industry insider, she has never held a creative directorship before. And following a long succession of British designers at the helm of the quintessentially Parisian house – Clare Waight Keller, Phoebe Philo, Stella McCartney and Hannah MacGibbon among them – Ramsay-Levi is French.
“I’ve been thinking about why my being French might be important,” explains the 38-year-old, sitting on a velvet banquette in her office, next to the newly refurbished Maison Chloé in the eighth arrondissement. “I think I’m a very direct person and I can always react: I think this is very French. We are always reacting to something; we’re never happy… I always question things,” she says. “When you’re working within the parameters of a luxury house that has an established code and a clear history, the ability to work within that frame while questioning things as well, is very important. It’s also very freeing.”
Certainly, this arresting presence, with brown eyes and strong brows, epitomises the lithe insouciance of French style. She is wearing a pale-blue floral top spangled with sequins, matching cropped trousers from her debut spring/summer 2018 collection and purple python mules. The look is broken with a black suit jacket, which may or not be Chloé. She possesses the cool élan one immediately aspires to copy, but none of the froideur that so often accompanies it.
Ramsay-Levi’s name may have been unknown outside the fashion world before her arrival at Chloé, but her CV is impeccable. The former lieutenant of Nicolas Ghesquière, she began her career making coffee at Balenciaga and made the leap from intern to head of studio in just nine years. Ghesquière left in 2012 and she followed him to Louis Vuitton in 2013 where, as head of ready-to-wear, she acted as the conduit between the creative director of womenswear and his studio.
Now, at Chloé, she oversees everything from ready-to‑wear and shoes to the handbags that make up the bulk of of the brand’s sales. And she has arrived at the Richemont-owned house during an ambitious programme of expansion. While the group doesn’t release financial figures, Chloé has reported growth for the past seven quarters. It opened 12 new boutiques in the last fiscal year, and will launch several more across its global markets in the year to come. Meanwhile, a new arrangement with its shoe licensee has given the maison more leverage in its manufacturing arrangements and control of distribution.
For Chloé’s chief executive, Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, Ramsay-Levi represents a new direction for the house but also, crucially, someone who can harness the momentum of what’s already underway. “Natacha has the savoir faire of couture; the way she cuts the garment and the precision she brings to each piece is the best in Paris,” he says. “But she also brings an attitude. She has given the team the freedom to take risks and try new avenues while having the maturity to build on the maison’s heritage.”
Chloé was founded by Gaby Aghion, a politically engaged intellectual who moved to Paris from Egypt with her husband in 1945. She launched her first collection at Café de Flore, the fabled Left Bank hangout of writers and philosophers, in 1956. Frequently credited with having invented the term “prêt-à-porter”, her fluid, body-skimming silhouettes were a rejection of the stiff aesthetic that prevailed in Paris at the time. She had a curatorial spirit rather than a specific design code, and collaborated with stylish young fashion plates such as Maxime de la Falaise to shape the maison’s attitude. Then, in 1966, she asked a young German designer by the name of Karl Lagerfeld to be her creative director.
“Chloé has always been about giving women the freedom to be themselves,” says de la Bourdonnaye of the house’s essential purpose. “There are lots of components in Chloé’s attitude: it’s about fluidity, movement, lightness, joyfulness – it’s not as coded as other brands. But this is what makes us different: the attitude doesn’t dictate. In our wardrobe, we have the blouse, the trouser, the dress, the day bag, but what really makes a difference is the girl. And Natacha understood, right from the outset, that you put the girl first.”
Ramsay-Levi’s debut collection offers clothes for a wide spectrum of girls, and, thankfully, grown women, that combine updated takes on house classics with clever new propositions. “The first thing I wanted to put back on track was the tailoring,” she says of her ambitions to soften the brand’s focus on flou – the flowing dresses and gowns that suggested a more girlish sensibility. “I think this fluidity is very important, but I wanted it to be less fantastical. My feeling was that the collection should not be casual: I wanted to make things in a relaxed way or to put a casualness in the attitude, but I wanted the clothing itself to be sharp.”
The clothes are fashionable but tempered with commercial savvy. Fans of the maison’s sensual femininity – the lace blouses and the gentle, body-skimming silhouettes – will appreciate the short, fluted, printed dresses (£3,090) and blouses (from £750), while those seeking more grit can look to the cropped trousers (£670) that fall just below the knee and are styled with strappy gladiator-style cowboy boots (£995) and python print shirts (£750). The Paris-born designer has also revisited the flattering mannish-cut trousers popularised by Philo during her tenure in the early 2000s, and that other house classic, the waistcoat. Meanwhile, the Chloé dress, in recent times a pastel confection in tiers of chiffon mousseline, is now pared down, slimmer and more fitted. There is also a reinterpretation of the house’s bestselling Drew bag (£1,110) and a new motif, a rearing horse, which appears as an embroidered insignia on velvet suits (jacket, £2,630, trousers, £1,100).
The reviews have been positive and the buyer reaction strong – which is just as well, since much of the catwalk collection is precisely what goes into stores (at Chloé, there is no giant commercial collection to hide behind).
“Natacha has ushered in a new direction and mood,” says Net-a-Porter’s global buying director, Elizabeth von der Goltz. “Her debut pays homage to the brand’s bohemian aesthetic but her interpretation of the Chloé girl is more modern and urban. It truly speaks to how the modern-day woman dresses.” The retailer has “fully embraced her vision”, says von der Goltz, doubling the number of catwalk looks from the brand in this season’s buy. “The embroidered velvet blazer was our highest spend from the collection. And the Rylee boot (£1,840) and the Drew bag, which we expected to have reached saturation point, were cleverly reworked with a luxe chain and new fabrications.”
