Chloé And Its “Femininities”

When almost every country in the world celebrates International Women’s Day, how can the house of Chloé be bold enough to title the exhibition in its new cultural space, adjacent to its Paris headquarters, “Femininities”? Does any forthright female of the 21st century want to be defined by what sounds like a frilly, fancy contrast to her male peers?

But Guy Bourdin, the photographer whose images defined 1970s fashion and died in 1991, is different. He brought to Chloé the kind of positive femininity that seemed even ahead of its time, rather than playing timid sparrow to the peacock male.

“I think Chloé gave women the freedom to dare to be themselves,” says Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, the brand’s current CEO, who decided to celebrate the opening of Maison Chloé – a Haussmann-style building in central Paris – with an exhibition.

The show, curated by Judith Clark, is open to the public (via advance booking at until 6th September, and again during Paris Photo and the FIAC international art fair from 18th October to 18th November.

Which comes first – the photographic legacy of images as intricate, erotic and surreal mise en scène, or the clothing on display? Clark finds different ways of focusing on Chloé, now in its seventh decade. They include the Guy Bourdin pictures as presented in French Vogue with long captions that could not be imagined in today’s glossy magazines.

But the most striking technique is the curator’s switch from the Bohemian freedom of the clothes to displays that pitch neutral colours against a sudden burst of fiery red.

“The first floor has a history of fashion that looks at Guy Bourdin so you can really date the clothes through his perspective; but the second floor drains them of colour,” Clark says, explaining that her dash of red is deliberate, as is leaving the rest monochrome.

This is, of course, part of the photographer’s technique, pitching scarlet lips or shoes like a spurt of blood in his enigmatic pictures.

Since Chloé is to launch a new designer next season – Natacha Ramsay-Levi, formerly with Louis Vuitton – she will soon have to be added to the displays that cover different periods. They start with founder Gaby Aghion in the Fifties and embrace the Karl Lagerfeld years from 1963–1978 and 1992–1997, even though the designer who famously never wants to look back is more communicative in the original Vogue captions than to the current audience.

“There is this idea of Karl Lagerfeld as an outsider, which he said repeatedly at that time,” Clark tells me. “He said that a Vionnet dress was as exotic to him as a dress from Afghanistan, because of his German roots. He would quote a sort of ‘Frenchness’ in the same way he could quote the 18th century.”

The curator had staged a previous exhibition, “Chloé – Attitudes”, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in the autumn of 2012, but that had a more chronological order, including later designers such as Stella McCartney (1997-2002) and Phoebe Philo (1997 to 2006).

From the new Maison Chloé, a mansion built in 1903, Clark explains that her concept is to “open a dialogue around the idea of femininity”.

“But if you put an ‘s’ on the end, I think ‘femininities’ can be lots of different things,” she says. “The femininity that people associate with Chloé is narrower than the reality within the archive.”

I interpret this elliptical comment as meaning that Clark has added her own ideas to the received historical vision of the brand. So Lagerfeld’s invention of “le flou” – fluid clothes cut on the bias – was deliberately distorted by Bourdin, who showed such dresses as “agitated movement”.

The accompanying catalogue, which includes an appendix of images and captions, brings the story to life. As if the brand needed such treatment. Between Bourdin and Lagerfeld, the look became dynamic, yet timeless.

“I think Chloé had a profound role,” says Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, who was appointed by the Richemont luxury group in 2010. “From the very start, Gaby wanted to give women freedom. All the designers who work at Chloé, although their expressions of natural femininity are very different, they always have the same underpinning values. I wanted to bring an awareness of the in-depth femininity, grace, joyfulness, modernity and youth that makes the Chloé girl different. And because freedom is at the heart of Chloé, we want this space to be open to all kinds of artists who want to speak about femininity – it doesn’t have to be just visual art, it can be dance, literature or music. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Femininities – Guy Bourdin” is at the Maison Chloé, 28 rue de la Baume, 75008, Paris until 6 September and again from 18 October–18 November (for tickets visit