clare weight keller
Givenchy’s brilliant artistic director kept fashion’s biggest secret this year, discreetly designing Meghan Markle’s glorious wedding dress, while continuing the rich legacy of the fabled French maison.
For more than 30 years, Kristin Scott Thomas has lit up the screen, from her unforgettable performance in the Oscar-winning The English Patient to her powerful role as Clementine Churchill in Darkest Hour, and now she is braving a new challenge – with her directorial debut. By Erica Wagner
When Meghan Markle’s wedding gown was finally revealed on the steps of St George’s Chapel in May this year, it was astonishing not only for its sculptural grace and elegant beauty, but also for the fact that its designer had kept the world’s most-talked-about dress a secret. Clare Waight Keller, who had been appointed the first female artistic director of Givenchy the previous year, told no one about the commission. Instead, she herself did all eight fittings for the dress in private with the Duchess of Sussex; and while the seamstresses of Givenchy’s haute couture atelier in Paris devoted hundreds of hours to making the bateaunecked silk-cady gown, and its exquisitely embroidered long train, none of them (nor indeed anyone at the company) knew the identity of the bride until the day of the wedding.
Yet such discretion is at the heart of Waight Keller’s approach to her work, along with a commitment to creative excellence. I first met her soon after I became editor of Harper’s Bazaar in 2012, when she was creative director of Chloé, and was struck not only by her brilliant interpretation of the brand’s vision of free-spirited femininity, but also by her modesty in an industry that is more often associated with displays of rampant ego. Six years later, as she has risen to become one of the most influential designers of our era, her strength of character remains intact.
We are meeting again today in her studio at Givenchy, the legendary house established in 1952 by the gentlemanly Hubert de Givenchy, who swiftly became famed for his designs for Audrey Hepburn (including the iconic little black dress she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly. Soon after Waight Keller was appointed at Givenchy in 2017, she spent time in the archives and with the founder himself (who died at the age of 91 in March this year). ‘I feel really lucky and privileged that I managed to see him,’ she says. ‘It was a very humbling moment to sit there in his salon and talk to him about his love of fashion and his career; he spoke extensively about how much he loved couture and working with his clients. That was a true passion for him.’
It’s also a passion that she shares, along with an intuitive understanding of the women who will wear her designs: ‘Givenchy created clothes for a woman. It was never a question of him saying, “Here’s
my collection and you will wear it.” It was more about creating for a real person, and understanding her as a person, and her emotions.’
Clearly, Waight Keller brought a similar degree of sensitivity to her meetings with Meghan Markle, when the two of them discussed the design of the wedding dress together, without any intermediaries involved. ‘What was wonderful,’ she says of the experience, ‘is that you build such an intimate relationship, because it’s so personal, there’s nothing else in the way, there’s no entourage. And it makes a very human connection, which is lovely.’
As a consequence, the gown seemed gloriously appropriate for the grown-up woman who was wearing it, rather than being a pastiche of a fairy-tale dress for a mannequin bride. ‘I think it really embodied her, and her values,’ says Waight Keller, ‘this absolutely radiant, beautiful, vibrant, modern woman who’s got a real opinion, and is confident and self-assured, but incredibly effortless as well.’
When she speaks, it occurs to me that Waight Keller might also be describing aspects of herself, as well as the other women who count on her to create collections that reflect the varied requirements and pleasures of their lives. For at 48, she juggles the demands of a high-powered career with being a wife and mother to three children (a six-year-old son and twin daughters, who are 15), commuting between a family home in London and the Givenchy headquarters in Paris. ‘I think it’s very instinctive,’ she says of her work, ‘because I share a lot of facets of what other women want within their lives and consequently in their wardrobe. I travel every
week, so I know what that means in terms of how you think about the way you dress, and I am meeting people that are on a very high level, such as CEOs, as well as working in the atelier, so I’ve got an entire panorama of the daily activities of a working woman.’
At the same time, Waight Keller understands the particular power of couture – which she has reinvigorated at Givenchy – to express our longing for romance and beauty. Hence her ability to craft perfectly tailored pieces for daywear, along with chic yet practical accessories, and heavenly evening gowns (or the ultimate wedding dress) that our dreams are made of. Yet as she observes, ‘the fantasy is still grounded in what I believe in as a modern vision. It’s always moving forward and it always has a strong dynamic to it because ultimately, I believe in a really powerful woman, a really compelling woman, who is so important as a role model today.’
