Chloé's Natacha Ramsay-Levi: “This isn’t a time for subtlety or poetry”
Natacha Ramsay-Levi, 39, is the creative director for ready-to-wear, leather goods and accessories at Chloé (owned by the Richemont group) since April 2017. She was unquestionably the star of the 34th edition of the Hyères International Fashion and Photography Festival, where she chaired the fashion competition's jury. It was the opportunity for FashionNetwork.com to meet her and discuss fashion design, of course, but also the evolution of the designer’s job, the contemporary luxury market and her future projects at Chloé.
FashionNetwork.com: After graduating at Studio Berçot, you worked for 15 years with Nicolas Ghesquière, as his right-hand woman at Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton. How did you approach the new chapter in your professional career at Chloé?
Natacha Ramsay-Levi: When I designed my first collection, I wanted it to be a sort of love letter to all the things I appreciated about Chloé, written as a series of brief chapters: pictorial dresses referencing the work of Karl Lagerfeld, embroidery as a throw-back to Phoebe Philo, and all the other elements I always identified as pure Chloé. For me, that collection was a table of contents. I was then able to continue with chapter 1, chapter 2 and more. Altogether, four collections in two years, or eight if you count the pre-collections.
FNW: Starting from there, did you transform the look of Chloé womenswear, applying your own touch?
NRL: Yes, I did, because I think the only way to do this job is with sincerity. But it wasn’t a case of revolutionising Chloé. Rather, it was an evolution. And I can only do it through the way I think, and how I am.
FNW: Which changes did you bring to Chloé womenswear?
NRL: I brought structure, a return to tailored suits and perhaps a more assertive style. This is mostly the feed-back I received. I breathed into Chloé an aesthetic that's both sophisticated and casual, a balance between a soft and a hard style, because I think you can’t be just soft. You need both aspects.
FNW: You developed the femininity theme through jewellery, prints and details. Why?
NRL: It all began with a small Cycladic figure, dating back to four millennia before Jesus Christ, featuring a torso and thighs. It was my starting point. Chloé is an ultra-feminine label, and I loved the idea that a woman’s effigy was also adored as a totem, hence it could be worn as a talisman, an amulet or a lucky charm. Some people wear crosses, and I think it’s nice to wear a woman's effigy. I developed the idea with jewellery items and matchboxes, and it’s become a leitmotif. I then developed other, similar kind of themes. Femininity features throughout the seasons, sometimes in jewellery, sometimes in prints or a special embroidery.
FNW: You have notably strengthened Chloé’s jewellery range.
NRL: Yes, because I love jewellery! I believe we put a lot of emotion and meaning into jewellery, and it enables me to say things that are extremely subtle. And these are items that are easy to afford, since we are talking about costume jewellery, at entry-level prices.
FNW: Have you developed other types of accessories?
NRL: I love fashion in its many guises. Footwear too has become very important. They are the two categories in which I delved the most, compared to what Clare Waight Keller [Chloé's former creative director, now at Givenchy] was able to do. But I’m also working on a lot of handbags. I love the idea of ornamentation, of glitzing up. Shoes express an attitude, the force of motion, how we carry ourselves and how we move forward. Silhouettes start from there.
FNW: What is your greatest source of inspiration?
NRL: Films are a great source of inspiration. We film advertising campaigns and print the screenshot pictures. Films are our starting point in describing who these Chloé women are, their natural instincts. Cinema manages to add complexity to characters. Photos can achieve the same result, in a refined way, but it wouldn't be the Chloé way at all. Cinema gives depth to characters, and clothes are more stylised. In the end, it’s more about how appropriate the clothes are to women, and how they are worn, rather than about the clothes themselves.
FNW: You have been at Chloé for four seasons, how have your collections been received?
NRL: Rather well. There has been a shift of course, since mine is a different perspective. We must let our clientèle find its bearings and design codes. Our commercial partners are all working with us, and some new ones have come on board after my first collection, for example Dover Street Market.
FNW: You already had a wealth of experience when you joined Chloé. What has changed for you since you became creative director?
