Chloé Creative Director Natacha Ramsay-Levi On How She Combines Her Love For History With Fashion
Natacha Ramsay-Levi wanted to be a historian. She remembers marching against racism through the streets of Paris with her journalist father in the Eighties and how that experience led her to study African history and colonialism later in college to better understand the context of what she was fighting for. “I’ve always believed the best way to evolve is to learn from our past,” she says, her thick French accent piercing through the phone. “To me, there’s always been a link between history and fashion.”
The first thing Ramsay-Levi did when she was appointed creative director of Chloé in 2017—after 15 years as the protégé of Louis Vuitton artistic director of women’s collections Nicolas Ghesquière—was to excavate. Today she is credited for her intellectual, boyish take on Chloé’s bohemian roots, successfully filling the shoes of her formidable predecessors, including Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo and Clare Waight Keller.
But first, Ramsay-Levi dug deep into the label’s roots, discovering the history of its founder, designer Gaby Aghion, who became one of the pioneers of ready-to-wear in the 1950s, when luxury houses were still primarily producing haute couture. Avant-garde and progressive, Aghion became the North Star for the 40-year-old Ramsay-Levi, guiding her as she crafted her own voice for the house.
“Growing up, my family saw fashion as something elitist, related to advertising and consumerism, not art,” she says. “So when I joined fashion, I wanted it to be about something that mattered, to open a discussion.”
Making A Statement
The last three years have seen Ramsay-Levi tackling various facets of feminism, beginning with her debut spring/summer 2018 collection, in which she translated her fascination for the Seventies—“an era of freedom when women’s clothing exploded across masculine lines and women were empowered to redefine their look”—into velvet, horse-print suits and ethereal boho dresses. Her latest fall/winter 2020 collection draws from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when “gods were goddesses and humans were paying tribute to women”, says Ramsay-Levi. “That’s a time I want to be in now.”
The designer enlisted three female artists to help illustrate her vision. The first, French sculptor and artist Marion Verboom, created gold, totemic plinths etched with various patterns that dotted the runway at the Chloé show in Paris in February, where models in Katharine Hepburn-style frocks and trouser suits sashayed in between. “Marion works in a similar way to me: she digs through different periods in time and makes collages of them through her work,” says Ramsay-Levi. “My silhouettes are also a collage of all my references, and what I love about this approach is you can parse each element or see the piece as a beautiful whole.” One reference came from American artist Rita Ackermann, Ramsay-Levi’s second collaborator, whose sketches of colourful, abstract female forms were printed on billowing blouses.
What fashion means to her
A quick swipe through Ramsay-Levi’s Instagram page offers a glimpse into the fragments that occupy her mind—her favourite runway looks are interspersed with myriad female nudes, charity announcements (Chloé is a Unicef partner for the Girls Forward initiative) and Black Lives Matter protest photos. While many designers might shy away from politicising their clothes, Ramsay-Levi clearly does not. “To me, fashion serves two purposes,” she says. “The first is to be connected with the zeitgeist and to reflect positive human values.” The second purpose is to enchant. “We can’t live without beauty—I mean, we can survive but we need that dream and escapism, especially now,” she says.
She then relays that the British singer Marianne Faithfull, the third collaborator for the show, contacted her recently after having contracted and recovered from Covid-19 (Faithfull spent nearly three weeks in a London hospital in April and credited the NHS staff with saving her life). “The first thing [Faithfull] said to me was: ‘Natacha, I need my trousers and dresses; I need beauty in my life!’” Ramsay-Levi says. Faithfull’s smoky voice formed the soundtrack of the runway performance as she recited 19th-century classic poems by the likes of Louisa May Alcott and Byron. “You hear her vulnerability in her voice as she speaks; I mean, she’s been through so much in her life. I admire women artists for that; I love that they are brave enough to show vulnerability and can talk about it with no problem,” says Ramsay-Levi. “I hope to do the same, to embrace all sides of a woman to show that there is beauty even in the cracks.”
(Related: Here's How You Can Do Your Part For The Covid-19 Relief Efforts)
On fashion's seasonal calendar
The fashion system as we know it is facing one of its most vulnerable moments today. While many legacy houses are going ahead with scheduled shows, mostly digitally, Chloé made headlines in May for being one of the first brands under a luxury conglomerate to sign a petition started by Dries Van Noten and Lane Crawford’s Andrew Keith, among others, to essentially slow down the seasonal calendar. Ramsay-Levi is currently waist-deep into her spring/summer 2021 collection, but she seems unfazed, excited even.
(Related: Covid-19: Why Gucci and Saint Laurent Have Dropped Out of Fashion Week)
“Before confinement, I felt like I was always running out of time, jumping into taxis, getting on planes—there was no time for fantasy or space for dreams,” she says. This time last year, for example, Ramsay-Levi was showing her cruise 2019 show in Shanghai, where she incorporated references from her favourite Chinese films, Millennium Mambo and Red Soldier. Instead, she’s bunkered down in her Parisian flat, home-schooling her seven-year-old son, Balthus, in between calls. “I already feel there are fewer rules; there’s this sense that we’re starting from zero in a way,” she says. “We’re all talking about what fashion will mean from now on but I no longer have to struggle with things I felt were incoherent in the past because now I’m hopeful that we can change those things.”
Ramsay-Levi might believe in the power of learning from history, but don’t take it to mean she’s necessarily nostalgic for it. “To me, this time is a positive thing, it’s an opportunity,” she says. “My fashion already feels more free.”
The August 2020 issue is now available with our compliments on Magzter.