ELE­GANCE RE­BORN

Lily Collins goes in­side Givenchy de­signer Clare Waight Keller’s Paris ate­lier

InStyle (USA) - - Directory - by ERIC WIL­SON pho­tographed by SI­MON PROCTER styled by COLUMBINE SMILLE

“The power of cou­ture, I felt, was hugely im­por­tant to the house.” —CLARE WAIGHT KELLER

It was only a year ago that Clare Waight Keller met Hu­bert de Givenchy for the first—and only—time. Aris­to­cratic, el­e­gant, and im­pos­ingly tall at nearly 6 feet, 6 inches, Givenchy re­mained an ac­tive force in the haute cir­cles of French cul­ture since his re­tire­ment from fash­ion in 1995, but he claimed to take lit­tle in­ter­est in the iconic house he left be­hind. As a rule, he re­frained from voic­ing his opin­ions on the oc­ca­sion­ally au­da­cious de­signs of his suc­ces­sors, save for once, when he al­lowed to a re­porter fromwwd, “I suf­fer. What is hap­pen­ing doesn’t make me happy. After all, one is proud of one’s name.”

Nev­er­the­less, Waight Keller, who had been ap­pointed artis­tic direc­tor that March, be­com­ing the fifth de­signer to take charge since Givenchy left and the first woman in that role, had been seek­ing an au­di­ence all sum­mer. Alas, he had been away in the South of France, and it was only about 10 days be­fore her run­way début when she was in­vited into his Paris home—a grand­hô­tel par­ti­c­ulier filled with an­tiques and vivid rep­re­sen­ta­tions of 20th-cen­tury art, from Pi­casso to Rothko, with a gor­geous green gar­den in the back.

“I more or less had my col­lec­tion to­gether, and I was eager to see him,” re­calls Waight Keller, who was al­ready well re­garded in the in­dus­try for her suc­cess­ful six-year run at Chloé, as well as for her fault­less rep­u­ta­tion for even­keeled pro­fes­sion­al­ism. She was not seek­ing ap­proval so much as some per­sonal in­sight into the man whose ar­chives she had been study­ing dur­ing her first few months at the com­pany and whose close re­la­tion­ship with Au­drey Hep­burn re­sulted in some of the most fa­mous dresses in moviemak­ing his­tory. And more im­por­tant, she wanted to tell Givenchy about her plans to re­build the com­pany’s cou­ture busi­ness, which had shrunk con­sid­er­ably dur­ing the 12-year reign of her pre­de­ces­sor, Ric­cardo Tisci, whose demo­cratic aes­thetic—un­de­ni­ably pow­er­ful in its own way—merged lux­ury with provoca­tive el­e­ments of streetwear.

“There re­ally was a strong con­nec­tion be­tween us,” Waight Keller says of her en­counter with Givenchy, which lasted for more than an hour and a half. “I asked him a few very sim­ple ques­tions, things like, ‘ What are your fa­vorite col­ors?’ And I asked him about Au­drey, of course—he brings up in con­ver­sa­tion nat­u­rally his love of her and her style and the fact that there was this sense of drama in dress­ing up, that el­e­ment of re­ally lov­ing cou­ture. He was ex­tremely happy to hear I was go­ing back to a sense of ele­gance. He lit­er­ally said to me, ‘I was never more happy than when I was work­ing on cou­ture. For me, that was the heart of ev­ery­thing, and I be­lieve it is the soul of the com­pany.’ ”

It is tempt­ing to imag­ine that Givenchy, who died this March at the age of 91, would have ap­proved of what Waight Keller has achieved in a mat­ter of a year, which is a very short time frame for a de­signer to make her mark. Re­flect­ing on the whirl­wind of events—com­plet­ing two ready-to-wear col­lec­tions, pre­sent­ing her first cou­ture show in Jan­uary to wildly en­thu­si­as­tic re­views, and then the ul­ti­mate coup of de­sign­ing Meghan Markle’s gown for her mar­riage to Prince Harry on May 19—she used the fol­low­ing words at var­i­ous points dur­ing an in­ter­view from her home in Lon­don: “amaz­ing,” “as­ton­ish­ing,” “ex­tra­or­di­nary,” “fan­tas­tic,” “fas­ci­nat­ing,” “in­cred­i­ble,” and “gen­uinely one of the most spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ences I have ever had.” (The last was in ref­er­ence to meet­ing Givenchy.)

As phe­nom­e­nal as these mo­ments have been for Waight Keller, it is not en­tirely sur­pris­ing to those who have watched the pro­gres­sion of her ca­reer, from her metic­u­lous work be­hind the scenes as a de­signer for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lau­ren, and Tom Ford at Gucci to di­rect­ing la­bels at Pringle of Scot­land, then Chloé, and now Givenchy. The thing ev­ery­one first no­tices about Waight Keller is that she’s al­ways calm. And she’s also very nice, at­tributes that are only re­mark­able be­cause ev­ery­one else in fash­ion seems so stressed out all the time. But she didn’t get this far—to the very top of one of the hand­ful of re­main­ing Parisian houses to main­tain a true haute- cou­ture ate­lier—based solely on her per­son­al­ity. Rather, she has al­ways demon­strated real dis­ci­pline in how she works, which lends a de­gree of prac­ti­cal­ity to her de­signs and to how she ex­e­cutes her vi­sion.

