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Chloé: A new vision of femininity

Posted on 10 Nov 2022

This extract from 'Chloé Catwalk' charts the history of the iconic brand, founded on Gaby Aghion’s vision of ‘ease, vibrancy, optimism, freedom’.

Chloé show by Karl Lagerfeld. Spring-Summer 1975, Palais de Chaillot. Model Pat Cleveland. Photo Jean-Luce Huré.

Today, it is commonplace for fashion brands to extol their supposed feminist credentials; positioning themselves as the makers of clothing that ‘empowers’ women, or promoting the fact that they employ female creative directors, or have fostered female talent and stories through their campaigns and content. And yet, few – despite myriad attempts at invention and assertion – can compete with the history of Chloé, when looking to boast of being a women-led brand built around female stories, around new visions of femininity, around questioning societal norms and the status quo. Indeed, today’s intersection between fashion and feminism feels overdue, given that, back in the 1950s, founder Gaby Aghion envisaged her house as a hub for modern women, keen to shrug off  postwar restrictions, and as a bastion of new ideas regarding presentation, formality, image and social structure. ‘I think my actions went a small way toward liberating women,’ Aghion wrote in 2013. ‘Women in France were very timorous. The French woman had no freedom; she was like – and this may sound shocking – her husband’s servant. I always thought that as women we could succeed independently. I fought for this personal freedom of choice.’

Not only did Aghion pave the way for other dynamic French female-led ready-to-wear brands, such as Sonia Rykiel and Chantal Thomass, but also, from the start, she did much to propel the status of – and opportunities for – women in design. Quickly, Chloé became known as a talent factory for bright young stars. Two of today’s most applauded female designers, Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo, got their breaks at the house, with the former becoming creative director in 1997, aged just 25 and only two years out of Central Saint Martins, and the latter taking on the top job at 27 in 2001. Other respected female designers to have contributed to the house include, in the early days, Maxime de la Falaise, Christiane Bailly, Michèle Rosier and Graziella Fontana, and later, from the 1990s onwards, Martine Sitbon, Hannah MacGibbon, Clare Waight Keller, Natacha Ramsay-Levi, and today Gabriela Hearst, a designer known for being one of fashion’s most committed, and most inventive, sustainability advocates.

Chloé show by Karl Lagerfeld. Spring-Summer 1979, Palais de Chaillot. Photo Rights Reserved.

Chloé’s story, then, is one of being ahead of the curve. ‘[I]n 1952, there was only couture or basic ready-to-wear,’ wrote Gaby Aghion. ‘There was no luxury ready-to-wear; well-made clothes, with quality fabrics and fine detailing, did not exist. A lot of things did not exist in France. Everything was yet to be invented, and this thrilled me.’ Aghion was, back then, surrounded by the couturiers: Christian Dior, with his fullskirted New Look silhouette; Jacques Fath, with his strict, meticulously tailored dresses; Cristóbal Balenciaga, with his sculptural forms. And yet Aghion felt that these clothes did not suit the scene; did not suit reality. She and her husband were part of the dynamic crowd of artists and intellectuals who hung around the cafés of the Left Bank. ‘We were very avant-garde. It was after the war: you could remain as you were, but you also had the freedom to invent,’ she wrote. ‘The world was opening up before my eyes, and I believed I could do anything. I felt I had wings.’ She needed clothes that could keep up..

Thus, Chloé’s very foundation is testimony to shifts, both societal and cultural. It contributed to, and evolved from, a change in mood in fashion and approach to dressing – the march of the casual, the freeing, the playful, the quick. Yves Saint Laurent is regularly applauded as the key pioneer of French ready-to-wear, of a new style of dress and shopping (in 1966 he became one of the first couturiers to open a ready-to-wear boutique under his own name), but too little attention is given to Aghion, as an innovator working ahead of the French prêt-à-porter boom (she founded her house in 1952, and held her first show in the autumn of 1957). She should be credited as a radical forward-thinker; a champion of youthful spirit – something with which Chloé has been synonymous ever since. Aghion, like many of the designers who would follow her, was interested in the new, the next. She was excited by change, and part of her self-defined commitment in founding Chloé was to provide women with the clothes they needed to face, and enjoy, all coming shifts and modernizations.

Chloé show by Natacha Ramsay-Levi. Spring-summer 2019, Maison de la Radio.Model Anok Yai. Photo firstVIEW/IMAXtree.

The name Chloé belonged to a friend – Chloé Huysmans. ‘I asked if I could borrow it,’ Aghion later explained, claiming that she liked the elegant roundness of the letters. She also admitted a more pragmatic reason: her family were grumbling about the fact that she was working, and she was sure they would disapprove of her using her own name. Part of Aghion’s skill was knowing what she could do (provide a coherent vision, attract press and clients) and what she couldn’t (cut and sew). Almost immediately, she hired seamstresses and a growing team of talented young designers. She was a visionary entrepreneur. Long before the explosion of marketing and intense control around logos and ownership, she understood the importance of protecting – and promoting – the Chloé name. She realized that reputation would come with recognition, and so refused to let boutiques take the Chloé labels off her clothing and replace them with their own, as was the practice at the time.

Chloé’s early shows were held in the same Left Bank cafés where the idea for the brand had first germinated, and where the kinds of liberated women for whom the label was intended hung out. The message was modernity: ease, vibrancy, optimism, freedom. ‘All I ever wanted was for Chloé to have a happy spirit and to make people happy,’ Aghion said in 2011. She found in Chloé an outlet, a focus, a means of achievement, fulfilment, independence, confidence. Thanks to Chloé, ‘I was responsible for my own life’, she said in 2013.

To read more, discover Chloé Catwalk, the first comprehensive overview of Chloé’s collections, presented through catwalk photography.

Chloé Catwalk (Catwalk)

The Complete Collections Lou Stoppard, Suzy Menkes