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October 18, 2009

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Chloe in Hannah's hands

HANNAH MacGibbon, who showed her third collection for Chloe on the runway this season, has her hand firmly on the creative rudder of the French fashion house? up to and including what's spinning in the studio.

"The kids are into this electro, but I still insist on my dub and old-school hip-hop," she said, laughing.

More crucially, MacGibbon insists on nurturing and trumpeting the brand's unapologetically feminine, upbeat spirit - even if fashion has recently been marching to a much tougher beat, with black leather, big shoulders and studs galore.

"Everything's so hard at the moment," MacGibbon mused over English breakfast tea at the Hotel Bristol before showing her collection in Paris. "I don't feel like wearing that at all, even though it's nice to look at. It's completely lacking that sentiment that draws you in, the emotion of it. ... There's a lack of romanticism in the air. There's a real need for that softness."

And MacGibbon said she is ready to deliver it. "I did a lot of work on coats and capes on the runway for winter, which people really liked," she explained. "For the next collection, I want to put more into the fragility and the dresses."

Sounding relaxed and confident, MacGibbon acknowledged she felt the pressure intensely a year ago when her runway debut coincided with the crumbling of the world's financial markets - and after Chloe's fortunes had tumbled as its previous creative director, Paulo Melim Andersson, steered the brand too far into edgy territory.

"The first (show) was a really crazy experience," said MacGibbon, dressed in a pair of worn brown leather overalls she layered over a slate tank. "With the second show, I started to find my feet a little. I think there was an energy and a spirit in that show."

Intangible they may be, but "sentiment" and "emotion" are central to the Chloe recipe, according to MacGibbon. "I think that largely comes from being a feminine brand done largely by female designers," she said. "The attraction is that it's so attainable. I think women feel they can enter the brand. It's not intimidating or too 'fashion'."

Under MacGibbon's tenure, the mood in the house is lighter and more positive, according to Ralph Toledano, chairman and chief executive officer of Chloe, part of luxury giant Compagnie Financiere Richemont.

The brand is back in touch with its DNA, its "true asset," thanks to MacGibbon, Toledano said. "She's much more self-assured. Hannah is a little bit like me: We're never content, and she is by far her own toughest critic," he said. "I really feel that she's finding her way, forging her own style and her own interpretation of the brand."

Toledano said Chloe has a much more balanced business today, versus the boom years, when the hit, padlock-festooned Paddington bag helped catapult the firm into the designer big leagues. Today, the brand boasts a range of "good sellers" in handbags at a range of prices, he said. "That's the key of a stable business and of steady growth. It's a tremendous achievement because we really have a business instead of one product."

While the company is focused on its core categories and existing network rather than brand extensions and retail rollouts - "We want to be better where we are," Toledano stressed - the second line See by Chloe is viewed as a "huge opportunity" in the future across all categories, including handbags and shoes.

For her part, MacGibbon said she is focused on ensuring the top collection keeps improving. To that end, the sporty, "outdoorsy" spirit of the fall collection would likely be felt again for next season, but mixed with the variety she loves, from sexy to masculine, dressy to sporty. "I love the idea that a girl is on a journey, and she has all those characteristics," she said.

While the designer took some lumps for her debut runway collection, which included ballooning pants and stiff ruffles, many of her ideas turned up in other designer collections and on the high street.


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