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Chloé: freedom, femininity and the birth of modern Prêt à Porter

The Chloé fashion house was founded in 1952 by Gaby Aghion, a Parisian originally from Egypt. She was a revolutionary thinker and free spirit who was very much ahead of her time. She rejected the stiff and formal fashions of the 1950s in favour of body conscious clothes for youthful, liberated women with active lives. This is the story of how one woman changed the fashion world.

Gaby Aghion was born in Cairo in 1921 to a wealthy family. Being part of the intellectual class, she received a French education, and from an early age she had an appreciation for Parisian elegance. She married her childhood sweetheart Raymond, who she had known since they were 7 years old. After the war, the couple moved to Paris to settle on the Left Bank with an eclectic group of their friends. It was a new era with a generation of artists, writers and radical thinkers. This provided the perfect environment for Gaby to pursue her interests. She originally attended philosophy lectures at the Sorbonne, studied political science and mingled with her friends in the cafés of Saint Germain de Prés. She always maintained that she wanted to lead an independent life, rather than to live solely off her husband’s wealth.

In 1952, Gaby created her first fashion collection. Up until then, luxury fashion houses typically produced Haute Couture (made to measure) clothing which only the rich could afford. Everyone else had to buy poor quality copies made by local seamstresses. Gaby felt there was a need in the market for quality fashion that ordinary women could afford. In response to this, she created a brand new category of fashion which she called “Luxury Prêt a Porter”. It was beautifully made, off the rack clothing in gorgeous fabrics and standardized sizes. She rejected the heavy, restrictive clothing of the time, opting to design lighter clothes that were more wearable for sports or going to the beach — things she particularly enjoyed.

“All I’ve ever wanted was for Chloé to have a happy spirit, to make people happy.” –Gaby Aghion

When Gaby started her fashion line, using her own name for the business was not an option. Her family was quite scandalized that a rich woman such as herself should work. So she branded her company “Chloé”, using the name of a close friend who she admired. The matte beige colours she often used were a memory of her native Egypt — the colour of the sand, and sun-warmed skin which she remembered from her youth. And the way the sand moved, the fluidity of it, was also prominent in her clothing designs.

When she first approached boutiques with her creations, she was told that the stores would put their own labels in the clothes as was customary at the time. But Gaby insisted that her own label “Chloé” should be used. Her dresses sold out almost immediately.

In 1953, Gaby joined forces with Jacques Lenoir – he ran the business side and she ran the creative side. She put on her first Chloé show in 1956 at a breakfast at the Café de Flore, a favourite hangout of young intellectual Parisians of the 1950s. Conventional couture fashion shows had always been held in lavish venues where only the rich were invited. Gaby’s concept of making fashion relevant to a younger generation was completely new in 1956, and the press was delighted.

In the early days Gaby had no studio. Everything happened at her house. Sometimes in her sitting room there were five or six seamstresses and designers working at the same time. Gaby did everything from sourcing the buttons to selling the designs. She reminisced that it was “hell at times” but they were all young and the passion for their work kept them going. Soon a young German man arrived: Karl Lagerfeld. She was reluctant to hire him at first, but went on to form a special working relationship with him that lasted over 2 decades. She loved his work ethic. Most designers would bring her two designs, but Karl would bring 20 in one day!

Gaby and her partner Jaques Lenoir went on to hire many other young designers over the years who would go on to make names for themselves. Designers such as Christiana Bailly, Michèle Rosier, Maxime de la Falaise, Graziella Fontana, Tan Giudicelli, Guy Paulin and Carlos Rodriguez.

Later designers included: Martine Sitbon, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, Hannah MacGibbon and Clare Waight Keller.

“I don’t explain anything, I have lived… I lived the life I wanted. I soundly believed in all of this and I held on.” –Gaby Aghion

Gaby was an intellectual and she named her collections and garments not by number, but after painters or town names. She went on to name each collection under a single letter, and within that, each piece was named after poets, literary characters and popular culture. Her notes from the time are fascinating reading, just for the cultural references. She was a woman who was proud of her work, not because it made money, but because fashion was important to her and made her happy. Interviewed at the age of 92, she said that if she was given her life to do over again, she wouldn’t change a thing. She gave women fashion that allowed them to express femininity and personal freedom with a whimsical touch. Today Chloé is a fashion house with boutiques worldwide that carry clothing, bags, accessories, childrens’ wear and fragrances.

Chloé Timeline

• 1952. Chloé is founded by Gaby Aghion, a Parisian of Egyptian origin.
• 1956. The first collection is introduced at Le Café de Flore.
• 1965. Karl Lagerfeld joins Chloé as the main designer. Chloé becomes one of the iconic brands of the 70’s. Among its customers : Jackie Kennedy, Brigitte Bardot, Maria Callas and Grace Kelly.
• 1971. The first Chloé boutique opens at the 3 rue Gribeauval in Paris.
• 1975. Karl Lagerfeld launches the original Chloé fragrance.
• 1980s. Chloé keeps working with promising and artistic directors : Martine Sitbon in 1988, Karl Lagerfeld in 1992.
• 1997. Stella McCartney brings in a new direction both feminine and romantic.
• 2001. Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman, and Lou Doillon become customers.
• 2002. Chloé launches a line of bags, small leather goods and shoes. The Paddington bag will become the first of the ‘it-bags’.
• 2008. Chloé launches a new fragrance, Chloé Signature, which is lighter and more youthful than the original.
• 2009. American actress, former model and fashion designer Chloë Sevigny becomes a spokesperson for the company.
• 2014. Chloé Love Story fragrance is launched.

 


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  • Emily Mitton
    February 9, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    What a wonderful read!! Thanks so much for sharing this!!

  • Grieta Allison
    February 3, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    Beautiful!! <3

  • Pat B
    February 3, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    What a great story. People who think outside the box are definitely inspiring @bcgirll

  • Rosemary
    February 3, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    Gaby Aghion was definitely ahead of her time.Great story and well written.
    Thank you @ Beth Anderson.

  • Denise
    February 3, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    love these history stories

    @momof3boysj

  • Zina Dixon
    February 3, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Thank you Beth for another great article. Such beautiful history!

  • Belinda
    February 2, 2017 at 6:47 pm

    Amazingly beautiful story live it
    @clarklawlor

  • cheryl neumann
    February 20, 2016 at 8:23 am

    Beautiful story throughout the years. Really enjoyed reading this.

  • Rozeena Karim
    February 10, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    What a beautiful storty.. True Love Story.. Wow.. When you love something and believe in yourself you go a far away. Thanks gor sharing Dave. Now i have to go do some smelling!

  • denise
    February 10, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    what beautiful photos are featured through the years!

    @momof3boysj

  • Cat Forsley
    February 10, 2016 at 7:22 am

    love this !!!!!!!!!!
    Freedom and Happiness xo

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