The Wardrobe with Natacha Ramsay-Levi

Natacha greets us in her sitting room wearing a matching red, black and brown lurex jacquard jumper and wide-legged trousers with a baroque pattern by CHLOÉ for Autumn/Winter 2018–19. But it’s the marvellous gold chain that first catches the eye. Natacha enjoys its ceremonial pomp, likening the CHLOÉ piece to a livery collar. “It’s also a bit Run DMC, no?” The brown-and-black leather Rylee boots and the gold ring are also by CHLOÉ.

“You’re elevated, but still very comfortable.” Natacha’s in her home office extolling the virtues of the cowboy boot. “Those six-centimetre heels — it’s a good height.” She’s wearing a strappy biker-hybrid pair in white leather by CHLOÉ for S/S ’18. The grey wool single-breasted jacket, burgundy satin polo-neck top and jewellery are also by CHLOÉ, for A/W ’18. The grey wool biker jacket in between and navy neoprene trousers are both by LOUIS VUITTON, from A/W ’14.

Even at home she takes great pleasure in dressing up, as showcased in this dynamic ensemble, all by CHLOÉ. The cape-backed black wool waistcoat is from S/S ’18, the cream silk-and-lace dress with wonderful winged sleeves and the printed leather boots are from Resort 2019, and the jazzy red wool knee-high socks are from Pre-fall 2018. This outfit is the quintessence of Natacha’s vision for Chloé, where pieces from different seasons can be mixed with effortless elan.

It’s another sharp look from Natacha: a maroon silk-and-lurex jumper with an undulating pleated frill running across the back and arms (earning it the name “the Crocodile”) and black wool wide-legged trousers, both by CHLOÉ for A/W ’18. Natacha has a particular fondness for classical antiquity: this gold-and-silver sautoir necklace with laurel pendant was inspired by ancient Greece. It’s also by CHLOÉ.

This time it’s a paisley-print tulle jumpsuit by CÉLINE from S/S ’17. “It’s long and flowing but still has a neat silhouette. And I love that it’s slightly kitsch, with the exaggerated pattern.” Natacha wears it with a black nylon T-shirt by COMME DES GARÇONS. The gold jewellery and white suede calfskin Sonnie trainers are both by CHLOÉ.

To the dining room. Natacha owns a sublime collection of ceramics, such as these 19th-century vases by Louis Lourioux. She loves the thrill of the hunt, trawling the Puces flea market in the 18th arrondissement and online auctions for new finds. Here, she wears a treasure of another kind: a navy pinstriped double-breasted wool jacket by BALENCIAGA from S/S ’05 — a very good vintage — with a white cotton T-shirt by COMME DES GARÇONS PLAY. Natacha describes this look as in her “comfort zone”, with all her style staples in place right down to the dazzling gold jewellery, all by CHLOÉ.

Natacha’s home is a mix of the chic, the playful and the seriously glamorous. Shoes from her collection around a floor lamp by Carlo Nason.

Natacha Ramsay-Levi has been at the centre of great change in the fashion industry on more than one occasion. Her previous roles at Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton had her in the eye of the storm for 17 years; today, she finds herself at the creative helm of the juggernaut French house Chloé, with a punchy sartorial perspective that feels so right for now. And nobody showcases it better than the designer herself, a dyed-in-the-cashmere Parisienne. So let’s pop round Natacha’s and rifle through a wardrobe that’s the stuff our new fashion dreams are made of.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself drawn to the debonair end of the colour spectrum lately — say, burgundies, maroons and umbers? Maybe you’ve developed a penchant for ritzy accessories — medallion necklaces or a gold arm garter? And have you a hankering for a Cuban-heeled biker boot? Then chances are, your urges are down to the discerning eye of Natacha Ramsay-Levi, the 38-year-old creative director of Chloé. In late 2018, as we emerge from a decade of minimalist restraint, suddenly everything’s all out there in a very good way, and Natacha’s the one we’ll be wearing.

Natacha was Nicolas Ghesquière’s director of ready-to-wear during his creative directorship at Balenciaga, from 2002 to 2012 — a thrilling decade in fashion, with the celebrated house at the pinnacle of all that was progressive — and she moved with him in 2013 to Louis Vuitton, where she was installed as the brand’s womenswear director. She had joined Ghesquière at 22, after three years at the fashion school Studio Berçot, and she thrived in a team eager to give budding talent a chance. “The studio at Balenciaga was very young, so they used to develop and grow their interns,” Natacha says. Her parents were less than thrilled with her new career direction (“They wanted me to go into science”), but she says they’re very proud of her achievements now.

