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PARIS — Hannah MacGibbon, who will stage her first runway show for Chloé on Saturday, recently dined with house founder Gaby Aghion — and it didn’t take long for the two women to find common ground.
Aghion related to MacGibbon how she plunged into the fashion business 55 years ago with a simple impulse: to do beautiful, cotton day dresses at a time of highfalutin couture — and then went on to create one of the most iconic brands in French ready-to-wear.
Certainly MacGibbon couldn’t have predicted what would happen when she joined former Central Saint Martins classmate Phoebe Philo at Chloé in 2001, with Philo at the helm creating a brand of girlish chic that catapulted the brand into the designer big leagues — and inspired the high street to greater heights, too.
“We were both young and didn’t have any idea of what was in store,” MacGibbon related over tea at the Hotel Vendôme Paris. “It’s also that naïve, fresh approach that’s so important.”
Yet MacGibbon — a striking blonde who on this day worked denim shorts, Gap sweatshirts, a fur shrug and studded knee boots to fabulous effect — said she’s very sure of the path she will now take as chief designer, starting with daywear rooted in luxury, simplicity and sophistication.
“I don’t think there’s any house that provides clothes for the girls we design for,” she asserted. “I would love it to be just effortless, desirable clothes that you want to wear, and I’m really starting with daywear because that’s at the core of the company.”
By all accounts, MacGibbon sits in one of the hotter seats in fashion, with pressure to right what had been a dramatic reinvention story. At the height of Philo’s reign in 2005, sales doubled thanks to lusty demand for clothes, shoes and handbags. (When MacGibbon joined Chloé with Philo, the brand had yet to do leather goods, owing to the previous designer Stella McCartney and her staunch antifur and -leather beliefs.)
But under Philo’s immediate successor, Paolo Melim Andersson, sales momentum at Chloé dwindled, only inching up in its last fiscal year, with parent Compagnie Financière Richemont stating that Andersson was not focusing “on the true DNA of Chloé.”
MacGibbon, by contrast, gives one the impression of breathing it, including the signature Chloé fragrance she created after saying “no” to the top job when Philo exited in 2006, citing a desire to spend more time with her young family.
MacGibbon didn’t flinch at the question of why she would turn down such an opportunity. She said she simply needed a break from fashion and to return to her native England after five years in Paris at Chloé and five years prior to that at Valentino in Rome.
In the interim, MacGibbon returned to London and bought a house in Camden, decorating it in a “modern and minimalist” style with feminine touches, and also took on some freelance home design projects. Her realization? “My heart was completely with Chloé,” she said.
The designer has already done a pre-spring collection for the house, a simple, tongue-in-cheek take on couture clichés, “to clean the palate,” she said at the time.
MacGibbon gave few clues about her runway collection, but said she’s “matured a bit” and the collection will reflect “more sophistication; maybe a little less girly” than during the Philo days.
“I would like to concentrate more on the product, and raising the level of the product. Fashion is just so much more demanding,” she said. “It’s been a lot of work on cut. I wanted to not just embellish so much and concentrate on some light structure and cut. It’s simplicity I love. That’s something quite personal.”
MacGibbon said she learned early in her career that “the atelier is sacred. At Valentino, you had to wear white gloves to touch the garments.” Chloé’s atelier is also exceptional, staffed with some former workers from Yves Saint Laurent couture, she noted.
One thing Chloé does not possess, however, is a vast clothing archive, which MacGibbon considers a plus.
“It’s not starting from references. I think that keeps it fresh,” she explained. “There’s a sentiment in the house that I love. It’s the house, rather than any particular period.”
That said, her favorite era in fashion is the “late-Seventies, early-Eighties period: It was very sexy.”
MacGibbon grew up in Camden in north London, the eldest of three children to a book publisher father and a mother who does public relations for charities. She said she and Philo were not in the same year at Saint Martins, but had “spoken in the past about doing something together.” MacGibbon takes the helm at Chloé just as Philo is returning to the fashion spotlight as the new creative director of Celiné; she’s due to unveil her first collection for that LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned house in March.
Asked how she feels about the comparisons that will inevitably be made, and the competition Celine could pose, MacGibbon replied: “I’m really happy for her and there are not enough women designers in fashion.”
MacGibbon said she continues to feed on London’s creative energy, including the music scene. (She has eclectic taste, but particularly likes reggae and may weave some dubstep into Saturday’s soundtrack.)
Still, she said she would like to “embrace Paris a bit more” this time. To wit: She said she just found an apartment overlooking the Parc Monceau.