Following her appointment as creative director at storied French house Chloé, Natacha Ramsay-Levi has been widely lauded as the cool girl. The edgy designer. The bold yet refined woman who is injecting the 67-year-old house with new-wave gusto following the departure of its former designer, Clare Waight Keller. And yet, she is also strikingly highbrow. Cultured across fine art and pop art, well-read, and well-traveled, the cinephile prefers to spend time on the couch, with her young son Balthus, curled up with a good book (insert authors you have never heard of) or take a stroll at the street market “getting her things.” Anything but have “people serve her” following one of the six collection drops she is responsible for creating annually at Chloé since her appointment in 2017.
Originally printed in the February 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia.
“Oh, I couldn’t stand that for long,” she says, laughing at the idea of unsolicited pampering at the hands of her team. If, in pictures Ramsay-Levi comes across as somewhat French-girl-I-don’t-care disheveled, somewhat androgynous in her slacks and t-shirts, somewhat distant with her furrowed gaze framed by thick brows, in person, she is as warm as her tan skin and chestnut-colored hair. Her uniform—slacks and a printed blazer take on a feminine musicality with the soft jingle of bangles decorating her wrists. The oversized, gold flame earrings hanging from her lobes flash in unison with the light-handed, bronzed shadow across her heavy lids hinting at a playfulness that is otherwise not quite palpable. Following 14 years alongside her mentor, designer Nicolas Ghesquière—first at Balenciaga where she began handing out coffee and then at Louis Vuitton where she left as design director—Ramsay-Levi has now stepped onto her own center stage, where a team orbit around her, spinning her creations to life.
Feminine, bohemian, and luxuriously free-spirited, the maison Chloé was first founded in 1952 by Gaby Aghion. An Egyptian, born in Alexandria, Aghion first visited Paris in 1947. “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I knew a lot about Chloé, the brand, when I started. But I didn’t know much about Gaby, the founder,” reveals the creative director. “She was so discreet; we have only a few interviews with her in the archives. Gaby didn’t care about her own celebrity. She always felt that if people were interested in her, they would find her.” Arriving in Paris, Aghion was shocked by its poverty, particularly the poor state of women, who didn’t even have the freedom to open a bank account. In comparison, Aghion felt very advanced. Her husband, an Egyptian belonging to a family of wealthy cotton exporters, published an anti-colonialist paper. “Together, they were very free-spirited, avant-gardists. It’s important to underline their position because, at that time, couturiers in Paris were not always on the right side of history,” states Ramsay-Levi. It’s a narrative that mirrors her own upbringing. “My father is a caricature of the French man from the ‘60s ‘70s,” shares the creative director. “He’s a man from the world of ideas and engagement. I would march with him through the streets of Paris, for social rights and an end to racism,” she recalls.
A couture client, Aghion founded her maison out of desire, not need. “She was very wealthy, but couldn’t find the fashion she wanted. She wasn’t a designer by trade so she hired Maxime de la Falaise and Karl Lagerfeld to sketch her visions—that in itself is an artistic direction that we see today,” proclaims Ramsay-Levi. She gave the maison that created luxury ready-to-wear her friend’s name, instead of her own, for the roundness of its letters and sound. The debut collections were showcased at Paris’s Café Lipp and Café de Flore, favored haunts of the city’s surrealist and existentialist thinkers, who, at the time, flocked from all over Europe to the ville lumière.
“Nicolas [Ghesquiere] always said I would have this destiny,” comments Ramsay-Levi gesticulating at her spacious office inside the Chloé headquarters. It is filled with paintings, books, and artefacts including a sarcophagus purchased “for not very much” at an auction, and a ceramic by French artist Valentine Schlegel that she admires for its organic, soft shape. “I was never expecting it [the appointment],” she mentions. “It’s better to be happily surprised than disappointed. But yes, I felt I ready.” Ramsay-Levi remembers that it was her grandmother, a seamstress, who insisted she have an opinion about things. Her homemade clothes became vehicles to express her ever-changing interests and moods—often related to musical genres, be it rap, rock, or rave. Today, at 39-years-old, she considers herself the same, changing her look according to how she feels. Only now, she channels these moods to write her own chapter at Chloé. “If you look at what [former creative directors] Karl, or Hannah [MacGibbon], or Phoebe [Philo] have done, it’s all very different. Chloé is a house that has 70 years of history and every designer has written a chapter of its story without ever betraying the DNA. You can create these different visions as long as you respect that it is a very feminine house. Chloé is a spirit, not a fashion brand offering a total look; rather, one that can enhance the beauty of a woman who wears it.”
Nodding that in the past, Chloé put emphasis on bohemian style, particularly throughout the six-year tenure of Waight Keller, Ramsay-Levi seeks to explore the idea of Bohemia through her eyes. “The scope of Chloé is huge,” she offers. “It can be more tomboy, or sexy, or modern; ultimately, it’s about respecting femininity via a balance and making the Chloé woman more engaged, not so passive.” The creative director shares that she has made a concerted effort to be “louder” with her campaigns shot by Steven Meisel and featuring model Imaan Hammam and collaborations with Arab muses like actor Leïla Slimani and director Houda Benyamina with whom she conducted radio podcasts discussing womanhood. “Femininity has evolved, and yet, not that much. After all, since women could talk, we have interesting things to say. There have always been female voices. Today, we are being heard.”
To express her ideas, Ramsay-Levi builds collections off referenced characters that occupy her mind. For Spring 2019, she looked to Persia and Greece seeking to recreate the spirit of a woman walking across warm desert sands but also enjoying life close to the sea. “I have this way of doing things that is very French—which is making contrasts through layering,” she explains. “I created a ‘70s feeling but one that is a fantasy. I haven’t been to Iran, so it’s my idea of it.” The collection explores Bronze Age, Cycladic culture via hippie modernism in a maximalist mesh of fabrics like silk viscose and denim cut into floaty skirts, oversized blazers, pajama trousers, and mini-dresses in earthy tones. The lot of it is peppered with colorful Middle Eastern-inspired prints and all layered with an abundance of jewels jangling from the waist, ears, neck, wrists, and toes. “I love the spring season,” sighs the designer. “All these natural elements—you go back to a simple life.”
Overseeing accessories, Ramsay-Levi has proven jewelry to be an area of artistic bravura. “Amulets are places where you can put a lot of emotions and messages,” she comments. She points to her own bangles. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” reads one whose engraving quotes the great bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. “Traces alone engender dreams,” reads another. “And this,” starts the creative director, twisting the ring on her finger. “My son made a ring in tinfoil for my birthday. I thought it was very beautiful, so we cast it.”
Like any bonafide sage, Ramsay-Levi’s mind is famished for information. “The nature of fashion is about being open—everything is inspiring. Stimulation is part of the lifestyle,” she states, adding that she will enjoy an evening of abstract, classical music that weekend with her new boyfriend.“I’ve been living in front of the Opéra Comique for two years and have never been,” she exclaims.“I don’t know anything about opera and am cautious to dig because each time I discover a new form of expression, I think, ‘Oh, the scope is so huge!’” she laughs. Her smile beams. For a woman like Ramsay-Levi, the high art will be another seductive delight to the senses; to be seen how it take shapes through the art of cut cloth, which she now so coolly masters.