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The Duo Taking Chloé to ‘Another Level’

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In less than four years, French luxury brand Chloé has quietly relaunched its second line and transformed its aesthetic, thanks to the company’s energetic new creative director and CEO. On the eve of the brand’s Paris runway show, BoF talks to Clare Waight-Keller and Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye about their partnership and joint aim to turn Chloé into a globally recognised powerhouse.

(L) Clare Waight-Keller and (R) Geoffroy De La Bourdonnaye | Source: Boo George, Courtesy

PARIS, France — “I decided I want to portray a different type of Chloé girl this season. It’s less going to be about the youthful spirit, but a bit stronger, so that requires new casting and a new attitude,” says Clare Waight-Keller days before Chloé’s Spring/Summer 2015 show, scheduled to take place this Sunday. This yet-to-be-seen new attitude on the runway comes on the heels of a three-year period of change at the Richemont-owned, Paris-based fashion house which has hired both a new CEO and a new creative director, who, together, aim to turn Chloé into a globally recognised powerhouse.

“It’s as if Chloé was a house of a few floors and the group had the ambition of turning it into a skyscraper, but before building more floors, you need to strengthen the foundations.”

Hired in 2010 to replace Ralph Toledano, Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye joined Chloé from London department store Liberty, where he was CEO, having previously held several top management positions at Kronenbourg, PepsiCo and Disney, as well as the top job at Christian Lacroix. “The Richemont brief was simple: growth and profitability. I don’t want to talk on behalf of the group, but the ambition is to make Chloé a major Parisian house,” says Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye.

Pursuing this goal has meant reorganising the entire company. “Picture this: it’s as if Chloé was a house of a few floors and the group had the ambition of turning it into a skyscraper, but before building more floors, you need to strengthen the foundations. That’s what my job is.”

The mission was three-fold: first, to make sure that, at every level of the brand, from the core creative team to part-time sales staff, the company’s employees all knew and understood the soul of Chloé; second, to create better communcation between teams; and, third, to increase revenue.

Nine months in, De La Bourdonnaye replaced then-creative director Hannah McGibbon, who had been in the post for three years, with Clare Waight-Keller, previously the creative director of Pringle of Scotland. “When I arrived my conviction was, at first, to keep Hannah [MacGibbon] for the very good reason that she did a lot for Chloé. People often say the departure in 2006 of Phoebe [Philo] hurt sales, but when you look at the numbers, it’s not accurate. When Phoebe left, the brand was still doing great. What broke Chloé’s growth in the 2000s was the arrival of Paulo [Melim Anderson]. It was fast and brutal. The crisis didn’t help either. And Hannah came and put Chloé back in the game.” Many industry observers remember Hannah McGibbon as “the camel girl” for her extensive use of the colour. “Hannah had a great vision for Chloé’s woman, but the new demands of the job, in terms of workload, was too high. Hannah is talented, but a bit fragile. I think she just didn’t have the shoulders for the job,” confesses De La Bourdonnaye.

Enter Clare Waight-Keller, who had held positions at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, working directly with the two American icons, followed by a senior designer job at Gucci, where she was hired personally by Tom Ford and worked alongside Christopher Bailey and Francisco Costa. “One of the thing about Clare is that she has the culture of American companies, where people communicate a lot. She succeeded in doing the symbiosis between creation and business, something natural with Americans and more complicated in France, where, in general, the studios are in an ivory tower, untouchable. It’s not the case at Chloé,” explains De La Bourdonnaye, who was looking for someone who could be a manager and a brand builder, as well as a designer.

“Tom Ford was a brand builder first and foremost. He understood the rigor and the focus involved,” says Waight-Keller. “There were a lot of conversations in our design meetings about the Gucci woman — who she was, who she wasn’t, what she would wear, what she wouldn’t wear, what she did. All those things informed a lot of decisions that were made, even on a blouse. The look-book, the ad campaigns — everything had to have a certain aesthetic, a certain look. And it was all followed through extremely precisely. Being exposed to that was quite fundamental for my career.”

Waight-Keller aimed to take the brand DNA of Chloé and transform it into something new: “‘Chloé has a very strong identity, a very passionate following of customers. We don’t want to change radically the vision, but we do want something fresh,’” she says.

When Gaby Aghion founded Chloé in 1952, Paris was dominated by haute couture houses: Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Christian Dior. Aghion saw a gap in the market and seized the opportunity. In the foreword of Attitudes, a book released, last year, to commemorate Chloé’s 60th anniversary, he writes: “One morning, I woke up thinking, ‘I will make a little collection of charming dresses, in very pretty colours that women will fancy.’”