If Waight Keller herself is an inspiring role model, this is in part due to her complete dedication to her craft, combined with an exceptional natural talent. She was born in Birmingham in 1970; her father was an engineering draughtsman (which might explain Clare’s meticulous attention to detail) and her mother worked as a legal secretary. As a child, she was taught to sew by her mother, who made clothes for Clare and her younger sister. ‘We didn’t have a lot of disposable income,’ she says, ‘and my parents preferred to save money to travel and to show us a bit of the world, rather than spending it on clothes. But my mum was a perfectionist about wanting everyone to look nice, and so she said, “Well then, I’m going to make our clothes!” When we were very young, it was just about standing still and being fitted. And then it evolved, with me holding the fabric while she was cutting it, and onto the next stage, so it was step by step.
‘We always made the clothes on our dining table. There were little piles of fabrics, patterns, a sewing machine at the end, and the iron would be out – kind of like an atelier, weirdly. And having learnt the craftsmanship of making something from a flat piece of fabric, all of a sudden you can dress yourself in so many different ways. Then when I became a teenager, my mother said, “Go and choose your own fabric and patterns.” So I started thinking more about it. How do I want to dress? How do I express myself? And that became a passion – I really loved it.’
At 17, she left home for London, to study fashion at Ravensbourne, and subsequently graduated with a Master’s degree from the Royal College of Art. Soon afterwards, she moved to New York to work for Calvin Klein (sleeping on her colleagues’ sofas for several months, until she saved enough money to rent a room of her own). ‘It was hard,’ she says, ‘but I learnt to cope, and it really shaped me, I became very resilient.’ During her second year in Manhattan, she met the man who would become her husband (Philip Keller, an American architect); but despite the evident strength and enduring stability of their relationship, she remained completely absorbed by what she was learning at work.
Waight Keller’s next job was designing menswear at Ralph Lauren, where she says she discovered what underscored his vision of timelessness, in contrast to ‘the speed of fashion’ that she witnessed at Calvin Klein. In doing so, her own wardrobe also evolved. ‘I went from wearing black every single day – it was the Nineties, super-minimal, Helmut Lang, Comme des Garçons, Calvin Klein
– to coming to Ralph Lauren, which opened my world up to colour.’ Thus the experience taught her not only the discipline of tailoring, but about ‘layering colour, and playing much more with fabrics and with pattern.’ The final stage of her consummate training was with Tom Ford, who at this point was building what she describes as ‘a mega brand’. It was here, she says, that she learnt to ‘execute his vision’ while developing her own sensibility (which was shaped, to some degree, by her sense that Ford’s was ‘a very masculine point of view of a woman’, and therefore one that she did not altogether share).
After this rigorous preparation, Waight Keller became creative director of Pringle in 2005, and then at Chloé in 2011, all the while honing her gift for delivering successful accessories, as well as sublimely beguiling yet wearable clothing. At Givenchy, she is in charge of the house’s entire offering – couture, men’s and women’s fashion, and fragrance – with a complete authority that is unusual in an industry more often compartmentalised. According to Philippe Fortunato, the CEO of Givenchy, ‘Clare creates with a total freedom to accomplish what she wishes. She gives our maison the sense of elevation, taste and elegance that is so dear to her, and is doing it on a global level.’ He also notes the parallels with Hubert de Givenchy: ‘Clare is always thinking of the women and men she is dressing or designing for, which makes her comparable to our founder, who had very strong relationships with his clients, and believed in making them look and feel great, just like she does in the present day.’
Above all, she shares an appreciation of the human touch – of the emotional resonance of clothing, and the connections between what we wear, and how we feel – that is fundamental to all great designers. As a mother of teenagers (who come to see her shows, as do the rest of her family, including her proud parents), Waight Keller is keenly aware of how digital technology has not lessened the importance of what she describes as ‘a human conversation’. In fact, she says of her children, she has noticed that it is ‘time with their friends that is more important [than social media] – because that’s the way that we all truly connect.’
Which may help to explain why a new collection by Waight Keller can arouse such tangible emotions: not only on the runway, but also within the audience, who respond to the intimacy of her presentations, as well as to their unusual blend of polished sophistication and subtle poise. Thank heavens, then, for this softly spoken woman whose strength of conviction has nothing to do with bombastic demonstrations of vanity. And no wonder that she kept herself out of the limelight on Meghan Markle’s wedding day, preferring instead to let her work speak for itself, and thereby celebrate a glowing bride who is also a thoroughly independentminded woman. However, it is time for Clare Waight Keller to step forward, and receive all the praise and plaundits that she unquestionably deserves…
‘I believe in a really powerful woman, a really
compelling woman, who is so important as a role model today’
Meghan Markle wearingClare Waight Keller’s Givenchy creation as she walks down the aisle atSt George’s Chapel
Clare Waight Keller