While some fashion folk might equate Chloé with great-fitting pants, pretty blouses and handbags with interesting hardware, the brand’s raison d’être goes much deeper.
Aided by French sociologists and the company’s own braintrust, chief executive officer Riccardo Bellini discovered in Chloé’s roots a strong commitment to women’s freedom and progress, and it inspired him to retool the brand’s business model to one that is purpose-driven, community-based and accountable, in addition to being highly creative.
“We’re moving from a phase of collections to a phase of connections. Doing collections is not enough anymore. How you connect with your audience, how you nurture that connection, how you grow that connection is a continuous process of exploration today,” he said. “What a brand stands for, its beliefs and values, will become as relevant as products and aesthetics.”
In his first interview since joining the Compagnie Financière Richemont-owned fashion house in December, Bellini disclosed that Chloé plans to:
• Create a social profit and loss account, akin to an EP&L, which is first for the industry.
• Seek B Corp certification for its social and environmental performance.
• Establish an “impact fund” dedicated to girls’ education.
• Create an advisory board of experts to guide the company and hold it accountable.
• Accelerate creative innovation across collections, while incorporating social entrepreneurs into its supply chain.
“This is not idealism,” he stressed during a wide-ranging conversation over Zoom. “The very concept of purpose-driven is combining profitable growth with a positive contribution to the planet, society and community.
“Our motto is beautiful, profitable and meaningful,” he said with a smile.
A pensive, yet ebullient executive, Bellini acknowledged that when he joined Chloé one year ago from Maison Margiela, his mission was to restore energy and growth to a brand whose business had softened, and which had perhaps strayed from the disruptive spirit of its feisty founder, Gaby Aghion.
If that wasn’t already a tall order, then the coronavirus pandemic hit, which only reaffirmed Bellini’s commitment to a “profound transformation of our business model.”
That said, the executive was convinced that “any future plans should be fundamentally rooted in the real spirit and genetics of the brand, and this led me to an amazing exploration of the DNA and core values.”
Luckily, Aghion left a rich and inspiring mark in fashion as a pioneer in luxury ready-to-wear, establishing her house in 1952 with a mission to liberate women from the rigidity of couture.
The Egyptian-born entrepreneur had a simple vision: using fine fabrics to create feminine, alluring clothes that required minimal alteration. She saw them as an antidote to stiff formality, and a new option for women as they increasingly entered the workforce.
Also among her innovations was giving her brand a female pronoun, and letting a rotating cast of design talents, headlined by Karl Lagerfeld, interpret her free-spirited attitude.
Recounting its various chapters, Bellini recalled how Lagerfeld brought romanticism, fluidity and storytelling; Stella McCartney, girl power, British cool and a touch of sexiness; Phoebe Philo, modern and effortless chic; Hannah MacGibbon, Seventies hip and Eighties glamour; Clare Waight Keller, a bohemian cachet, and Natacha Ramsay-Levi, Chloé’s current creative director, strength and edginess.
“Each designer brought a different aesthetic,” he said, but each was based on the idea of an inspiring, unapologetic femininity.
Delving deep into that topic, his sociologists described a progressive vision of femininity rooted in the belief that women are the key changemakers in the world whose potential must be unlocked.
While Bellini divulged Chloé’s transformation for the first time in this WWD interview, the company has already quietly taken several steps as a purpose-driven enterprise.
In 2019, Chloé established Girls Forward, a three-year partnership with UNICEF to provide girls with skills to advance in the workplace through education, entrepreneurship and training programs in five countries: Bolivia, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal and Tajikistan. According to UNICEF, girls are three times more likely than boys to drop out of school, whereas women with secondary education tend to earn twice as much as those with no education.
Earlier this year, the brand unveiled a program of conversations and performances on Instagram called Chloé Voices. Participants have included British illustrator Julie Verhoeven, Lebanese influencer Nour Arida, South African photographer Tony Gum, and Congolese-Belgian singer Marie-Pierra Kakoma, AKA Lous and the Yakuza.
“This has been incredibly successful in terms of level of engagement simply because it was built on this notion of community,” Bellini said, explaining that the Voices concept moved the focus “from the vision of a singular woman to a community of women” while reinforcing the “positive” spirit of the brand and a positive outlook on the world.
“The brand has always had a very strong optimistic and joyful component,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, Chloé’s spring 2021 fashion show, held outdoors in early October in the shadow of the Palais de Tokyo, saw the brand break from the more traditional runway format to which it had hewed in recent years. Bellini noted that Aghion staged her first fashion show in 1956 at the Café de Flore in Paris, a boisterous hangout for artists and intellectuals, a dramatic contrast to the stiff and formal salon showings of France’s storied couture houses.
At the spring 2021 show, models were first seen on giant screens — chatting in groups, walking with purpose, talking on cell phones on nearby streets and bridges of Paris — before arriving on the set in roomy pants, easy three-hole dresses and T-shirts bearing words by the late American artist Corita Kent. A religious sister, Kent won acclaim in the Sixties for her slogan-based works about poverty, racism and war, and her messages of peace and social justice.
