It was only a year ago that Clare Waight Keller met Hubert de Givenchy for the first — and only — time.
Aristocratic, elegant, and imposingly tall at nearly 6 feet, 6 inches, Givenchy remained an active force in the haute circles of French culture since his retirement from fashion in 1995, but he claimed to take little interest in the iconic house he left behind. As a rule, he refrained from voicing his opinions on the occasionally audacious designs of his successors, save for once, when he allowed to a reporter from WWD, “I suffer. What is happening doesn’t make me happy. After all, one is proud of one’s name.”
Nevertheless, Waight Keller, who had been appointed artistic director that March, becoming the fifth designer to take charge since Givenchy left and the first woman in that role, had been seeking an audience all summer. Alas, he had been away in the South of France, and it was only about 10 days before her runway début when she was invited into his Paris home — a grand hôtel particulier filled with antiques and vivid representations of 20th-century art, from Picasso to Rothko, with a gorgeous green garden in the back.
“I more or less had my collection together, and I was eager to see him,” recalls Waight Keller, who was already well regarded in the industry for her successful six-year run at Chloé, as well as for her faultless reputation for even-keeled professionalism. She was not seeking approval so much as some personal insight into the man whose archives she had been studying during her first few months at the company and whose close relationship with Audrey Hepburn resulted in some of the most famous dresses in movie-making history. And more important, she wanted to tell Givenchy about her plans to rebuild the company’s couture business, which had shrunk considerably during the 12-year reign of her predecessor, Riccardo Tisci, whose democratic aesthetic — undeniably powerful in its own way — merged luxury with provocative elements of streetwear.
“There really was a strong connection between us,” Waight Keller says of her encounter with Givenchy, which lasted for more than an hour and a half. “I asked him a few very simple questions, things like, ‘What are your favorite colors?’ And I asked him about Audrey, of course — he brings up in conversation naturally his love of her and her style and the fact that there was this sense of drama in dressing up, that element of really loving couture. He was extremely happy to hear I was going back to a sense of elegance. He literally said to me, ‘I was never more happy than when I was working on couture. For me, that was the heart of everything, and I believe it is the soul of the company.’”
It is tempting to imagine that Givenchy, who died this March at the age of 91, would have approved of what Waight Keller has achieved in a matter of a year, which is a very short time frame for a designer to make her mark. Reflecting on the whirlwind of events — completing two ready-to-wear collections, presenting her first couture show in January to wildly enthusiastic reviews, and then the ultimate coup of designing Meghan Markle’s gown for her marriage to Prince Harry on May 19 — she used the following words at various points during an interview from her home in London: “amazing,” “astonishing,” “extraordinary,” “fantastic,” “fascinating,” “incredible,” and “genuinely one of the most special experiences I have ever had.” (The last was in reference to meeting Givenchy.)
As phenomenal as these moments have been for Waight Keller, it is not entirely surprising to those who have watched the progression of her career, from her meticulous work behind the scenes as a designer for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Tom Ford at Gucci to directing labels at Pringle of Scotland, then Chloé, and now Givenchy. The thing everyone first notices about Waight Keller is that she’s always calm. And she’s also very nice, attributes that are only remarkable because everyone else in fashion seems so stressed out all the time. But she didn’t get this far — to the very top of one of the handful of remaining Parisian houses to maintain a true haute-couture atelier — based solely on her personality. Rather, she has always demonstrated real discipline in how she works, which lends a degree of practicality to her designs and to how she executes her vision.
Actress Lily Collins remembers meeting Waight Keller a decade ago when she was invited to attend one of the designer’s first shows for Pringle. “I walked into my fitting, and she was just a ball of energy but also incredibly calm,” Collins says. “I thought, ‘This is so strange — how is she so levelheaded and at the same time so energetic? Doesn’t she have a show tomorrow?’ She is just so passionate and vibrant when she talks.”
