By  on October 5, 2009

PARIS — Hannah MacGibbon, who will show her third collection for Chloé on the runway Tuesday, has her hand firmly on the creative rudder of the French fashion house — up to and including what’s spinning in the studio.

“The kids are into this electro, but I still insist on my dub and old-school hip-hop,” she said, laughing.

More crucially, MacGibbon insists on nurturing and trumpeting the brand’s unapologetically feminine, upbeat spirit — even if fashion has recently been marching to a much tougher beat, with black leather, big shoulders and studs galore.

“Everything’s so hard at the moment,” MacGibbon mused over English breakfast tea at the Hotel Bristol. “I don’t feel like wearing that at all, even though it’s nice to look at. It’s completely lacking that sentiment that draws you in — the emotion of it….There’s a lack of romanticism in the air. There’s a real need for that softness.”

And MacGibbon said she is ready to deliver it. “I did a lot of work on coats and capes on the runway for winter, which people really liked,” she explained. “For the next collection, I want to put more into the fragility and the dresses.”

Sounding relaxed and confident, MacGibbon acknowledged she felt the pressure intensely a year ago when her runway debut coincided with the crumbling of the world’s financial markets — and after Chloé’s fortunes had tumbled as its previous creative director, Paulo Melim Andersson, steered the brand too far into edgy territory.

“The first [show] was a really crazy experience,” said MacGibbon, dressed in a pair of worn brown leather overalls she layered over a slate tank. “With the second show, I started to find my feet a little. I think there was an energy and a spirit in that show.”

Intangible they may be, but “sentiment” and “emotion” are central to the Chloé recipe, according to MacGibbon. “I think that largely comes from being a feminine brand done largely by female designers,” she said. “The attraction is that it’s so attainable. I think women feel they can enter the brand. It’s not intimidating or too fashion.”

Under MacGibbon’s tenure, the mood in the house is lighter and more positive, according to Ralph Toledano, chairman and chief executive officer of Chloé, part of luxury giant Compagnie Financière Richemont.

“We were definitely missing some energy,” said the executive. “And pride,” he hastened to add, his eyes widening for emphasis. “Things are still not where ideally they should be. It’s a process. But it’s very clear we’re on the right track.”

Toledano declined all comment on the house’s sales and profitability beyond Richemont’s recent five-month trading statement, which said sales of “other businesses,” which includes Chloé, declined some 23 percent.Richemont attributed the drop mainly to a “significant” decline in the group’s watch component manufacturing activities.

By contrast, in 2005, at the height of Chloé under Phoebe Philo, with MacGibbon as her longtime deputy, sales at Chloé doubled.

Pressed for recent indicators, Toledano noted that, “sell-throughs are improving,” particularly for ready-to-wear and accessories, and especially in Chloé’s own store network, which spans about 40 company-owned stores and 20 franchise units.

More crucial for Toledano is the brand is back in touch with its DNA, its “true asset,” thanks to MacGibbon, he said. “She’s much more self-assured. Hannah is a little bit like me: We’re never content, and she is by far her own toughest critic,” he said. “I really feel that she’s finding her way, forging her own style and her own interpretation of the brand.”

Toledano said Chloé has a much more balanced business today, versus the boom years, when the hit, padlock-festooned Paddington bag helped catapult the firm into the designer big leagues. Today, the brand boasts a range of “good sellers” in handbags at a range of prices,” he said. “That’s the key of a stable business and of steady growth. It’s a tremendous achievement because we really have a business instead of one product.”

While the company is focused on its core categories and existing network rather than brand extensions and retail rollouts — “We want to be better where we are,” Toledano stressed — the second line See by Chloé is viewed as a “huge opportunity” in the future across all categories, including handbags and shoes.

For her part, MacGibbon said she is focused on ensuring the top collection keeps improving. To that end, the sporty, “outdoorsy” spirit of the fall collection would likely be felt again for next season, but mixed with the variety she loves, from sexy to masculine, dressy to sporty. “I love the idea that a girl is on a journey, and she has all those characteristics,” she said.

While the designer took some lumps for her debut runway collection, which included ballooning lamé pants and stiff ruffles, many of her ideas turned up in other designer collections and on the high street. Still, she insisted her goal is not to ride the cutting edge of fashion. “I’m kind of antitrend,” she said. “I hate to feel like I’m wearing the coat of the season or the ‘It’ bag. I really don’t like that personally, this whole thing about next and trend. My fantasy is to get more pieces that you just love.”

Shy of the limelight, MacGibbon said she has never aspired to the trappings of fame or prestige attached to being a fashion designer.

“It’s more this passion of making collections, and making them better the next time,” she said with a shrug. “My focus is really to go much more into the product.”

While rtw and accessories are paramount, MacGibbon said she’s also putting the finishing touches on her second scent, a follow-up to the successful signature fragrance launched last year with licensing partner Coty Prestige.

Ever the perfectionist, she confessed in her quest to shepherd the new scent to her precise intentions, “I’ve driven them close to desperation,” describing the perfume as “maybe a bit more sophisticated.”

MacGibbon described herself as a “tactile, hands-on” designer, rather than one who sketches. “I love silhouettes and I spend a lot of time on proportions. It’s more about draping fabrics and trying things on a model,” she said. “It’s kind of difficult to do vintage now. The industry has become more sophisticated and that doesn’t work anymore.”

A morning person, MacGibbon said she starts her day early, benefiting from the daylight pouring into her studio on the Avenue Percier. “Chloé’s so much about the light, color and freshness,” she said. “You need the light to keep things fresh, and up.”

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