NRL: It's a big change. Above all, it’s an honour and a great joy. But there are two main differences. The first is being able to choose the people I work with, and to create my own professional community. I work very much in tribal mode. There are many people I love and whose work I admire, and who, over the years, have become friends. Now I can work with them. Curating a professional team gives me great satisfaction. The second difference is being able to speak in my name, hence to think about what I do - it’s a whole mental aspect.
FNW: This means putting forward your own point of view. How important is it?
NRL: Designing products is what I’ve been doing all my life, with Nicolas Ghesquière and for him at Balenciaga, then at Louis Vuitton. It’s something I have a solid grounding in. On the other hand, until [I became Chloé’s creative director] I never had to devise the narrative. It wasn’t how I went about things. Nowadays, the narrative is as important as the product. Having to explain a collection, why I took a certain direction, putting it into words, giving it meaning, looking for literary references, and more. It's brilliant work. It's something that’s made me reconnect with my origins and my passions.
FNW: What kind of transformation have you seen in the designer’s and creative director's roles?
NRL: The role in general has evolved, from designer to creative director. The collections’ tempo and the commercial challenges have changed greatly, and the number of communication platforms has increased. Nowadays, a creative director is less of a designer, I think, than they were 20 years ago. There was more time to focus on the product then, while contemporary fashion design work is no longer what it was 20 years ago. A creative director is more of an orchestra conductor now.
FNW: Do you miss not focusing on pure creativity?
NRL: No, I don’t. Overseeing the whole process is brilliant. First of all, because I love all product categories. Footwear, eyewear, I’m happy to work with anything. If it was possible to invent more accessories tomorrow, I’d gladly do it. And creating an image, telling a story, devising a set for a catwalk show, thinking about the music, it's all great. I think it’s marvellous, being able to commission work to so many artists in different areas.
FNW: What do you think of today’s luxury market?
NRL: I think everyone is somewhat at a loss as to what works and what doesn’t. In my opinion, it's crystal clear that it’s very strong, striking things that work. This isn’t a time for subtlety or poetry. Yet, it's precisely there, within a market as strong, brazen and dynamic as today's, that a label like Chloé must find its niche, because Chloé means lightness, softness, femininity and a certain kind of airy grace.
FNW: Do you think that social media have intensified this trend?
NRL: Possibly. Social media have actually heightened the need for immediate visibility. I find this quite interesting. At the same time, each brand truly and immediately finds its specific identity, and each has its own place. Creativity is rampant at the moment.
FNW: How do you balance creativity with commercial imperatives?
NRL: We’re constantly seeking for that balance! Sometimes we focus on it, at other times we follow our instincts alone, otherwise we risk getting lost in there. I try to plan the work, with days dedicated to strategy and business, and days when I shut the doors, sit down with my team in the studio and get on with it. There are about 12 of us.
FNW: Are you under a lot of pressure?
NRL: We all are. There is a lot of pressure on us, I won’t hide the fact that there is. But everyone is also aware that it's impossible to work creatively under too much pressure. I’m a very open person, I like working with a team. Also, I’m very transparent. If too much pressure is on, I say so. One must be robust. I’m robust, because I know my limitations. There are times when I simply shut the door and must be left alone to work.
FNW: What are your next projects for Chloé?
NRL: We’re going to present the pre-collection in Shanghai. I wouldn’t call it a cruise collection, because we aren't a major label. We don’t roll out resources on the same grand scale as Louis Vuitton, Dior or Chanel. It will simply be a pre-collection, created as we usually do, but we will present it in China as a genuinely national event, in other words, an event well and truly dedicated to the Chinese market, in a venue that I chose myself and that I love.
FNW: Has fashion always been your calling?
NRL: As an adolescent, I used to make my own clothes. I picked my clothes instinctively, as a way to express myself. A fashion look has an immediate impact. In an instant, it gives a glimpse of your personality. I think I’ve always had fashion in me, but it was something I never fully rationalised. To begin with, I studied African history at the Jussieu campus in Paris, and I loved it. At the end of a long trip on my own, after three months in Mali, during which I had time to reflect, it became obvious to me that fashion was my calling.
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