Chloé’s Creative Director is a game-changing, quietly kick-ass boss who is helping reshape the way the fashion industry champions female leaders today. Super-successful and surprisingly down-to-earth, Clare is passionate about making it easier for talented women to get to the top by forging a more relaxed way of working that delivers results and nurtures women’s emotional needs. Sounds too good to be true? Trust me, it’s not.
I first met Clare four years ago, when she was heavily pregnant with her third child. We were discussing her impending move from Pringle of Scotland to powerhouse French brand Chloé (and imminent family relocation to Paris). As we chatted, I couldn’t help questioning how she was going to take on a new job, new baby and new home abroad with her architect husband Philip and nine-year-old twins all at the same time. ‘You are either very brave or very mad,’ I suggested.
Could she hit the ground running post-birth and deliver what Chloé needed in the short time before her first catwalk collection? Would she manage the so-called ‘struggle to juggle’ and be both a successful boss and happy mum? These are predictable questions, ones I wouldn’t have asked a man. Questions I fear reflect society’s default assumption of women at the top: our ability is often underestimated and our focus queried. We still work in a world where it is unusual to see a woman in charge.
Indeed, women make up 75% of the fashion industry today, yet less than 25% of senior positions are held by women. Women are primary consumers of fashion, but the decisions around what they consume are made mostly by men. According to Chloé CEO Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, the company has seen ‘unprecedented growth’ under Clare, and he has praised her for being an efficient manager and creative brand builder. She has also won critical acclaim for her delicate and sensitive refresh of the brand which has revitalised its collections. With this in mind, this workplace imbalance doesn’t make business sense. I can only conclude it’s because we are either routinely ruled out for the big roles or we rule ourselves out, due to a lack of confidence or an unwillingness to work in the way a business run by men demands.
But times are changing because of women like Clare Waight Keller. At Chloé, she says around 85% of the workforce are female. And she has gone some way to prove that the top job is within reach if you are given the chance to patiently make it work your way. When she was interviewed for the Chloé role in 2011, after stints at Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Pringle of Scotland, she felt obliged to tell Richemont’s [which owns Chloé] then-CEO Marty Wikstrom that she was five months pregnant (it wasn’t physically obvious).
‘I had thought I wouldn’t even be on the list because of my situation,’ she recalls, ‘so I told her right at the beginning. And she said: “Clare, I am going to ask you just one question: ‘Do you think you can do the job?”’ And I said, “Yes, I can.” To which she replied, “Well then, there should be absolutely no barrier to you doing it because I was given one of the biggest opportunities of my career when I was pregnant.” So she saw the potential and gave me the role that was a huge breakthrough in my career.’ The support of one senior woman for another in this way has a ripple effect. For Clare, it instilled a new attitude that is being passed down and spread further. As Madeleine Albright once said: ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’
Now Clare and I are sitting down together again. Her baby son, Harrison, is three. She is on a whistle-stop visit to London and in a buoyant mood after presenting, to my mind, one of her best Chloé collections to date. If you were looking for the definition of a thoroughly modern woman, Clare is about as close as it gets. Her sense of easy, effortless style sums up the simpler way women want to dress today. And her relaxed open-door policy at work has helped define a less intense way of working in such a fast-paced, profit-focused industry. If you follow her on Instagram, you get a strong sense of family, travel and a distinctly stylish outlook, not a starry fashion lifestyle.
But I am also mindful that despite her laid-back persona, there is a steely core to Clare. She grew up in Birmingham, the eldest of three children. To fund her college studies, she worked night shifts at a cinema and day shifts at a picture framing shop. And then she beat several high-flying students to a job at Calvin Klein at the age of just 21, before she’d even graduated. She stepped on a plane to head out there in the early Nineties, when New York was buzzing with a raw creativity. You have to be a strong character to survive the pace and demands of the fashion world there.
‘I just said goodbye to my parents, got on a plane, and went,’ she recalls. ‘Working there was amazing, Calvin courted controversy and he loved pushing the boundaries, especially with the advertising. I was observing and absorbing everything. It was like the Silicon Valley of its time, especially for young people – really open to our ideas and to new thinking. I thought I would be lonely but I wasn’t, and I think if you can make it through the first year, everything works out.’
There is a focus to Clare that, as a fellow female boss and working mum, I admire, which is why I wanted to interview her for this, our 30th-birthday issue.
LC: So Clare, having worked under Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford at Gucci, what does it take to be one of the most successful women in this male-dominated industry today?
CWK: It’s interesting, because a lot of women work at lower levels in fashion but as you move up, numbers dissipate and sometimes you’re the only woman in the room. Your voice is lost because men are much more outspoken and to the point, and almost cut things off before you come into the conversation. Now I find the more direct I am with male colleagues, the more chance I have of getting it done. You assume as a woman that you have to justify things, but actually, if you say it in the right way, you can be as confident as a man. I do think women are becoming more vocal, even though that is challenging because a male point of view continues to dominate. At Chloé, 85% of the company is female, with more women in senior levels than most places, so I think a new acceptance of women in these bigger roles is happening. I have cultivated a culture of listening to what women need, because women are extremely efficient workers. I believe you have to let working mothers do what they need to do to get the work done. They are good at balancing the hours to match the needs of both parts of their life.
LC: Often I say that women ‘can’t be what they can’t see’, and I think that’s why it is important to mention what an amazing role model your mum has been for you in terms of work ethic.
CWK: She is incredibly supportive of my choices – no ifs, no buts. She worked at an insurance agency when I was young but she tried to make her job flexible to support us all. I was at Gucci when the twins (Amelia and Charlotte) were only six months old. It was really hard and there was so much travel – I leaned on my mum then to help me through that. She was there with them. It was probably the toughest period of my career. Sometimes she would stay with us for up to a month while we got the show done. I would feel guilty but when I work, I need to be very focused on it and, for me, having Mum help with childcare was a no-brainer. They won’t remember it, but I knew I could trust her.
LC: These are not decisions men often have to consider, are they?
CWK: No, but I really do think fathers are warming up to this, which is reassuring. At the time I thought, ‘My god, what would I do if I didn’t have my mum?’ Probably only a woman has to make that choice about her career, yet on the other hand, women now expect to have this fuller life. But men are more part of the conversation: with my male boss, who has four children, we’ll talk about what he did with his family at the weekends and how his kids are doing at school, and that used to be a no-go area for many men. I think that is quite a big shift, men and women having the confidence to bring domestic life into the conversation.
LC: What’s the key to having confidence as a boss?
CWK: I like the quote that if you don’t have confidence, just pretend you do!
If you believe in yourself and you have done your research, you can say to yourself: ‘I can do this.’ It’s about willpower,
determination and focus.
LC: Often, I have moments when I think, ‘I can’t deal with all this, it’s just not working.’ Have you felt that self-doubt?
CWK: Yes, which is why I left Gucci, without a job to go to, when Tom [Ford] left. I felt I wasn’t spending enough time being properly creative or managing my home life well. I just wanted a break and to try something different. And then the job at Pringle came along.
LC: You come across as a very calm, easy-going person. Is this how you are at work and home?
CWK: Yes, I keep everything low-key. And I am super-organised, which comes with having a lot on your plate. For me and my husband, it is about keeping the heart and soul of the family together, about having balance but knowing family takes priority. I think only then can you be truly happy doing both.
Photo credit: Kai Z Feng