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Natacha Ramsay-Levi Is Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

By Lynette Kee

Fan Xin

There’s something to be said about fashion’s ability to, somehow, exist in a different universe, playing out against some of the most dramatic world events. Amidst President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry, violent protests in Hong Kong, and the ongoing global push for climate change action, Fashion Week was business as usual, with fashion designers presenting a slew of fabrics and tailoring options to divert our political anxieties with sartorial splendour.

Erratic wet weather was the order of the day — the last day of Paris Fashion Week, and navigating my way inside Chloé’s headquarters was a stylish refuge from the hustle and bustle of the past few days. I head for Natacha Ramsay-Levi’s office, which sits at the end of a long corridor, lined with rooms, each crammed with Chloé samples. Her studio office — surprisingly neat, considering it was just a week after Chloé’s presentation — is light and airy, thanks in part to the floor-to-ceiling windows and mirrors while the calm hues of beige and white lend a touch of romance. (I couldn’t help notice the colour since it was widely used in the collection Ramsay-Levi had just presented). Set against the row of mirrors, which double as a secret doorway to the “mess” of her fitting room, is an L-shaped sofa where we cosied up for this interview. 

“Fashion today is incredibly fast-paced,” she says, her words lightly laced with a Parisian accent and in her signature relaxed demeanour, “[but] at the same time, humanity [needs to] calm down and get slower. [This was] what I did this summer — to take another pace and think about what fashion is today and what Chloé is.” 

Ramsay-Levi took the helm as Chloé’s creative director in 2017. To her, then, the role meant taking into consideration input from the business and marketing sides. Two years in, and as one of the most inspiring female designers in fashion, she has decided to bring the focus back to her own voice. Surely, her fifth runway collection this year echoed this resolve from the designer — and more importantly, the woman — she believes herself to be. 

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In photos, the 39-year-old French designer appears somewhat enigmatic. Her nonchalant attitude sits well with her style — today, a printed blazer and oversized accessories. The Ramsay-Levi I got to know in the flesh, however, is strikingly cool, but her mannerisms are warm with a hint of humour. She is well-travelled (personal holidays are taken with her 6-year-old son between work travels to Los Angeles), cultured (across fine art and pop art, having grown up on the Left Bank, historically known as the more artistic area of the French capital), and she is the epitome of the strong, empowered woman. 

Prior to her current stint, Ramsay-Levi worked alongside Nicolas Ghesquière as his protégé at Balenciaga for more than a decade. She subsequently followed Ghesquière’s footsteps to Louis Vuitton where she took up the role of design director. Ramsay-Levi got her break in March 2017, when it was announced that she would succeed Clare Waight Keller in heading the French luxury fashion house, Chloé. In less than a year, Ramsay-Levi showcased her first collection, which Tim Blanks from Business of Fashion hailed as “a spectacular debut” that “gave the sweetness of Chloé a slightly eerie edge.” 

It is almost instinctive for Ramsay-Levi when it comes to designing for such a women-driven brand. She is modern and elegant, yet one could tell from her choice of chunky jewellery that she was also unapologetically bold and far from predictable. 

But Chloé today is one that Ramsay-Levi has crafted with passion for the past two and a half years, with an essence that is indispensable to a modern world where strong women thrive. She’s here, and she’s eager to represent the Chloé woman. In finding her own voice for the French brand, Ramsay-Levi decidedly conceptualised her fashion line as one that functions with the personality of the woman, where instead of designing beautiful Chloé pieces to be worn by women, the reverse is aimed for — beautiful women would be seen wearing Chloé. 

ChloéNatacha Ramsay-Levi reviews a Chloé collection.
Natacha Ramsay-Levi reviews a Chloé collection.

“There is a coolness about Chloé. It’s got elegance but it’s not a preppy house” she says in words that could have otherwise been used to illustrate her own personal style. “There’s a balance of things. You have a beautiful shirt that is unbuttoned, and you have a girl with beautiful makeup but dishevelled hair. I think relaxed elegance is the most important attitude that makes the brand very special.” 

