February 28, 2024

Chemena Kamali Talks Chloé: Karl, Freedom, Phoebe, Empathy, and the Enduring Appeal of the 1970s

Chemena Kamali photographed in her office at Chloé. Photo: Jody Rogac/ Courtesy of Chloé

Chemena Kamali, Chloé’s recently appointed creative director, and I met in Paris one Monday in late January. I’m in the city for an all-too-brief couple of hours just to interview her, and Kamali was in what I will discover, during the course of our long conversation, typical form: Ebullient, upbeat, and as warm as she is thoughtful, which is a high bar. This could be due to her and her husband, Konstantin, and their two sons (two and five years old) making a last-minute dash to Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi for New Year’s Eve (which also just happens to be her birthday—that night, she turned 42). And it’s also likely to be down to the fact that on October 9th of last year, Kamali got her dream job: Leading the house of Chloé.

Kamali, who hails from Dortmund, near Dusseldorf, in Germany, has a long history with the house, as you will read: She started as an intern, before working with various Chloé creative directors—Phoebe Philo, Hannah MacGibbon, Clare Waight Keller—for two long stints over the last twenty years, rising through the ranks with increasing seniority. She also worked for Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent for six years, joining the house in 2016. Kamali loved her time with Vaccarello at Saint Laurent, yet it was always the house of Chloé that was twinkling in her head in much the same way that the Eiffel Tower shimmers every night: with absolute regularity. When the offer came up, it wasn’t so much that all roads lead to Rome, but rather back to Avenue Percier, the Chloé HQ in the city’s chic eighth arrondissement.

Kamali and I chatted at a stripped-down natural wood table in her office, a curvaceous Vladimir Kagan sofa in the corner and a ton of images from Chloé collections past—most notably from the late-’70s era of then-creative director Karl Lagerfeld—mounted on one wall. You notice the clothes, of course, with their sensual, liberated, and spirited attitude, but what you also notice is the exuberance and joy that radiates from the women wearing them. That Kamali wants to make both elements a big part of her Chloé is already evident in her pre-fall, which will be a taster of the Fall 2024 collection that she will unveil on February 29th. Movingly, the collection will be dedicated to her father, who passed away last week.

Over the course of those two hours last month, Kamali and I discussed how much everything goes back to Lagerfeld (as well as Chloé founder Gaby Aghion), the reasons the spirit of the ’70s still resonates for her today, and why the house should always make women the center of absolutely everything it does.

This is my third time here. My first time was more than 20 years ago. I was doing my undergraduate studies at Trier University in Germany before going on to do my masters at Central St. Martins in London. When you grew up in Germany in the Nineties, Karl Lagerfeld was really an icon, a national hero, and I was really drawn to what he did at Chloé. As part of my undergraduate course I had to do an internship. All the other students were sending out twenty applications to all the big houses in Paris, in Milan, in London, and I didn’t send out any applications. I just wanted to go to Chloé—because of Karl, and also because it was the start of Phoebe [Philo]’s time there.

I took my portfolio on the train from Dusseldorf to Paris. I didn’t have a meeting; I didn’t have a name—I just knew where the headquarters were and I showed up, and the receptionist thought I was crazy: “Who are you meeting? Do you have a rendezvous?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t—but I came to show my portfolio, maybe to the studio director. I would like to apply for an internship.” I was told: “Well, you have to make an appointment. No-one has time to see you.” I was begging, and waiting there for hours—and at the end of the day she let me see the studio director, and I had my interview, and I showed my portfolio. Two weeks later, they called me to say that I could start.

So you wanted Chloé and only Chloé. What was it like to actually work there?

I began as an intern, and then they asked me to stay, and I was an assistant designer. At the beginning I was doing a lot of research for Phoebe [creative director from 2001 to 2006] and Hannah [MacGibbon, Philo’s deputy from 2001 to 2006, before later becoming creative director from 2008 to 2011], standing for hours at the photocopier, going through all the old Vogues for hours and nights and weekends [laughs]. And obviously back then it was the ’70s muses, all of them—Charlotte Rampling, Lauren Hutton, Jane Birkin, Jerry Hall—these iconic women. It was like this world was opening up in front of me. It was really like, Okay, this is where I belong. [It was one of] those decisive moments, when you connect to something that you feel is intuitively right.