As a whole, the display telegraphed everyday life, togetherness, and positive action, and marked “the beginning of creative renewal,” according to Bellini, stressing that the entire creative studio, led by Ramsay-Levi, is heavily invested in the brand’s new focus. “Our creative director is the first ambassador of such a vision,” he noted.
Among the products launched in the show was the Kiss bag, its metal handle shaped like an abstract pucker.
The striking style reflected that the brand had recruited talents in leather goods — as well as in shoes and rtw — to further drive product innovation, which remains a key focus for the brand, Bellini said.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus crisis prompted other reflections at Chloé, and Bellini cited efforts to accelerate the label’s digital transformation, elevate its distribution and recalibrate its exposure to the wholesale channel.
In May, Chloé signed a petition for a more sensible and sustainable fashion calendar spearheaded by designer Dries Van Noten. Known as the “forum letter,” it aims to better align fashion deliveries with seasons and stamp out early markdowns.
In line with the petition’s principles, Chloé reduced the size of its collections, shifted the delivery cadence to match the clothes to the weather, and toughened its stance on early sales.
As for sustainability commitments, Bellini is convinced that “companies will have to take more responsibility and accountability for the impact they have on the planet and society” and forge “trustworthy relationships with consumers.”
He stressed that the approach is “not a CSR strategy on the side,” but rather an integrated approach to doing less harm and more good. “How can we use our business model, our products, as a tool to deliver positive contribution to the world,” he explained.
Chloé’s supply chain will shift toward more “women-led social enterprises,” Bellini said. Starting next year, for example, it will source jewelry from an atelier in North Africa whose artisan are all survivors of molestation, trained in the art of jewelry making. “We can actively support women entrepreneurs and create positive social contributions.”
Last year Chloé established an environmental profit and loss account, setting a roadmap through 2025 to reduce its eco impact. And now Bellini is collaborating with French fashion school IFM, or Institut Français de la Mode, to develop a methodology for a social profit-and-loss account. While the research is only starting, the company plans to open-source the tool, which is believed to be a first in the industry.
Bellini said the fashion house is “pretty advanced” on its way to B Corp certification, having created a task force and initiated an assessment process covering its governance, teams, environment, communities, clients and transparency. B Lab measures a company’s social and environmental performance, and has already certified the likes of Patagonia, Allbirds and Athleta.
The overall reinvention plan is know internally as the “Chloé Forward” plan and marks a shift from “a shareholder approach to a larger stakeholder business model,” Bellini said, describing the company as being “at the beginning of a journey” that will take about five years to fully implement.
On his side is a brand that “remains extremely strong in consumers’ minds,” one that is “stronger than any of its designers,” and one that engenders affection.
“We are a French maison with an Anglo-Saxon spirit that is rooted in values that are today extremely modern for luxury and extremely relevant,” he asserted. “It’s a brand about attitude and not status at a moment when just buying for status is becoming less and less relevant. It’s a brand that’s very spontaneous and not institutional, and it’s very empathetic and not distant. These are all extremely current qualities, and right for today.”
Bellini recently ran into an avid luxury shopper on Avenue Montaigne, her arms loaded with bags from half-a-dozen of the marquee European brands on the tony thoroughfare, and he quizzed her about her purchases. The woman was upfront about what each of them represented to her, and told the executive that “Chloé is my second skin.”
“It was the best focus group I’ve ever done,” he said with a chuckle, lauding a remark that suggested a “close, empathetic relationship with the wearer.”
The executive said he remains committed to brick-and-mortar retail and forecast that about 70 percent of the company’s business will continue to be done in this channel, thanks to the “emotional connection” it fosters. That said, he also predicted the “disappearance of undifferentiated, mediocre retail.”
Bellini acknowledged that many people in the company questioned the relevance of fashion at the outset of the crisis, when health and wellness came to the forefront. But now Chloé’s employees, 83 percent of whom are women, are embracing the company’s higher purpose with zeal.
While its focus will no doubt resonate strongly with Millennials and Gen Z, Bellini stressed “this was not the starting point of our transformation.…I firmly believe these are values that are extremely relevant to many women in the world today.”
While reluctant to share numbers or specific performance indicators in line with Richemont’s policy, Bellini cited recent improvements in trading, in line with other luxury firms that reported a rebound in sales in the third quarter, driven by China.
“What we are seeing now is actually a very gradual rebound and recovery across all categories, with our accessory business and our shoe business starting to grow at a good speed,” he said.
Richemont reported second-quarter results last week and said its “other” businesses, which include Chloé, Dunhill, Montblanc, Peter Millar and Azzedine Alaïa, saw sales fall 24 percent in its second quarter, versus a 59 percent drop in the first quarter.
In Bellini’s estimation, a challenging market and shifting values and priorities mean fashion houses must chart new ways of doing business.
“The big task of leaders today is to truly envision change and to lead change, in a moment in which we’re living a profound transformation,” he said.