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.

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Kristin Scott Thomas - By Jus­tine Pi­cardie

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

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