Phoebe always had this huge wall of inspiration, and it was just about that kind of effortless, late-’70s femininity that was very natural. It wasn’t necessarily about the clothes—it was more about the spirit of that woman. There was a sense of freedom. If you say Charlotte Rampling and so on, those women were the starting point—but if you would then go into Vogue November 1977 and December 1978 and January 1979, you are able to go through all the years: the editorials, the ads, the covers, the color palette, all these shades of nudes and browns and caramels and cognacs—the colors of those late-’70s Vogues became the foundation for my Central Saint Martins graduation collection in 2007. The images were so great. There was so much fluidity and motion and energy, and it felt very… it was a period in fashion that felt the most natural, in a way. The girls were caught in the off moment, not so posed, or passive—they were doing something.

You joined at one of the pivotal moments for the house. What was it like working with the Chloé team back then?

What really struck me was that the studio—Phoebe, Hannah, Blue Farrier, and Sara Jowett—all these women were living it themselves. It was really just about what they wanted to wear—as easy as that. They fitted the clothes on themselves, intuitively questioning how things felt and what attitude they wanted to express—that was the magic formula. I was just drawn to that sort of woman-to-woman connection, about designing things to wear with a certain ease, not over-complicating things. Nothing was conceptualized or intellectualized. They were taking inspiration from all over the place: from flea markets, from magazines, from music, from going to concerts. It was very much rooted in reality.

That sense of complicity between the brand and the women wearing it has been very strong over the years, but particularly during Phoebe’s tenure.

There was this urgency back then, because you could relate to the woman. She wasn’t this distant fantasy—you thought you knew her, you wanted to look like her, you wanted to be her. At the shows, backstage, the girls would come in from the other shows and they were all completely dressed in Chloé because that’s what they wore in their private lives. It was an iconic moment for fashion, this intuitive way of dressing. It was what Chloé was always about, should always be about—and which was different to a lot of other houses. It’s unique.

I imagine all of this is really playing into your vision of Chloé.

When I had those first conversations with Chloé and with Richemont (the owner of the house) about what I wanted to do, I always said, “I really would like to bring back these feelings that I had when I fell in love with the house in the first place.” I strongly believe that there are a lot of women out there, worldwide, who have this longing, who remember those days and want to feel it again, because Chloé really is an emotional brand. Women have memories of it, and when you talk to them, regardless of their age—it can be a twenty-five-year-old or my mother, who is 72 and still wears Chloé from when I was here with Claire [Waight Keller, artistic director from 2011 to 2017] or even old, old Chloé, because she used to buy it back in the day. She’ll say to me, “There’s not any other brand that gives me this feeling: the colors and the softness and the coats and the blouses…”

I want to go back to that emotional connection, to reroute and re-navigate Chloé back to this essence and to that soul, because it has a very warm soul. My own emotional connection, my own love for Chloé, is connected also to Paris—but that spirit stayed with me even when I worked in other places. When I worked at Saint Laurent, sometimes I would propose something to Anthony [Vaccarello] and he would say, “Oh, no—this is just too feminine; it’s too soft. Keep that for Chloé!”

That complicity, a camaraderie, even, was really there from the beginning, when Gaby Aghion founded Chloé in the late ’50s, no?

When Gaby began Chloé, it was definitely about empowering women—though, of course, empowering women fifty years ago looked different than what it looks like today. She was one of the very few women who had the courage to start a fashion business back then. There were all the famous men in Paris, the couturiers, and the silhouette looked very different—very sculpted and very structured. She was someone who said, “You know what? I want to give a certain lightness and freedom to the clothes so that you can work in them, you can live your life in them, because you have stuff to do.” She was working, and when you work, you want to be at ease; you want to be able to move.

She was very much ahead of her time.

She was a pioneer—the first to do ready to wear, but that has never really been properly communicated. And that sense of liberation and this idea of freedom is still relevant to what we’re doing. Because today, of course, women—in our Western world right now, at least—can be whoever they want to be, thank God, and work on whatever their passion is, and have equal rights. Of course, I think if you bring it into the context, let’s say, of this industry, because this is kind of this conversation at the moment around female creative directors, I think that at the end of the day, talent and skill is regardless of gender.

Your appointment was announced as we saw a flurry of other creative directors—all men—being appointed, and there has understandably been talk of an imbalance in the industry.

It’s not necessarily that we’re restricted by our gender today, but I do think that women—particularly at a more advanced stage of their career—face additional challenges that male designers do not. That moment of [deciding] to have a family or not is going to impact a woman’s career more than a man’s career.

Obviously Karl led the house for many years, but Chloé, for most of its history, has been so much about a woman’s perspective on what other women want to wear, and that has become part of the narrative around the lack of women getting these big jobs—where’s their point of view?