Ac­tress Lily Collins re­mem­bers meet­ing Waight Keller a decade ago when she was in­vited to at­tend one of the de­signer’s first shows for Pringle. “I walked into my fit­ting, and she was just a ball of en­ergy but also in­cred­i­bly calm,” Collins says. “I thought, ‘ This is so strange—how is she so lev­el­headed and at the same time so en­er­getic? Doesn’t she have a show to­mor­row?’ She is just so pas­sion­ate and vi­brant when she talks.”

Collins, who was film­ing the BBC pro­duc­tion ofles Misérables in Brus­sels just be­fore fly­ing to Paris for her In­style shoot, felt as if she were re­unit­ing with an old girl­friend. She had al­ready trav­eled with the de­signer to Tokyo for a brand event and to New York to at­tend the Met Gala, where she wore a Givenchy cou­ture gown that com­bined lay­ers of black satin, or­ganza, and radz­imir with a white trim around the loose col­lar, a not-quite-chaste in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a nun’s habit.

“It was so beau­ti­fully telling of that line be­tween mak­ing a state­ment and not be­ing too cos­tumey,” Collins says. “I think that is what Clare is do­ing with the brand.”

At Givenchy, Waight Keller im­me­di­ately es­tab­lished codes for tai­lor­ing and clean lines, a strong shoul­der, a sense of fem­i­nin­ity for women, a dark ro­mance for men, and a graphic pal­ette of black, white, and red. Tak­ing a firm eth­i­cal po­si­tion, she also per­suaded man­age­ment to aban- don the use of real fur and per­son­ally worked with man­u­fac­tur­ers to de­velop faux al­ter­na­tives so real-look­ing that many of her close friends were fooled. And, as promised, she brought back cou­ture as a se­ri­ous busi­ness.

“The power of cou­ture, I felt, was hugely im­por­tant to the house,” she says. “I made that a mis­sion be­cause I do feel that it’s in­cred­i­bly brand-build­ing, just in terms of set­ting an im­age.”

Of course, her na­tive con­nec­tion to Eng­land led Waight Keller to one of her first im­por­tant Givenchy cou­ture clients, Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sus­sex. True to form, the de­signer de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence of that his­toric mo­ment as “a lit­tle bit like a work­day, be­cause I knew I had to get ev­ery­thing ready in the morn­ing—pre­pare the dress, make sure it was steamed, make sure ev­ery­thing was per­fect and where it needed to be at the right time.” Only af­ter­ward did she al­low her­self to rec­og­nize the mon­u­men­tal scale of the thing as the world sa­vored ev­ery de­tail: the wide boat­neck and long sleeves, the dis­creetly placed seams, and the 16-foot-long veil of silk tulle em­broi­dered with flow­ers from all 53 Com­mon­wealth na­tions, as well as those from Kens­ing­ton Palace and the bride’s home state of Cal­i­for­nia (the poppy).

“I’m just thrilled that it would hap­pen in my first year,” Waight Keller says, “be­cause for the house it­self, to have had this kind of thing hap­pen has com­pletely changed peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of Givenchy.”

While much has been made of the sym­bol­ism of her move to a top-notch la­bel as a woman and a work­ing mother of three chil­dren (15-year-old twin daugh­ters and a 6-year-old son), Waight Keller says, “I kind of feel like it’s a non­event.

“In the end, I’m a de­signer, so whether man or woman, it shouldn’t mat­ter,” she con­tin­ues. “But it’s a very strong mes­sage in this still very male-dom­i­nated en­vi­ron­ment to prove that it is pos­si­ble. The world is very in­tim­i­dat­ing to­day, with the spot­light that peo­ple are put un­der. There’s an aw­ful lot more pres­sure, not only in terms of your own work but also what you rep­re­sent through so­cial­me­dia. For young peo­ple there is this real hes­i­ta­tion—i not only have to prove my­self through my work, I have to prove

“I feel con­fi­dent that there will be this sense of want­ing chic as the new cool.” —CLARE WAIGHT KELLER

my­self through my per­sona as well.”

How, then, does she make it look so ef­fort­less? Though she works in Paris, Waight Keller, who is 48, and her hus­band, Philip Keller, an ar­chi­tect, live in Lon­don, where she main­tains a sep­a­rate of­fice inchelsea. All the books she has col­lected, her old sketches, stacks of boxes of fab­ric and in­spi­ra­tions, and vin­tage pieces from her per­sonal wardrobe are ar­ranged in such a way that she can start to pull her ideas to­gether there with­out the dis­trac­tions of the ate­lier.

“I have my home life in Lon­don and my work life in Paris,” she says. “That cre­ates this fan­tas­tic equi­lib­rium for me. And in Paris I go full steam on ev­ery­thing that in­volves fit­tings and the more strate­gic sides of the busi­ness.”

In July, Waight Keller pre­sented her sec­ond cou­ture col­lec­tion, which she ded­i­cated to the mem­o­ry­of­givenchy. It­was a touch­ing trib­ute to the le­gacy of the de­signer, his ar­chi­tec­tural shapes and dra­matic col­umns, and em­pha­sized his fa­vorite col­ors, which, when she asked, he told her were black and white, of course.

“He loved the strength of that com­bi­na­tion,” she says. It re­flects a pref­er­ence for ele­gance.

“It takes time to get to the point when you know some­thing you’ve been feel­ing in­side is re­ally right,” Waight Keller says. “I feel con­fi­dent that in the next few years there will be this sense of want­ing chic as the new cool.” n

Givenchy dress, belt, and boots.

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