Since then, Chloé has always been a bit different from the powerhouse brands of the Paris fashion establishment. “We’re not a brand that screams. We won’t sell as much as the brands who scream. We’re marked by our subtlety. We’re known by connoisseurs. We’re a brand for the day, not a red carpet brand. That is why we enjoy a very dedicated following, people who wear Chloé all the time, because the brand allow them to express themselves,” says De La Bourdonnaye.

There is a saying at the house, “Once a Chloé girl, always a Chloé girl.”

But you don’t become a major Paris fashion house with clothes pitched to please everyone. Comparing Waight-Keller’s recent collections to what has been offered at Chloé in the past, one can’t help but noticing a new risk-taking approach. “That’s the fine line I walk on. I have to offer collections that are true to our identity, to what all our customers love about Chloé, and also push it further so that it feels more crisp,” she says. De La Bourdonnaye declined to reveal specific figures, but says “the ready-to-wear business is witnessing incredible growth since Clare’s arrival.”

“I have the chance of working with a CEO who is very supportive and who also takes risks,” says Waight-Keller. The two bonded over the fact they were both “newcomers” to the label at the same time. “We were very close in our starting days. We both are coming fresh to this and we really want to make an impact, taking it to another level.”

Both the creative director and CEO must feel comfortable about what’s being sent down the runway. De La Bourdonnaye is kept in the loop at three critical junctures in the development of a new collection: first, at the very beginning, when Waight-Keller develops a creative concept — the mood-boards, the colours, the fabrics, the silhouettes; then, once, in the middle of the creative process; and, finally, when the collection arrives in the showroom.

“Obviously he gives me feedback,” says Waight-Keller. “He knows the brand as much as I do and it’s good to have somebody else being your counterpoint. He might say what he loves the most and what he doesn’t understand as much. He may say something is ‘so Chloé’ and suggest to do more of it. But, normally, he comments on colours. Ultimately, the decision is mine, but I do like to make sure that he feels comfortable with it. It’s a partnership.”

For his part, De La Bourdonnaye traces his respect for creativity to his 13 years at Disney. “There, I learned to respect creation and the importance of storytelling. Their business model is simple: Hollywood makes movies with story, characters and plots (that would be the fashion show) and then it’s translated into dolls, stuffed animals, amusement parks, books, videos, music. If there isn’t strong storytelling, nothing happens in the stores. Fashion is exactly the same.”

But it’s a two-way street. Just as Waight-Keller discusses her creative decisions with De La Bourdonnaye, he consults Waight-Keller on the business side. This was especially true with the relaunch of Chloé’s second line, See by Chloé.

A year ago, Waight-Keller quietly took over the creative direction of the collection, which was previously handled by another designer. “The strategy in place now is to bring the two parts of the brand closer together,” says Waight-Keller. “We decided it wasn’t going to be two different types of girls, two different costumers with two different approaches. We’re really talking about the same woman, but it’s how she chooses things. There is a playfulness in See By which is less apparent in Chloé.” This aesthetic is rendered through different fabric choices, shorter cuts, tighter fits and more prints, jacquards and graphics. “For me, it’s the same woman. It’s just some of us have more money than others, to be perfectly honest. It’s the same woman who desires Chloé.”

The brand has indicated increased ambitions for See By Chloé, but, currently, its only standalone stores are in Japan (a total of 25). There are no new store openings planned for Europe, though the brand aims to expand the line by adding new wholesale accounts. No fashion shows are planned. “Even if See By will grow, we want Chloé to stay the brand we communicate on. Some houses let their second line be bigger in terms of turnover than the main line. That’s not our goal, Chloé will always stay the biggest brand,” says De La Bourdonnaye.

As for the main line, global expansion is a key area of focus. “For the past three years, the focus has been on consolidating the established markets. A new CEO, a new creative director — those are big changes for a brand and a lot of change for customers to cope with. We wanted to first get it right in the established markets and then grow from there,” says Waight-Keller.

But where?

“I don’t know if Brazil is so hot. The networks, the logistics, all of that is very complicated. I don’t think it will suddenly boom. It’s going to take time,” says Waight-Keller. Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye agrees: “Lots of Brazilians buy Chloé, but they do so in Miami or in multi-brands stores in Brazil or Paris. So opening our own stores in Brazil, or South America in general, is not what we’re focusing on.”

Asia is a key priority, however, though Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye admits the brand has felt the impact of the slowdown in China. “It’s a market that has slowed, but I’m convinced it will grow again.” Clare Waight-Keller is more cautious. “Everybody saw the boom in China and now we’re watching it go the other way.”

What about the United States? “Fabulous! There is a great dynamic in the US. That’s an important market for us,” says De La Bourdonnaye. “It’s also a country that you can make an impact in very quickly if you get it right,” adds Waight-Keller. “America is definitely one of the biggest areas of focus for the next few years.”

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