Yes, yes: I would love to see a few more female points of views—we talk a lot about femininity, but ultimately, what is modern femininity today? For me, it’s connected to female energy, your female self, being quite authentic, and trusting your intuition. I wish there would be more of that. Sometimes you feel like the women who are being spoken about are still as this kind of fantasy women, these objects that are more distant—or an idea of a woman, let’s say.

Chloé, spring 2004 ready-to-wear. Photo: Marcio Madeira

Changing tack for a second, I’d like to go back to the history of Chloé—specifically, your favorite collections—which are they?

[Laughs] Between 1975 and 1979, there were a couple of really amazing Karl collections that I absolutely love. More recently, I would say Spring-Summer 2003 and Spring-Summer 2004 from Phoebe, and Autumn-Winter 2009 from Hannah [MacGibbon] that I love. And I loved the Spring-Summer 2015 collection when I was there with Claire Waight Keller. Also, Spring 2003 had a statement necklace of silver petals that was connected to a T-shirt that was actually the first designer piece I’ve ever bought in my life—at a sample sale for Chloé employees.

Speaking of your clothes, I heard that you have an amazing archive of vintage blouses. Is the one you’re wearing part of it?

This one’s old, no name, no tag. I got it because I loved the patch pocket, the volume, the little shoulder pads—but yes, I collect blouses. I probably have 600, 700.

Wow! Are they all at your home?

Yes—organized by color. They start with white and off-white, and then go into beiges and blush tones.

Do you wear all of them?

I wear about 80 percent. Some are just too over the top, or too complicated, or too ripped apart—but I love blouses! If there’s one thing that’s very Chloé, it’s the blouse.

The recent Chloé exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York had this whole wall of incredible blouses from the house from over the decades. And to talk about history a bit more, I’d like to ask you about Karl, especially since I see some images from his time up on your office wall. You mentioned when we started speaking that he was a big part of you falling for Chloé.

A crucial, foundational period was the Karl era. I love looking at what he did in the late ’70s when he really experimented with an effortless femininity, bringing in the movement and lightness and fluidity. I always go back to that. I study each collection. He was very talented in working out the more intricate flou embellishments, but he also worked on incredible silhouettes for tailoring and outerwear. The years of 1977 to 1979 were crucial to shaping Chloé’s most recognizable codes—and everything that was done after that somehow goes back to that period when he was there.

Stella [McCartney, creative director from 1997 to 2001] and Phoebe really went back to them—especially Phoebe, but of course in an updated way. The early 2000s, which was also a very important and relevant period in Chloé history, gave them a modern injection which really mirrored that generation of women—more modern and more upbeat and a bit more sexy and radiant. Karl mirrored his generation, too—he once said in an interview that for Chloé he really looked at young women on the street. His Chloé was about the now and what’s going to come next.

So we need to talk about your next, or more accurately, your first work for the house, Chloé pre-fall, which will be unveiled after we’ve seen your debut runway show. Can you talk to me a little about the pre-collection, in terms of what you wanted to establish with it? No one has really seen it yet, and without wanting to give a ton away, I really liked the way you worked with the contradictory elements of Chloé: hard and soft, the utilitarian and the hyper delicate—the diaphanous dresses, the capes, the super-long boots, the high-waisted jeans, the slouchy big soft bag denuded of branding.

We presented it in December to key clients—we kept it very intimate because I wanted that collection to be an intuitive start to the wardrobe of my Chloé, with clothes that were anchored in a very sincere idea of reality. To speak really specifically about the clothes, I wanted a fresh start in terms of lightness, movement, flou, strong proportion play, great outerwear pieces—timeless and iconic wardrobe pieces which are recognizably Chloé. With the pre-collection, it’s not just about working on pieces and categories, having this entire look and attitude in mind. I always start the design process by working everything into looks—styling the collection with different elements and building a virtual lineup with everything, not just the ready to wear: the bags, the accessories, the jewelry, the belts—everything. It’s very much a holistic approach.

Will the pre-fall be reflected in your fall 2024 collection, your debut runway show?

The show collection will definitely be an evolution of the pre-collection. There are certain looks and elements that we’re going to push into more of a show context, so there’s definitely a strong connection between those two collections.

And if you had to describe that runway debut in five words, what would they be?

Chloé, Chloé, Chloé, Chloé, Chloé!

Good answer—if evasive [laughs]! Are you and your team trying on the clothes just as everyone did when you first started working at the house?

We try everything just to get our own feeling on it. I always ask the women around me: “Would you wear that?” And if the answer is “No,” it’s a no. There’s always this kind of reality check. I think that’s why the pre-collection is good to start with, because you don’t have the pressure of the big message of the show—it’s really just sincerely and honestly about the clothes.

