PARIS — In opting for a relative unknown as its new creative director, Chloé joins the ranks of fashion houses taking a chance on a studio talent used to working in the shadow of a star designer — and no doubt hoping that she turns out to be the next Phoebe Philo.
Ending months of speculation, the French fashion house confirmed on Friday it has appointed Natacha Ramsay-Levi as creative director for ready-to-wear, leather goods and accessories, effective April 3. WWD first reported that the two parties were in talks on Dec. 15.
Ramsay-Levi, a longtime key associate of Nicolas Ghesquière, joins the company from Louis Vuitton, where she had been creative director of women’s rtw since 2013. She will show her first Chloé collection, for spring 2018, at Paris Fashion Week in September, the house said.
Ramsay-Levi succeeds Clare Waight Keller, who exited Chloé earlier his month after showing her final collection for the brand and reportedly has another job lined up — though market sources say it is not at Burberry or Céline, as has been rumored.
Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, chief executive officer of Chloé, said Ramsay-Levi was chosen for her personality and rock-solid background.
She started her fashion career at Balenciaga in 2002, and rose through the design ranks to become Ghesquière’s top deputy. When the Frenchman left Balenciaga in 2013, she went on to consult for several brands, including Hermès and Acne Studios, before rejoining Ghesquière at Vuitton, according to a Paris source.
“Natacha is remarkable because she is completely natural. She’s bold, she’s unafraid to be herself, she has excellent creative vision, she knows what she wants, she has charisma and she shines,” de la Bourdonnaye told WWD.
“She’s a Chloé girl and above all, she’s very experienced and very loyal. She has proven that she is capable of working in different environments and handling the pressure of large brands,” he said.
Her appointment comes at a time of radical change in the European fashion industry: Riccardo Tisci left Givenchy after 12 years at the helm and is said to be in talks about heading to Versace, while Emanuel Ungaro revealed this week it was parting ways with Fausto Puglisi and has hired Marco Colagrossi as creative director as it takes production in-house.
The last year has seen changes in creative direction at Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Berluti, Brioni, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Salvatore Ferragamo and Bally.
With a number of established names — including Alber Elbaz and Hedi Slimane — unemployed, going with someone who is not a household name keeps the emphasis on the spirit of Chloé, founded in 1952 by Gaby Aghion to create clothes that allow women to express their identity.
“I am very proud to join a house founded by a woman to dress women. I want to create fashion that enhances the personality of the woman who wears it, fashion that creates a character and an attitude, without ever imposing a ‘look,’” Ramsay-Levi said in a statement.
It is understood that Ghesquière has been supportive of Ramsay-Levi taking the Chloé job, and that her post will be filled internally at Vuitton. In an Instagram post on the day of his Louis Vuitton show, held inside the Louvre Museum, Ghesquière posted a photo of him with Ramsay-Levi alongside a tribute.
“Thirty shows and many more fantastic projects we experienced together @nramsaylevi. We spent an extraordinary part of our life sharing our passion. You are an inspirational, talented and generous woman and I am truly grateful for that ❤️❤️❤️,” he wrote.
De la Bourdonnaye said the choice was in line with Chloé’s history.
“The interesting thing is that since the creation of the house, all the designers who started out at Chloé were virtually unknown, and not all of them, but a vast majority, became stars,” he noted, reeling off the names of Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, Martin Sitbon and Waight Keller.
“The brand is strong and there is a strong message that hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance since the day that Gaby founded it,” he added.
It’s an approach that harks back to former Chloé ceo Mounir Moufarrige tapping a young and inexperienced McCartney – then 25 – to succeed Lagerfeld as creative director. Philo, previously McCartney’s right-hand woman, followed suit in 2001.
More recently, Gucci president and ceo Marco Bizzarri took a winning gamble by promoting Alessandro Michele, a longtime Gucci employee who was second-in-command to Frida Giannini, overseeing accessories. Within the year, he had been named International Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards.
Emma Davidson, owner and ceo of Denza, a fashion recruitment firm based in London whose clients include LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Compagnie Financière Richemont and Roberto Cavalli, said the decision to tap an under-the-radar designer could be purely pragmatic.
“There was a time when people only wanted someone who was famous, but the costs involved in that are astronomical. In the current climate, there will be many factors in forming those kinds of decisions: Looking for a breath of fresh air, looking for something design-wise that’s a little bit different, something of the next generation and an understanding of a different kind of customer and individual in the world today,” she said.
Star designers typically throw a house into turmoil. “Often half the team leaves, or the new creative director wants to pick their own team and then bring a whole team with them from wherever they’ve come from. All of the teams get changed around, and for the very senior management of any house, it’s a huge logistical nightmare, with huge extra costs involved,” Davidson said.
De la Bourdonnaye noted that Ramsay-Levi would not be coming with an entourage. “Natacha is arriving alone to work with the Chloé teams,” he said. “We have a very high-quality studio with strong talents at every level, and I am very confident that Natacha will rapidly blend in with the rest of the family.”
Robert Burke, chairman and ceo of fashion industry consulting firm Robert Burke Associates, said although brands have been shying away from star designers for the last few years, this may be changing as social media increasingly dictates the way luxury houses run their business.
“The houses put in relatively well-known people and then became beholden to them, and then they went through a period where they felt that the brand was bigger than the names and didn’t really want to have such big names,” he noted.
“Now there’s so much emphasis on social media, and recognized names, and celebrity friends and associations, and stylist associations. That seems to be a more recent movement for the brands,” he said, citing the hire of Raf Simons at Calvin Klein. “He was used to set the image for the Calvin brand, he himself as much as his design talent.”
Nonetheless, Burke did not think there was a one-size-fits-all approach.
“There’s a danger both ways. You can have someone that has a huge Instagram following and lots of connections, but no one can underestimate the amount of hard work that goes into leading a brand, so those things absolutely do not guarantee successful collections or a successful brand,” he said.
“It’s really important that they bring in the new talent that is oftentimes behind the scenes working,” Burke added. “There’s no hard and fast rule that it works or doesn’t work. I guess the risk is if sometimes these designers are better as a number two person, or can they really be the brand from a creative vision?”
Since joining Chloé in 2011, Waight Keller — an alum of Pringle of Scotland and Gucci — brought a sure and steady hand to the house, rejuvenating its rtw and accessories business and winning largely positive reviews for her collections.
In its interim report for the fiscal third quarter ended Dec. 31, Chloé’s parent, Compagnie Financière Richemont, said Chloé’s performance helped its “other businesses” division log growth of 7 percent at constant exchange rates during the period.
Some have questioned whether Ramsay-Levi, who is identified with Ghesquière’s futuristic, sport-inspired aesthetic, is the right fit for a brand best known for its floaty dresses and men’s wear-inspired coats and pants. De la Bourdonnaye said he was confident she was up to the task.
“The intelligence of great designers is to adapt their style to the houses they work for,” he said, noting that Philo worked successfully in different registers, first at Chloé and then at Céline.
“When Natacha was at Balenciaga, she did Balenciaga. When she was at Vuitton, she did Vuitton. I am not recruiting the culture or the creative inspiration of Vuitton or Balenciaga. The Chloé girl stays, the Chloé strategy stays,” he said.
“There will be some bad surprises occasionally, but that’s the nature of the creative process. If you don’t allow designers to take risks, you will never have beautiful creative results. I am convinced we will have more good surprises than bad, and that is why I am very confident about this choice,” he concluded.