Collins, who was filming the BBC production of Les Misérables in Brussels just before flying to Paris for her InStyle shoot, felt as if she were reuniting with an old girlfriend. She had already traveled with the designer to Tokyo for a brand event and to New York to attend the Met Gala, where she wore a Givenchy couture gown that combined layers of black satin, organza, and radzimir with a white trim around the loose collar, a not-quite-chaste interpretation of a nun’s habit.
“It was so beautifully telling of that line between making a statement and not being too costumey,” Collins says. “I think that is what Clare is doing with the brand.”
At Givenchy, Waight Keller immediately established codes for tailoring and clean lines, a strong shoulder, a sense of femininity for women, a dark romance for men, and a graphic palette of black, white, and red. Taking a firm ethical position, she also persuaded management to abandon the use of real fur and personally worked with manufacturers to develop faux alternatives so real-looking that many of her close friends were fooled. And, as promised, she brought back couture as a serious business.
“The power of couture, I felt, was hugely important to the house,” she says. “I made that a mission because I do feel that it’s incredibly brand-building, just in terms of setting an image.”
Of course, her native connection to England led Waight Keller to one of her first important Givenchy couture clients, Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex. True to form, the designer describes the experience of that historic moment as “a little bit like a workday, because I knew I had to get everything ready in the morning — prepare the dress, make sure it was steamed, make sure everything was perfect and where it needed to be at the right time.” Only afterward did she allow herself to recognize the monumental scale of the thing as the world savored every detail: the wide boatneck and long sleeves, the discreetly placed seams, and the 16-foot-long veil of silk tulle embroidered with flowers from all 53 Commonwealth nations, as well as those from Kensington Palace and the bride’s home state of California (the poppy).
“I’m just thrilled that it would happen in my first year,” Waight Keller says, “because for the house itself, to have had this kind of thing happen has completely changed people’s perception of Givenchy.”
While much has been made of the symbolism of her move to a top-notch label as a woman and a working mother of three children (15-year-old twin daughters and a 6-year-old son), Waight Keller says, “I kind of feel like it’s a nonevent.
“In the end, I’m a designer, so whether man or woman, it shouldn’t matter,” she continues. “But it’s a very strong message in this still very male-dominated environment to prove that it is possible. The world is very intimidating today, with the spotlight that people are put under. There’s an awful lot more pressure, not only in terms of your own work but also what you represent through social media. For young people there is this real hesitation — I not only have to prove myself through my work, I have to prove myself through my persona as well.”
VIDEO: Behind the Scenes of Lily Collins and Clare 's Parisian Givenchy Shoot
How, then, does she make it look so effortless? Though she works in Paris, Waight Keller, who is 48, and her husband, Philip Keller, an architect, live in London, where she maintains a separate office in Chelsea. All the books she has collected, her old sketches, stacks of boxes of fabric and inspirations, and vintage pieces from her personal wardrobe are arranged in such a way that she can start to pull her ideas together there without the distractions of the atelier.
“I have my home life in London and my work life in Paris,” she says. “That creates this fantastic equilibrium for me. And in Paris I go full steam on everything that involves things and the more strategic sides of the business.”
In July, Waight Keller presented her second couture collection, which she dedicated to the memory of Givenchy. It was a touching tribute to the legacy of the designer, his architectural shapes and dramatic columns, and emphasized his favorite colors, which, when she asked, he told her were black and white, of course.
“He loved the strength of that combination,” she says. It reflects a preference for elegance.
“It takes time to get to the point when you know something you’ve been feeling inside is really right,” Waight Keller says. “I feel confident that in the next few years there will be this sense of wanting chic as the new cool.”
Photographed by: Simon Proctor. Stylist: Columbine Smille. On Clare Waight Keller: Hair: Cyril Laloue for Open Talent Paris. Makeup: Tracey Gray Mann for Calliste Agency. On Lily Collins: Hair: Gregory Russell for The Wall Group. Makeup: Vincent Oquendo for The Wall Group. Manicure: Alex Falba for Artlist. Production: Octopix.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 10.