You mentioned bags. When we photographed you for the March 2024 issue, we got our first—really our only!—look at what you’ve been up to design-wise. You were carrying the new Camera Bag from your pre-fall, with a leather trench from the same collection. Given the likes of the Paddington being such a big part of the It Bag story—and an even bigger success for the house—what’s your thinking about them?

They are extremely important to me—because again, it’s not about categories. For me the bags, accessories, leather coats, the blouses—everything really sits together. When I work on my looks, I integrate the bags immediately: The intention, function, attitude, proportion. What was quite unique about the success of Chloé’s bags was that they had no logos—they were never precious objects. Always soft, in vegetal leather, with an untreated grain patina. They age super-well. I love this new perfect cognac shade we’ve done, which took us a few testings to get right. But it’s important that with our bags you’re not afraid to put them on the floor when you’re sitting in a café. We’re doing an updated version of the Paraty bag, because I wanted to reintroduce an iconic bag from the past, but with an update—a facelift, basically. It’s super chic.

Chloé, spring 2015 ready-to-wear. Photo: Marcus Tondo / Indigitalimages.com

It’s obvious to say, but your new role goes beyond design: You have to paint a bigger picture of the world with the brand.

Absolutely. Fashion has radically changed in the last few years, and that has redefined the role of the creative director. It’s not just about the clothes: You have to think about everything—your community, about the women that embody the brand, and who you want to speak to, and how you want to speak with them—in a more 360-degree approach. Brands have become cultural platforms, and our consumers and clients are much more informed—they’re expecting much more from fashion brands or fashion houses than they used to. We have a responsibility to be extremely authentic and honest. The right way forward for us is not about shouting or being everywhere and talking to everyone and doing everything. It’s more doing what feels right—and again, that comes down to intuition.

Two aspects of that universe-building: You did a teaser campaign of women of different ages who had an association with the house, and it seems like—especially after your earlier comments about your mother—you’re challenging the idea that the house is only about the young; that the famous Chloé girl we always think of is changing….

The idea of the Chloé girl was really such a strong narrative around the house: There was the brand, and then there was the girl. I could really relate to that when I was 20, but she has evolved—she’s not just that anymore. It doesn’t mean that the idea of the Chloé girl isn’t still relevant, but that Chloé girl and the Chloe woman co-exist—and they can do so because at the end of the day, it’s more about a youthful spirit than about age. It’s about having that spirit in your mind and your heart, no matter how old you are.

That certainly seemed to be the case in the campaign, where you went from the newest of the new models to someone like Jerry Hall.

I wanted to go back to look at the iconic women and muses and faces of the house’s history, so we brought back Jerry Hall, who was the muse of Karl while he was at Chloé. (She told me the craziest stories when we shot her—really off-the-record stories, because everyone was dating each other and da da da da.) She was living in Karl’s apartment, part of this close circle of friends, and she was a huge inspiration to him.

Another woman I wanted to bring back was Jessica Miller [who featured in the house’s Spring 2004 advertising campaign]. Jessica is this free spirit at heart—she really embodies the Chloé woman because she’s just extremely warm and compassionate and fun and sexy, and she feels it. She has a vibe—she has this energy, this little bit of cheekiness.

There’s Natalia Vodianova, who was extremely young when she first worked for the house—I think Chloé was one of the first runway shows that she did. She really followed her dreams: She’s a mother, and she does amazing work with her charity. And we brought Liya Kebede from those years, and then a couple of new faces, like Kristin Lindseth, who represent more the generation of Chloé today.

They’re all amazing women. They come on set, and you feel a real connection. Suvi Kopponen, who is going to be in a second campaign that we just shot, came in and was like, “Oh my God—Chloé was always my favorite job, because we had so much fun. It was just so nice and so gentle, and everyone cared—it was such a woman’s house.”

The other thing that has been an important narrative at the house was its commitment to sustainability, what with its B Corp status, which was such an accomplishment.

I inherited it from Gabriela [Hearst, creative director from 2020 to 2023], and I am extremely proud that I did—it’s extremely important moving forward. It was an incredible achievement, and a lot of work, and it really is ingrained in every single aspect of the business, and so it is my responsibility to carry on that evolution. For example, when we choose fabrics, we’re making sure we’re using low-impact fabrics—or if there’s something that we’re looking for for a certain look but can’t find a low-impact version, I work really closely with the fabric department to develop it in a low-impact way. There’s a lot of awareness. It’s 100% ingrained in the way we work. The factories that we work with all respect our values, our standards, and that is being checked every day and every season—it’s been taken really seriously inside the house. It has to be a given today.

