PARIS — Feisty, fun and unabashedly feminine, Gaby Aghion was the ultimate Chloé girl, personifying the brand she cofounded in 1952, remaining its éminence grise through her twilight years.
That’s how designers, executives and academics remembered Aghion, who died at her Paris home on Saturday at age 93.
This story first appeared in the September 29, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Chloé chairman and chief executive officer Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye noted that among Aghion’s last wishes was that her death should not overshadow Chloé’s spring fashion show Sunday afternoon.
The fashion house dedicated it to her, with a note tucked into the program lauding her “free spirit and independent resolve.”
Although she sold her shares in the company to Dunhill Ltd., which eventually became part of Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, in 1985 and retired shortly after, Aghion was a devoted godmother — and occasional critic — of the brand.
Aghion had mobility problems in recent years, and received her Legion of Honor medal last December seated in a wheelchair. Yet she almost never missed a Chloé show, and spread her charm and encouragement over its revolving cast of designers and managers.
A pioneer in luxury ready-to-wear, Aghion created her first collection in 1952. Four years later, she and business partner Jacques Lenoir staged their first fashion show at the Café de Flore in 1956.
Alongside Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, Chloé is seen as one of the key French fashion brands founded in the postwar period.
The Egyptian-born designer had a simple vision: using fine fabrics to create feminine, alluring clothes that required minimal alteration. She saw them as an antidote to the stiff formality of haute couture, and a new option for women as they increasingly entered the work force.
Another of her chief innovations was giving her collection a brand name rather than her own moniker, whereas many of Europe’s biggest fashion players — Dior, Chanel, Prada and so on — are truncated names from the founding designer. She named her brand after a good friend, Chloé Huymans.
“A lot of things did not exist in France. Everything was yet to be invented, and this thrilled me,” she told WWD in 2012. “I was carried away: It was like a tornado. I designed a small collection and decided to present it myself. I went to source the buttons, the fabrics. I was sticking my neck out.”
She didn’t go it alone for long, enlisting an array of young and talented designers who would go on to become fashion stars, especially Karl Lagerfeld.
In more recent years, a series of young British women held the design reins: Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, Hannah MacGibbon and Clare Waight Keller, its current creative director.
In the Sixties, Aghion engaged young Left Bank designers including Christiane Bailly, Tan Giudicelli, Graziella Fontana, Maxime de la Falaise, Gérard Pipart — and Lagerfeld.
Lagerfeld recalled that in the early days, the company operated out of a small apartment, “but it was the place to be. We were several designers and she coordinated it all. Every designer was freelancing — a new job then — for other companies, often in other countries, me included.”
The German designer — today the couturier at Chanel, rtw and fur designer at Fendi, and head of his signature fashion house — credited Aghion for giving French rtw an identity and vitality.
“The spirit of the house was very ‘Left Bank’ a long time before Rive Gauche,” he said, referring to Saint Laurent’s rtw line, launched in 1966.
For example, while Chloé was a pioneer in staging fashion shows at such haunts as Brasserie Lipp, they were done slightly off the cuff, according to Lagerfeld. “Girls came and put on the dresses they liked best —no fittings before,” he said. “The mood was very creative and Gaby was very gifted to make people more creative.
“She helped me in a way to become what I am now — and that you will never forget. I think she had a happy life,” Lagerfeld added.
Tapped to become Chloé’s head designer in 1966 after several years of freelance contributions, Lagerfeld logged a total of 25 years in two separate stints, helping define its soft, romantic spirit — and occasional Art Deco bent. He catapulted the brand’s notoriety in the Seventies, mounting large-scale fashion extravaganzas with Aghion as coconspirator.
Waight Keller said Aghion “really made women feel confident about being feminine. And I think she challenged that all the time and made us think about modern femininity.”
De la Bourdonnaye said that even in her 90s, Aghion spoke to him “like a teenager. She was a woman of style, but also a lot of sass. We learned a lot from her.”