An “attitude”. The one that is specifically refined yet slightly hippie was a concept that came up repeatedly throughout the conversation. Chloé’s Spring 2020 collection was the perfect example — an eclectic mélange of prints and designs drawn from the Chloé archives, all stamped with Ramsay-Levi’s personal signature. She took the house codes of soft tailoring and flouncy dresses and spun them with a masculine energy. When the curtains were drawn, the pieces that took to the runway were a sensitive sartorial vision anchored in modern femininity work.

The models that graced the catwalk channelled a sense of romance and vigour. A pragmatic unstudied sophistication enforced the Chloé attitude of freedom and grace. In a way, Ramsay-Levi is a visionary leader of the house who sees the business of clothing and accessories beyond material gains. Instead, she is selling a way of life for women through female empowerment.

The narrative in feminine power has gotten louder in recent years, whether or not it has been appropriately translated. But in Ramsay-Levi’s own words, Chloé is “a brand with humility” and not aggressiveness. Instead of power, the conversation she’s been advocating for her community is built upon the idea of strength, which remains the key to her transformation of Chloé from a brand that used to be all about softness and femininity to one that is anchored by a strong attitude, and not to be mistaken for androgyny. “We are dressing women who work, who are active in their own lives but still wants to be elegant,” she emphasised. 

ChloéNatacha Ramsay-Levi with the models at the Chloé SS20 presentation in Paris.
Natacha Ramsay-Levi with the models at the Chloé SS20 presentation in Paris.
ChloéThe models backstage at the Chloé SS20 show were a vision of fresh femininity.
The models backstage at the Chloé SS20 show were a vision of fresh femininity.

As one of the few designers who actually wears the clothes they design, Ramsay-Levi revealed that she has always designed with real people in mind. In retrospect, it was also a way for her to connect with her customers. “There’s this idea of how clothes should be falling on a body. The relationship [between the clothes and the body] is very special. I think it’s a great way to make clothes when you can feel them,” she let on. “When I design, I have to be able to relate to it,” Ramsay-Levi continued, “where a part of myself exists through the collections.” And that is probably how she has, in the short period of her stint, managed to bring Chloé back to its French roots, being the first Parisian designer to have taken over the brand since its founder. 

Chloé was founded in 1952 by Gaby Aghion. While digging through Chloé’s archives, Ramsay-Levi found great inspiration from its original founder, who designed clothes to express herself at a time when fashion and feminism were much more conservative. Following that, a slew of English designers, including luminaries like Phoebe Philo and most recently Clare Waight Keller, had injected each of their personal touch into Chloé during their time as designers. Now, the French luxury house has come full circle with Ramsay-Levi as the lead.

“Fashion today is incredibly fast-paced but at the same time, humanity needs to calm down and get slower.”

Despite her expansive world view and having been exposed to various cultures, she is very much a Parisian at heart (born and bred in Paris). The “relaxed elegance” that she fondly spoke of is in fact very much inspired by French style as she said, “there is a myth [about] Parisian women [being] very chic and elegant; it’s not at all fake.” Ramsay-Levi had long grasped the concept of impermanence. To her, the only way to exist forever is by making a mark. However much she projects herself onto her designs, Ramsay-Levi has kept in mind (and continues to do so) to let the attitude of the wearer come through in her clothes — a philosophy not difficult to comprehend as Ramsay-Levi so clearly translated it in all her runway collections. 

Among her handpicked models, Ariane Labed, a Greek-French film actress and director, whose voice Ramsay-Levi had described as one that has “given her slightly fragile body a strength that is quite extraordinary,” is exemplary of the unique way Ramsay-Levi sees elegance.

Having admired the brand since the Karl Lagerfeld-era, where he dressed famous French actresses for the movies she had watched, project Chloé started out as a fantasy for Ramsay-Levi. Now, it is a reality that is imprinted with her identity as she grows to understand the depth of the brand. “In fashion, I can say I’ve never felt an outsider just because I’m a woman,” Ramsay-Levi admitted. Success to her means helping women to feel embraced as she did, starting by having the right attitude. “I think there is no one type of personality, but having an attitude and having a personality [means] you are not simply a doll.” 

Interview by Caroline Suganda