Chloé, spring 2003 ready-to-wear. Photo: Shoot Digital for Style.com

I know, Chemena, before starting at Chloé, you were consulting for Frame, and that you and your family were living in California. How was your life there?

Los Angeles has such a sense of freedom and a strong artistic energy, but you have to live there to understand it. It’s not like staying at the Sunset Tower or the Chateau Marmont and thinking you’re in LA—it’s when you get to know your neighbors and you have your kids at school and you’re connected more—the French would say de la vie quotidienne: daily life. And then you drive a lot, so you listen to a lot of music. We were living in Santa Monica, 10 minutes away from the ocean: You wake up really early with this incredible light, you go to bed quite early, and you’re detached from Europe because of the time difference—at 2 pm there’s no more messages, no more emails, so there’s this disconnect.

I think there’s something very Chloé about this California mindset. Of course there’s always this French sophistication and refinement with Chloé—it’s rooted in Paris—but another part of my narrative will always be this freedom and undone-ness that I love about the Chloé girl: She’s not perfect, and that undone-ness is rooted in the fact that I not only just spent a year in LA, but before that, in my teenage years, I lived there for four years. It has been one of my all-time inspirations: This sensuality that’s connected to nature, and to natural beauty and hair and skin and sun, and this coastal utopia.

That’s why I love looking at all these ’70s photographers like Hugh Holland, Mimi Plumb—everyone who was capturing youth culture in the ’70s. As we spent this last year there, all of my initial inspirations are rooted in that decade.. And I had the time to dig in more, because usually you’re just there for a few weeks and then you come back. I was also revisiting my all-time favorite movies, like Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, or Heat with Robert De Niro—I don’t know why I’m obsessed with that movie, but I love the soundtrack—or The Virgin Suicides. I love Coppola’s female point of view. Being there put me in a really good mindset for this journey that started when I arrived back in Paris.

And likely lovely to be in a city which doesn’t bear the weight of being so much part of the fashion world when you are just about to go back to the fray!

You know what is so amazing about LA? There’s zero judgment—people just do whatever they feel like doing. They wear whatever they want to wear, they don’t think about who they are going to bump into or whatever. And I like that—I like that it’s so free, and that’s why I think I was able to be really productive there.

Coming back, doing this job, means you’re also coming from behind the scenes, walking onto the center stage. I guess nothing prepares you for that except actually doing it, but how, if it’s not a silly question, does it feel?

It’s still very abstract. Really, honestly, I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Maybe I’m a little bit like, “Oh, let’s talk about it later,” because I feel like I’ve been so busy with arriving here, restructuring everything, working on getting a pre-collection out, working on a show in a couple of weeks. I’ve been so busy that this question has been a little bit pushed away in my mind—but from being an intern to being the creative director, I have really loved every step of the way. And you can ask everyone who ever worked with me about this, but I was always quite open about my love for Chloé—I’ve always said how much I loved the brand and the history of it.

So it feels strange, but also natural in a way, because I have been through the doors three times now—I was already working in this fitting room a decade ago with Claire, and just this Saturday I brought my kids here because they wanted to come to work with me, and since it was the weekend, there was no one here. I was like, “That’s so crazy: Ten years ago I was working in that fitting room with Claire’s team, and now all these years later, my kids are running around in it.”

Chloé, fall 2009 ready-to-wear. Photo: Marcio Madeira

One last thing, Chemena—and this came up when I was chatting with a couple of my Vogue Runway colleagues who always have their finger on the pulse: They’re feeling it’s time for boho to stage a comeback. What are your thoughts on that, since that was also so much part of the vibe of Chloé when you first landed at the house?

You know what I think that comes from? I think there’s this longing for undone-ness and freedom and softness and movement, and when you look at history, it’s rooted in the ’70s, when people wanted to free themselves from conventions and traditional lifestyles and sexuality. In terms of fashion, at some point boho was overdone and overused; it was past its peak and had gotten really commercial. The industry got tired of it, and it disappeared—but it’s an interesting question, because this longing for it comes from wanting to feel that spirit once more. It’s the moment for it again: People want to be themselves, live the way they live—defining your life for yourself.

There’s so much going on in the world—so much harshness and ugliness—and I think there’s this longing for douceur—I don’t want to say softness, because in English it doesn’t sound right. It’s the French meaning of douceur, meaning that people are longing for something that feels kind of warm and soft and douce, that people want beauty. That’s something that is important for my Chloé moving forward. At the end of the day, you need to block out the noise when you take on a huge role like this and just really do what feels right for you.

Originally published in Vogue.com

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