‘Am I doing this right?’

How does a British designer thrive in a French fashion house? Chloé’s creative director Clare Waight-Keller talks pressure and Paris life with art director Jerry Stafford

Clare Waight-Keller became creative director of Chloé in May 2011, moving her young family to Paris from London, where she had held the same post at Pringle of Scotland. Jerry Stafford is stylist to Tilda Swinton and creative director at the film and advertising production company Premiere Heure.

When we met

Clare Waight-Keller: We met when I was working for Pringle and thinking a lot about who we’d like to collaborate with, and it was Tilda Swinton. So everyone said, “You need to talk to Jerry, Jerry takes care of Tilda,” and I thought, “This is going to be a big drama.” Our first communication was a text. You were in …

Jerry Stafford: Houston, Texas.

CW-K: I’d sent a polite little message and you replied with a rambling note saying, “You can’t imagine where I am, I’m seeing this and it’s fabulous” – and I thought, “I’m going to love this guy.” Then our trip to Scotland with Tilda turned out to be hysterical …

JS: In Scotland you go through five seasons a day, literally the gamut of extreme weather in five minutes.

CW-K: In a way it was very British, check blankets everywhere, we had the clothes in a castle where we were shooting, suitcases all over the place, Tilda wrapped in a blanket with a cup of tea …

JS: And then Ryan McGinley (the photographer) would choose to shoot in the middle of a bush, so we’d be crawling through brambles to get clothes on Tilda.

Exotic travel

CW-K: You’re like me, you like extreme travel in faraway places.

JS: I’m a birdwatcher. I’ve been serious about it since childhood, although I did give it up during my punk years because it wasn’t very cool. As time goes by, one tends to go back to one’s childhood pursuits. So I choose my destinations by the birds, there’s always a “lifer” round the corner, as they call it in the US.

CW-K: I don’t know what that is.

JS: When you see a bird for the first time.

CW-K: What’s on your bird wish list?

JS: I’m not what you call a “lister”. I’m interested, as I am in life, more in behaviour and just observing. Bird life is very similar to fashion: it’s all about preening and showing off, although it’s the reverse, as the male is the peacock. There’s a reason why birds and feathers are always used in fashion. I mean, you’ll never get a better colour palette than when looking at birds.

CW-K: Are we talking garden chaffinches or exotic birds?

JS: We’re talking any kind of bird; I can get off on the common sparrow, which is having a hard time at the moment.

CW-K: I’m into extreme nature. In October I drove deep into the black and white deserts in Egypt. I drag my poor family on these huge adventures. We got up at 4.30am and met a guy in Cairo, drove two hours into the desert – you’re driving in the dark and you see the sun rise. At 8am we arrived at a Bedouin’s house, drove another two and a half hours – by this point you’re six hours from Cairo. You see these huge black sand mountains, volcanic rock ground down over centuries and sculpted by the wind. You’re in the middle of nowhere, yet your cellphone works. It’s extraordinary.

JS: Does travel inform your work?

CW-K: It’s like a palate-cleanser. I need to be doing nothing – but something. After the black desert we saw the white desert, another hour deeper into nowhere, which is made of a chalk substance.

JS: What do you wear?

CW-K: I was in some big old thing, not chic.

Design inspiration

JS: A lot of designers use trips as inspiration … John Galliano did that, with the trip as a departure point for his next collection. You do the opposite.

CW-K: You must have known John Galliano from the beginning of his career.

JS: I probably met John at the time of Taboo, Leigh Bowery’s London club. John was probably just finishing his final collection at Saint Martins [Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design]. He was a club kid. It was very competitive. Walking into a club like Taboo, you had to be courageous, you could live or die on an outfit.

CW-K: You always text me to say, “Oh, you should see this exhibition or that …”

JS: It’s not just exhibitions! Recently, I went to see a fantastic Israeli-English choreographer called Hofesh Shechter, then Russell Maliphant, a beautiful thing called The Rodin Project. But I know designers don’t have a lot of time. Everybody thinks designers are drinking champagne and chatting to supermodels, but it’s an unforgiving business.

Commercial expectations

CW-K: My first Chloé collection was scary, because there’s a lot of anticipation . I’d really only been here for six to eight weeks, and I was taking things home at the weekend and wondering, “Am I doing this right?” It was an intense six weeks of reworking. Now I feel, “OK, I’ve got a few new reference points that are going to become mine, and a few old ones that I’ll put a new spin on,” but it’s a difficult time for designers. You’re always toying with, “Is this new enough? Have I seen this before? Is this right for women as well as the brand?”

JS: It’s finding ways of seducing people; of grabbing people’s attention.

Paris life

CW-K: I don’t have that many fears – I left home at 17 – but moving my family here for this has brought more fear than everything, because I’m putting them into a situation that’s being created by me but has a huge effect on them. They don’t have the confidence to speak French, which is the same problem I have.

JS: It’s like swimming, sometimes you sink, sometimes you get a warm reception, or they just say “Sorry?”

CW-K: Then you feel more humiliated.

JS: Funnily enough, when John Galliano first moved to Paris I was one of the few people he knew here. Galliano’s an incredible guy and he’s still living in Paris, which I think is commendable after all that happened to him. John Galliano is a survivor.

CW-K: When it snowed my family and I went to the Rodin Museum, and it was so beautiful and still.

JS: One of my favourite places is the Musée de la Vie Romantique. It has a garden and a tea shop. I’ll take you.

CW-K: OK.

JS: It’s a date.

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