After only two years at the helm of Givenchy (and an epic royal wedding dress), Clare Waight Keller continues to put women first – as this couture showcase at Musée Rodin in Paris shows
It’s three in the afternoon, during one of the busiest days of couture week, but all feels calm and serene at Givenchy’s all white and black headquarters. I’m here to meet with artistic director Clare Waight Keller, who presented one of the most applauded Paris couture shows of the season the previous night. Since joining the house in 2017, her work has been getting stronger and stronger, and the latest parade of intricate designs with confident shapes, invoking the notion of “noblesse radicale,” is just another medal in her trophy case.
When I finally enter Waight Keller’s office at the top of the Haussmann building, I’m impressed with how organized everything appears to be. The ceilings are high and there’s a lot of natural light, but I can’t find messy mood boards, samples of fabrics, or crumbling piles of photography books on site. If many times creative geniuses seem to find their inspiration in the middle of the chaos, this is not the case here.
As we greet each other, I recognize Waight Keller’s elegant silhouette from her discreet five-second appearance at the end of her shows, wearing her signature silk blouse and straight-cut pants. But, tricks of the trade, I also spot a bag on the chair that I can’t recognize from any of her past Givenchy collections. “I’m test-driving it at the moment,” she mentions with a smile. “I’m constantly commenting on things, saying, ‘This is too big,’ ‘This doesn’t feel right in my hand,’ so I’m able as a woman to give very informed notes about how something should feel. You just know what’s annoying and what’s great.”
In the post golden era of the male star couturier, when fashion was exciting but not always putting women’s wishes first, Waight Keller represents a strong generation of female designers who are creating collections that target the real needs of its clientele. Having previously worked at labels that are all about wearability – Tom Ford’s Gucci, but also Ralph Lauren, Chloé, and Pringle of Scotland – this may be one of her biggest advantages when compared with the work of her predecessor, Riccardo Tisci, known for his luxe streetwear and highly coveted yet dramatic designs. “I had a blank page when I came to Givenchy, which was very nice. I was able to get familiar with the archives, just to understand the base, but very quickly I understood what I wanted my first statement to be,” she explains. “It was not clear for everybody, but my focus was on building tailoring, the shoulders, and the silhouette that I found throughout the archives.”
Even though Waight Keller seems to be a practical woman who believes in the power of a well-tailored suit, structured with architectural precision, this doesn’t mean she is not seduced by the magical world of couture, and the mise-en-scène that envelops this art form. In fact, one of her first decisions when arriving at the house, and that was applauded by founder Hubert de Givenchy, still alive at that time, was to bring the couture collections back to the runway, and to extend couture to menswear as well.
From her encounter with monsieur Givenchy, the designer remembers the icon as a tall, elegant man, who was not shy to share his views on the growing importance of China, his still ongoing exhibitions at the time, and the strong relationship with muse Audrey Hepburn, who will always be remembered wearing a black Givenchy cocktail dress in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “I had the pleasure to visit his house, the one you see in books. It was truly spectacular and beautiful. He was quite old at that point, and I met him in the main room, surrounded by the amazing art he always collected. He had on the wall his Picassos, his Matisses, and all distilled an exquisite taste. Interestingly, it was quite modern. Even if he had opulent fabrics on his sofas and lamps, he had a lot of modern art,” the designer remembers. “I think he was incredibly thrilled with the fact that I was going to restart couture as a business. It wasn’t just about a few dresses here and there. For him, that was where he founded his house and where he was the happiest.”
Back to the previous night, and I’m running to the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, where Givenchy is hosting its couture show. Once again, Waight Keller made us all dream just with the enigmatic invitation, holding a delicate black feather inside. The show is about to start, and strong piano notes fill the room with suspense. One by one, models march wearing dresses and capes holding horsehair and feathers, and intricate jackets embroidered with platinum sequins, while a black velvet dress with an unexpected bell shape in the bottom makes a très couture statement. Everything felt very aristocratic, even nostalgic, but with a modern edge. “The bell shapes are quite iconic and early Givenchy,” the designer points out. “I researched in history books, exhibitions, in an incredible Indian archive… Imagine if you walked into a château in France or London, and you would find all these amazing tapestries and precious fabrics in the attic,” she continues, when asked about her inspiration. “I’m English, so we have some fabulous aristocratic characters, and I grew up visiting amazing homes in London and learning art history. This knowledge allows me to fantasize even more, and it becomes exciting to create a character – in this case, a woman who knows how to express herself.” While so many heritage brands are going towards more streetwear designs, where subtlety is swapped for massive logos and ballerina shoes for bulky sneakers, I wonder who is Givenchy’s couture client, and how the weight of heritage doesn’t block Waight Keller’s pursuit for modernity. Look, for instance, at the acclaimed wedding dress designed for Meghan, Duchess of Sussex – “a monumental and extraordinary high point of my career,” Waight Keller says – unquestionably classic, but still looking modern and proper for a 21st century royal. The designer explains that although the DNA of the house needs to be respected, the archive references are used in a “very, very sparing way.” Elements of it are pulled just here and there, always in a “subtle way.” “It’s all kept in a secret location, where things are handled with white gloves,” she laughs, describing her 007-like visits to the archives of the house. “You just get taken there and get dropped off at a point where someone else picks you up from. There’s no address. You can’t Google it.”
Waight Keller’s love of fashion started in her early years. The daughter of a legal secretary who decided to stay at home, she was perpetually surrounded by textiles and creativity. “My mom would always be around the house making things. I learned that from her,” she confides. “The sewing machine would be out on the dining table, and the ironing board and fabrics were everywhere. I didn’t realize it at the time, but even though it was home-made, it had all the elements of an atelier. I learned from her how to pin pants, how to take measurements properly, and how to stitch seams. Slowly I became a part of it, too.”
Coming from a family that was “not well-off at all,” going for a fashion degree instead of a more classic and stable job was a leap of faith – yet one that clearly paid off. Waight Keller is not only one of the most exciting designers of today, she’s also been able to build a well-balanced life that allows her to combine her highly stressful job with motherhood and a happy marriage to American architect Philip Keller. “I’m really focused so I’ll work long days until nine or 10 in the evening, but I’m very organized and structured. And I never work on weekends,” she explains. “I live and do a lot in London as well, such as my research, including going through my own archives, doing vintage shopping… Now, it’s easy to maintain but as I do 10 collections a year, it just never stops.”
Before we end our conversation and I run to my next fashion week appointment, I ask if her twin daughters and baby boy understand what Mommy does, and her important contribution to the world of fashion. “I think they do but it’s more their friends telling them. I’m not someone who’s recognized on the street, I mean, no one is going to say, ‘Oh, there she is!’ I’m still quite incognito,” she smiles. “It’s more when they come into this world and see the shows and the result of all the work.” It is fair to say, editors and women around the world share that feeling.
Originally published in the September 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia