Givenchy: Clare Waight Keller Unveils the Spirit of Haute Couture
“It will be a very special show – when you receive the invitation, you will start to see a little bit of the collection,” said Clare Waight-Keller, whose Givenchy Haute Couture show in Paris in July will be the first glimpse of her fashion spirit since that dress.
The British-born designer of the French couture house stunned the fashion world by creating the streamlined wedding gown, with its fairy-tale train, for Meghan Markle – now the Duchess of Sussex.
And after its unqualified success, Clare announced on Monday that her couture inspiration focuses on the Hôtel Caraman, the 19th-century Givenchy townhouse on Avenue George V in Paris. The elegant building – with its grand staircase, elaborate wrought-iron banisters, and ornate salons – was chosen as the headquarters of the maison by the young aristocratic couturier Hubert de Givenchy in 1959.
Clare is still basking in her glory – and only now appreciating her achievement. “It’s funny,” she said. “It takes a while until you understand the impact you have had. When you are in it, the whole thing just feels like you are working, doing your bit.”
“It’s an amazing part of history, so I am super proud,” the designer continued, as she relived that magical moment when the secret she had kept even from her husband and children was beamed across the world at the royal marriage of Prince Harry and his American actress bride.
“Honestly, it’s so much easier when no-one knows – not even my girls – until the night before,” Clare said. When I asked if she felt that Meghan’s dress had made a mark for women in history, she replied, “She is someone who I think really stands for women’s rights. I think she is a positive change for the royal family.”
I have known Clare’s work for over a decade, from her time as Artistic Director of knitwear brand Pringle of Scotland (2005-2011), through her five and a half years at Chloé, the French brand of cool and quirky style.
But when she took on the role of Artistic Director of Givenchy in 2017, that casual, “Chloé girl” aesthetic was given a grander dimension. Clare embraced the codes of the couture house instead of standing apart from Hubert de Givenchy, who died earlier this year at age 91.
Clare had approached the founder for inspiration and her first step was to re-think couture for the 21st century.
“It is an incredible moment – one I have never experienced before – so it’s quite special; an amazing few months bringing all the ideas together and crystallising them,” Clare told me in January as she received an enthusiastic response for her couture story telling. The effect was both actual – with its mix of noble black gowns – and futuristic – with its digitally-shaded colour.
“For me, it was an extraordinary experience to have the most amazing laboratory of techniques at my hands, which I have never had before – mixing incredibly big volumes of dresses, and then narrow columns, while working on texture,” the designer said, as she was congratulated backstage by LVMH supremo Sidney Toledano.
I recently asked the executive Chairman and CEO how and where this resurgence of high fashion had begun.
“It was Clare herself who wanted to re-start haute couture,” Toledano replied. “She has given a good energy to couture, taking up the heritage of Monsieur de Givenchy back in history.”
About the royal wedding, Toledano was jubilant. “It was such a surprise. She didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “For me it was a moment of ‘grande honneur’. But the key was that she had developed a relationship with the Duchess (of Sussex).”
Has the concept of woman-to-woman been the essence of Clare’s work from the outset? I remember that in her Pringle of Scotland years, art played an important role, alongside her relationship with Tilda Swinton. The actress became a fiery mascot, but Clare was smart enough to embrace the work of Scottish artists as inspiration without overdoing the artistic side.
I have kept the letter that Clare wrote to me in March 2011, when she resigned from the Scottish knitwear house to join Chloé, where she took over from a roster of acclaimed designers including female British stars Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo.
“It is with a mixture of sadness, pride, and anticipation that I leave the role I have called my home for the past five and a half years,” she said at the time. A few months later she announced, “I am thrilled to be joining one of the most prestigious design houses in Paris. Chloé is a brand that conveys a beautiful sense of effortlessness.”
On hearing the news, I immediately asked when we could meet up in Paris. Clare revealed the strength that has enabled her to balance motherhood and fashion work at the highest level. “I’m really thrilled to be joining Chloé and moving to Paris!” she wrote in her e-mail. “I would have been so delighted to meet up, but unfortunately everything seems to be happening this week and I’m actually going into hospital tomorrow to have my baby boy!”
Harrison is now six years old, and with her 15-year-old twin daughters Amelia and Charlotte and her American architect husband Philip Keller, Clare is a fine example of a modern working mother.
She cut her fashion teeth as a stylist for Calvin Klein, followed by Ralph Lauren Purple Label and then Gucci with Tom Ford, before joining Pringle as a designer in her own right. Significantly, she has worked on menswear for Givenchy and will be displaying her latest men’s collection at the end of this week.
Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye, the CEO of Chloé, is as generous to Clare now as he was when she worked for him. “I think she’s a very talented, creative person,” he told me. “She has incredible taste and her personality is extremely conducive to collaborations at all levels both internally and externally, with her other creatives and the rest of her team.”
“She has a very strong balance between the imperative of creation and the imperative of rationality,” he continued. “She’s always very open to dialogue with business partners. She is an amazing creative and she is very balanced in her life as well, with three wonderful children. She has a very even keel and a personality that allows people to feel comfortable around her, which is why she is very strong on collaborations.”
The executive was as surprised as everyone else to see Clare on television at the wedding, crouching behind Meghan to straighten out her train.
“I was totally surprised, but happily surprised,” de la Bourdonnaye said. “It felt very moving and very emotional. I felt very happy for everybody – especially for the couple, who definitely came across as very genuine and connected extremely well with the people there – and for the way the dress participated in that by not being too overbearing and making reference with the lace veil to all of the Commonwealth.”
Clare does seem to be smart at taking on a fashion role – and running with it. When I interviewed her for The New York Times in 2011, she defined in detail how she envisioned her “Chloé girl”.
“She’s got a real sense of freedom and is very natural – the mix of something a little bit boyish and a little bit easy; a workwear pant in a beautiful silk, say, with a twist on femininity.”
As an Englishwoman working in Paris, she appreciated the need for balance. “Living here in France is a different experience to living in London,” she said. “I love being here in Paris because it really gives you a sense of French fashion and culture, just absorbing the whole atmosphere. But I also love being a British girl here because you bring both sides into the equation.”
But that was then. Clare, 47, is now, by age and by her sensitivity to a changing world, designing for women – not girls. The second white dress she created for Meghan’s first outing with The Queen was another statement of modern elegance, its wide bateau neckline and slim silhouette were an echo of the wedding dress, although that was crowned by the long, light embroidered train.
“We wanted to create a timeless piece that would emphasise the iconic codes of Givenchy throughout its history, as well as convey modernity through sleek lines and a sharp cut,” Clare explained. “In contrast, the delicate floral beauty of the veil was a vision Meghan and I shared; a special gesture embracing the Commonwealth flora, ascending the circumference of the silk tulle.”
I thought about my long conversation with Hubert de Givenchy last summer in the northern French city of Calais, where the Museum of Lace and Fashion was holding an exhibition of the clothes he had made for his favourite clients, including Audrey Hepburn, the Duchess of Windsor, and Jacqueline Kennedy. Givenchy had left his couture house in 1995, and his successors included John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and more recently Riccardo Tisci, who will soon be showing his first collection in his new role at Burberry.
At the award ceremony for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, Louis Vuitton’s Director and Vice President, Delphine Arnault, expressed her combined emotions of joy and sadness about the royal wedding dress.
“It was a big surprise – magnificent!” Delphine said. “But I thought of Hubert de Givenchy and I am sad he didn’t see it. He would have been so pleased and proud to see Meghan looking so beautiful in Givenchy.”