“She was such a modern and feminine woman. She was always so warm, with a fantastic sparkle in her eye,” said MacGibbon, who designed Chloé from 2008 to 2011. “She had a great eye for what was right. You really had a sense she was tuning into everything that was around her. I had a strong sense of wanting her approval at the end of every show.”
Although Aghion was not a “pure designer,” she defined “a taste, an attitude and a spirit” that remains a touchstone for designers today, according to MacGibbon.
“It is really sad that she has passed away and I do feel for all of her family and loved ones, but she has had an exceptional life and career and created one of the most individual houses in fashion,” said McCartney. “I think that at the time when I met her I was just really proud to be part of the female fashion family that she had made so successful at Chloé.”
Martine Sitbon, Chloé’s designer from 1987 to 1992, lauded Aghion’s “passion for the house and a true love for fashion. She would come backstage every season to congratulate me, support me, give me power.”
Marc Ascoli, a former creative director of the brand and artistic director of “Chloé Attitudes,” a Rizzoli tome that came out in 2013, marveled that Aghion “had a sense of humor, a lightness and at the same time, a will and a very precise vision.”
Ralph Toledano, currently president of Puig’s fashion division, was chairman and ceo of Chloé from 1999 until 2010. He said Aghion was “far ahead of her time” as a pioneering female entrepreneur that cloaked her determination and strength with a flirty femininity.
He recalled a lunch with her about seven years ago when Aghion produced a photo of herself as a young woman. He complimented her on her beauty, and asked if he could keep the photo, to which she replied coyly: “Really, are you sure? Won’t your wife be jealous?”
Toledano said Aghion kept a close eye on Chloé’s activities, and wouldn’t hold back her feelings.
“She was very demanding, but also so generous in everything she did,” he said. “When there was a show she didn’t like, I had her on the phone. She had a passion for the brand. Even at 85, she was the best critic. Her points were always valid. She was the one I listened to. I really loved her.”
“She was the heart of the house,” said Mounir Moufarrige, ceo of Chloé from 1992 to 1999. “She was an innovator, completely ahead of her time.”
Moufarrige said he last saw Aghion at Chloé’s 60th anniversary retrospective at the Palais de Tokyo in 2012, when she posed for a picture with Karl Lagerfeld.
“We saw her tears well, because she remembered this young man with whom she started out,” he recalled. “It’s true that she is responsible for half of Chloé’s success, and Karl is to credit for the other half.”
Though Chloé became famous for its vaporous chiffon dresses and softly tailored suits, Aghion’s personal style was steady: For decades, her trademark outfit was a black tunic worn over a white shirt.
“I always dressed in a very simple way,” she said in 2012. “I am not a socialite. I have friendships. I always said what I thought.”
Born in Alexandria, Aghion appeared destined for extraordinary things from an early age. The daughter of a cigarette-factory manager, she met her husband, Raymond, when both were seven years old in elementary school. He was born into a wealthy family of cotton exporters, but displayed early stirrings of the social consciousness that would later land him in political exile.
At the age of 18, Aghion temporarily relocated to Paris to study. What she saw inspired her later designs — the seeds for Chloé were already being sewn.
Aghion and Raymond married at the age of 19. In Paris, the couple gravitated toward artists, becoming close to writers Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard and Tristan Tzara. Raymond opened an art gallery in 1956, specializing in modern art.
Changing with the times, Chloé’s collections included graphic prints in the Sixties, groovy chiffon daywear in the Seventies and tongue-in-cheek surrealist elements in the Eighties.
Although Aghion surrounded herself with intellectuals, she referenced them and their ideas in a lighthearted way, in tune with a brand with a playful, carefree spirit.
Aghion often chose clever names for her dresses, anointing one Aubrey instead of the more obvious Beardsley, a playful nod to the English illustrator and author.
Aghion is survived by her son, prominent French economist and Harvard professor Philippe Aghion, and his two children.
The funeral is scheduled for Thursday at 3 p.m. CET at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.