Natalie Kingham, Matchesfashion.com buying director, is similarly enamoured. “I’m certain this Chloé will bring a new customer while maintaining the interest of the existing one,” she says. “It was an effortless transition, which is no easy feat.”
For a designer with years of practical experience in the craft of fashion, finessing cuts and obsessing about lines and stitching, Ramsay-Levi’s hand was clear from the start. Perhaps more surprising was that she has been able to take on a creative mantle with such a clear point of view. “The artistic director has to be intellectual about things,” she says, of her most pressing new responsibility. “As number two you never think about the clothes as an intellectual proposition – so that’s the muscle I’ve had to start flexing. And it’s fun – the studying and the work – it’s fun!”
As a stylish female designer who can wear her own pieces with aplomb, Ramsay-Levi is clearly a powerful brand ambassador. The day after her debut, she was pictured wearing the horse-embroidered velvet suit that became one of the most memorable looks of the season. “Honestly, it came very naturally,” she says of the suit. “Stella McCartney did the horse at Chloé, and I know her collection very well because I was at school at the time. And the fantasy of the horsewomen has always been a key Chloé code for me – that classicism we associate with the horsewoman and the beautiful leathers and classical colours.” The team, she says, was a bit reluctant to make it. “They were like: ‘No velvet.’ But I said, ‘Yes. We’re going to do it.’”
The horse, the archive prints (she’s currently rifling through the contributions made by Lagerfeld, during his decades at the house) and the gentle flowing silks all demonstrate Ramsay-Levi’s determination to maintain a strong sense of continuity, despite her love of “transformation – and play, where you bring the novelty”. Her main objective, she says, is that “when you enter a boutique you know where you are and can find what you came for”. Unlike those designers who bring in a whole new design team, she has kept all the staff who were there when she arrived. “It was very easy,” she says of the transition. “People were really willing to get ready for a new chapter, so it’s not like I had to dig for anything. Everything is here: the archives are in the building and the team is great.”
This same relaxed attitude extends to her clients. She doesn’t want her clothes to be prescriptive, nor does she believe people should wear them head-to-toe. “I think Chloé is a brand that doesn’t really work as a total look,” she says. “It is more about drawing the personality of the wearer though the clothes – but this connection has to be very strong between fashion et la femme. I like a mix – for me, too: it’s how I dress.”
Her Chloé woman is grounded in reality. The designer, now in a relationship with a cinematographer, has a son and a stepdaughter with Purple magazine editor and photographer Olivier Zahm, and came up with much of the mood of her debut on weekends alone in her flat after their break-up. Her first campaign, shot by Steven Meisel, sees models walking in different directions at a busy urban junction. “We shot them as though they were getting out of the subway,” she explains. Each has her own look; some are very feminine, others more professional, but all have a purposeful stride.
“Chloé is about a working woman, in the sense of being active – I consider looking after children a working role,” she says. “For me, the collection and its mood was about making the connection between Chloé and what happens in your daily life. It’s not streetwear.” But it’s worldly? “Yes.”
In many ways, her vision for Chloé is most inspired by the house’s founder, Gaby Aghion, who died in 2014, aged 93. “Gaby’s granddaughter works in the archives, and her son came to the show, so I had many chances to speak to them about how she built the house,” says Ramsay-Levi.
“Gaby was really interesting: she was from Egypt, from a Jewish family, and arrived in Paris just after the war, with her husband Raymond. They were anti-colonialist and inhabited an avant-garde society; they were very close to surrealist and existentialist artists. Raymond opened a gallery and she wanted to work.”
Aghion didn’t like bourgeois Paris style, nor its treatment of women. “Gaby was shocked by the poverty after the war and the condition of women – the fact that they could not open bank accounts and were socially poor. She thought everything was too restraining, so she started her own brand. Essentially, she was a client who became a seller because she couldn’t find what she wanted.”
Aghion’s idea that luxury could be more inclusive, diverse and female-focused makes for a timely proposition in a climate in which discussion of what luxury can stand for, and who might be entitled to it, feels ever more urgent. “Absolutely,” says Ramsay-Levi, who studied history before being sidetracked by Ghesquière and falling for fashion. “The point of view Gaby had on women was very interesting. She was obsessed with the beauty of woman. And she had a generosity that is very rare, where she had the capacity to hide herself. She was a curator who stood behind her designers, then chose from the amazing things they would bring to her – she was very much an inspiration for me. But I want to pay homage to every designer who has been at this house, because they’ve all been very respectful of what the house is, and have each created one more chapter.”
Ramsay-Levi has only just begun writing hers, but already she is thinking beyond the autumn/winter 2018 collection she sent down the catwalk this month, to the next pre-collection and catwalk shows. Her motifs are emerging and her confidence is growing.
“I like the balance,” she explains. “For Chloé, it really must have balance. Balance between lengths; balance between what is womanly and what is girlish; balance in how you mix the clothes. I want Chloé to have this base that’s always been there and that you can always refer to.”
Point of order: she’s even grappling with the flou. “The first show, I was a bit afraid of silk. We used a viscose too, because it was easier to travel with. My second show, autumn/winter 2018, really emphasises the dress.”
The said dress is more structured. “There’s a shoulder. There’s a hip. It’s not all…” She waves her hands as though gathering handfuls of billowing fabric, then smiles. “It’s a Chloé dress for our time.” I know I want it already.