Who Are You Calling Girly?
Twenty feet from where the designer Clare Waight Keller was sitting in the offices of Chloé on the Avenue Percier, it slipped from the hands of an assistant as he adjusted the hem of a crisp white popover top, worn by the 16-year-old English model Rosie Tapner, who had the sniffles. You could hear the plink of metal as it struck the painted wood floor.
It was proverbially quiet in the Chloé showroom, three days before Ms. Waight Keller’s spring runway show here, as critical decisions were being made about the hair and makeup, the order the clothes would be shown, whether the colors and proportions were just right. A steady stream of guests came and went. A plastic box of Haribo gummi candies that had been full the day before was half-empty, but the detail that spoke loudest was the lack of noise.
In the year since Ms. Waight Keller, formerly the designer of Pringle of Scotland, became the creative director at Chloé, many visitors have noted the remarkable calmness that radiates from her studio. That, and the fact that roughly 80 percent of the hundreds of employees at the company are women, which is a point of pride at a house that has projected an aura of femininity for 60 years.
Guido Palau, the hairstylist, proposed a loosely tied ponytail, sort of half up and half down, with a deep part inspired by Twiggy. Ms. Waight Keller and her team considered whether it looked modern enough, or cool, or sufficiently effortless. They debated, then asked to see another model. Mr. Palau, in mock exasperation, said, “Oh, my God, how many girls are in this room?”
He wasn’t being rude. It is a question Ms. Waight Keller has asked herself as she decided how to best approach a label that, for better or worse, has been reduced over the years to terms like “girly” and “flirty,” which do not do it justice. It is her job to balance the sweetness with something a little bit cooler and a lot more modern. Though clearly confident, she is prone to questioning her decisions. In moving to Paris, she brought along her husband, an interior architect, and three young children, and so a lot rides on making this a success.
“Is the proportion right? she asked. “Do I like the colors? Is it too sweet?”
She was concerned about a white top with frothy sleeves made of a Japanese polyester that in theory should have looked crisp but in fact were beginning to look like the type of collars that keep dogs from scratching themselves.
Ms. Waight Keller, 42, English-born (though she has lived and traveled extensively), is the ideal image of the Chloé customer. She was raised in dresses and the skirts of school uniforms and has spent much of her adult life rebelling by wearing pants. And she is the type of designer who can make leather pants — like the forest-green ones she was wearing in the showroom, with a cool blue cotton shirt — look as comfortable as pajamas. She keeps her head down and walks with her hands in her pockets.
But with the spring collection, which was shown on Oct. 1 in the Tuileries, Ms. Waight Keller gave herself a challenge by chopping and cropping pieces to unexpected lengths. And she sought to reconnect the label with the more playful elements of its past, including tanks that were styled after basketball jerseys, sequined tuxedo stripes that ended with the point of an arrow, and a floral print that resembled something from Hawaiian surf wear.
“You can be too familiar with the look,” Ms. Waight Keller said. “You have to push forward. It can be a little bit of a trap to be the consumer.”
The vision of Gaby Aghion, the Egyptian-born daughter of a cigarette manufacturer who founded Chloé and named it after a friend, was not girly. It was to create feminine clothing with less formality and more freedom than what was being shown in postwar couture. The pioneering Ms. Aghion, who is 91 and still attends Chloé shows when she is able, remains a notorious flirt. But she was more likely to describe her own style as “simple” and “classic.”
Ms. Aghion once said something that Ms. Waight Keller found inspiring: “I don’t explain anything. I lived the life I wanted.”