It felt like a treat to wile away a couple of hours inside the newly rennovated Palais de Tokyo, firstly at the Impossible Wardrobe performance (STILL the highlight of the season, if not year…) and secondly of course at one of the major fashion exhibitions of the year – Chlo√©.Attitudes. Jamming in a couple of hours anywhere in between shows and quickfire showroom appointments is a luxury.
As I walked into the opening Chlo√© exhibition last week, it was at about the same time as Gaby Aghion was being ushered in. Her 91-year old presence was surprising to everyone and myself. Truth be told, I didn't realise she was still alive. Still I don't think collectively we knew how grateful we should be to this tiny woman for basically inventing ready to wear as we know it today. in 1952, she set about the task of selling luxury fashion in standardised sizes, sold off the peg and at a more reasonable price, something we take fully for granted now.
Supreme costume curator Judith Clark (was so sad when her own costume gallery closed – very much looking forward to the upcoming "virtual" one) did a wonderful job of wading through the vast archives of the house, and coming up with an exhibition structure that didn't tell a straightforward chronology but instead found thematic strands that ran across many of the designers that worked for Chlo√©. What wasn't surprising was that Karl Lagerfeld, a key designer for the house from 1965 for twenty years, dominates the exhibition with his prolific amount of sketches and designs. I was looking forward to learning more about the lesser known early Chlo√© freelancers such as Maxime de la Falaise (mother of Loulou de la Falaise) and G√©rard Pipart (later known for his work at Nina Ricci) but it seemed that Lagerfeld's designs fitted into the narrative that Clark wanted to tell about the numerous prevailing aesthetic themes - floral motifs, dresses of girly insouciance as well as the vibrant prints and tongue-in-cheek graphics. They were reflected in the mixed up timeline of cabinets where Stella McCartney's banana top and denim flares would sit next to Lagerfeld's flapper sequinned dresses or a Maxime de la Falaise floral print tunic would be alongside a laser-cut floral dress by Phoebe Philo. The backdrop and settings on the displays pick up on certain motifs that come from Chloe's past such as the tiles from Brasserie Lipp, where the house once staged an informal presentation. The mannequins were elevated by the magnificent hair, created by stylist Angelo Seminara, who brought clothes to life with hairstyles that imagined a fantasy Chlo√© girl.
At the heart of the exhibition of course was this elusive girl. I say girl not because the women that wear Chlo√© clothes are exclusively in their teens and twenties but because the spirit is always conveyed through the imagery, through the ad campaigns and also through the clothes as eternally young. The word "attitude" is an appropriate one and seems intangible when trying to pin down the Chlo√© aesthetic except that you know a Chlo√©-esque garment when you see one. A distinct Chlo√© memory was the S/S 05 collection designed by Philo, where a breakout hit was satin dress looped with chain halterneck. It was knocked off to death and worn by girls that really identified with the girlish elegance of its design. This attitude has been interpreted in different ways by all the designers – Lagerfeld moved with the times from the sixties to the eighties and employed a whole host of, Martine Sitbon instilled graphic minimalism in the nineties, McCartney made use of eye-popping graphics, Philo cemented Chlo√©-coolness with her very British hand, Hannah MacGibbon harked back to the seventies for effortless ease and now Clare Waight Keller is settling into the house with her interplays between cleancut boyishness and unabashed femininity. The imagery that was on display at the exhibition really illustrated the allure and appeal of that Chlo√© girl that for many make the brand what it is today.
What is apparent with all the clothes on display is how easily they could be taken down from their mannequins and worn straight away. Chlo√© may be an "everywoman" kind of label with a fluid identity and style but the resulting clothes are things that I can see on girls and women still today – the printed blouses, the nonchalent floaty dresses and the floral tunics. They're the sort of clothes that form an intervening bridge between the stiffness of mid-century couture that are lofty in their grandeur and technical prowess and the glut of ready to wear that we're faced with today.
They weren't lying when they said Gaby Aghion exhausted the alphabet, choosing to name each collection and each piece in the collection using words beginning with one letter and then consecutively following on with another. The Chlo√© Alphabet project is still unfolding online and in particular the story of Gaby as narrated by Clark is particularly compelling, picking up little facts such as the fact that Aghion had to force retailers to keep the Chlo√© label on the clothes (as it was conventional for retailers to impose their own labels on designer clothing), that she was one of the first labels to present collections in an informal setting such as the Cafe de Flore and that she had doubts about Lagerfeld because she thought Germans had questionable taste.
This is an exhibition with products to schill as Chlo√© have decided to reissue a number of iconic pieces (as illustrated here by Sandra Suy) that have moulded and shaped the brand. They span the years with pieces like a simple jersey shirt dress and blouse dating back to 1960, Lagerfeld's graphic violin dress from the eighties, McCartney's 2001 pineapple off-the-shoulder top that filtered down to the high street, Philo's introduction of covetable footwear and iconic bags like the Paddington and MacGibbon's memorable cape that made that shade of beige so emphatic for that season. These √©ditions Anniversaire will be available in February next year. Oddly enough I'll be going for the 1960 oldie – the simple jersey dress named "Embrun" meaning sea spray, inspiring freedom of movement, a dress that was radical for its simplicity.