Her family were Left Bank bohemians — her father, Jean-Pierre Ramsay-Levi, was a magazine and book editor (she appeared on the cover of one of his titles, Les Nouvelles Littéraires, when she was three), and her mother, Michèle, was an interior designer. They, Natacha and her brothers, Vladimir, now 34, and Stanislas, 41, lived in Montparnasse, where the atmosphere was literary and dinner-table conversation political. “There were always big discussions,” she says. “You’d need to have read the newspaper, watched the news, know your history.”

In her teens Natacha devoured Dostoyevsky and Nabokov. She went on to read history at Université Paris Diderot. Her studies took her to Mali and Senegal, where her personal style started to develop. After a trip to India, she tells me, she would “draw a line down the middle of my face with purple powder.” She rolls her eyes. “It was a different era!” Nights out with friends were spent in Paris’s racy Pigalle district, wearing too-small Kangol T-shirts and too-big trousers, grooving to OutKast and Missy Elliot. Natacha describes her teen self as stubborn. “Fashion helped to open my eyes, to communicate my opinions more articulately,” she says. “Opinions can be like the supermarket of thoughts.”

Among the stacks of books that line Natacha’s apartment today are titles on art and photography as well as tomes on history, philosophy and David Bowie. Recently, she has been reading the work of Yannick Haenel, the co-founder of the French nihilist literary magazine Ligne de risque. For the past two years she has been living on the fifth floor of a Haussmann-style building near the Opéra Comique, not far from the city’s Bourse in the 2nd arrondissement — an area Natacha prizes for its contrast to the grandeur of the 8th, where she works, and the pell-mell of the 3rd, where she socialises. “In the Marais, you walk down the street, meet 10 people and have to chat to everyone,” she says. “Here is the complete opposite. There’s only two other apartments in this building; the rest are offices, so when I come home at night it’s super quiet. I like my apartment to be a bit of an island.”

Since March 2017, it has also been the control room for Natacha’s exciting new vision for Chloé, where she succeeded Clare Waight Keller as the company’s creative director. Natacha’s mission on arrival was to give this quintessentially French fashion house, known for its dreamy chiffon dresses and covetable leather handbags, some of her signature 21st-century Parisian va-va-voom. “That 1960s French cool-girl thing, all natural hair and billowing fabrics — it was never visually interesting to me,” she says. After a succession of British designers leading the charge at Chloé from 1997 to 2017 (with the exception of the Swedish designer Paulo Melim Andersson’s two-season interlude in 2006), Natacha’s appointment seemed like a homecoming for the brand. She is the first Parisian artistic director since Martine Sitbon in 1988, and she was ready to give it her all.

It’s been a rollicking ride, during which Natacha has delivered two enthusiastically received catwalk collections; launched the house’s first sneaker (the Sonnie) and three new bags (the Roy bucket, the Tao and the Chloé); collaborated with the artists Marion Verboom and Rithika Merchant on illustrations for her debut show; designed stage costumes for the rock group Haim; and attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala accompanied by the Canadian actor Mackenzie Davis, who wore a ravishing full-length scarlet dress of Natacha’s design. And she admits to enjoying complete creative control at last. “If I have an idea or a project in mind, I can make it happen, and that makes me happy,” she explains. “I’m no longer executing someone else’s vision — it’s mine.”

Natacha has been a poster girl for a certain kind of branchitude ever since those heady Balenciaga days when she ran about town with the jeunesse dorée of the Paris fashion scene. The stylists Camille Bidault-Waddington and Marine Braunschvig, the jeweller Ligia Dias and the artist Cédric Rivrain are all long-standing friends. “I used to dress up a lot when I worked at Balenciaga. When you work in a design studio, how you dress is an important part of being creative. You have to be inspirational.” Today, her look is understated in that considered way — tousled shoulder-length hair, face fresh save for a splash of mascara. The boots, miniskirt and tailoring are there, but it’s a dialled-down version of what appears on her catwalk. “I don’t mind being a canvas for my work,” she says, “but it’s not like everything I put on a catwalk I want to wear. I think about the person who’ll eventually be wearing the clothes and her desires.”

In September 2017 she set out her vision for the Chloé customer at the new Maison Chloé on rue de la Baume. In 51 looks, she synthesised the multifarious iterations of the Chloé girl over the past six decades as envisaged by designers as diverse as Gaby Aghion, Karl Lagerfeld and Phoebe Philo, adding a modern glamour and an urban grittiness of her own. The house’s signature frills and flou butted up against leather miniskirts, sassy biker boots and rigorous tailoring. Then, for Autumn/Winter 2018–19, she ramped up the drama with a daring new silhouette, seen in long silk crêpe dresses with plunging necklines, satin shirts paired with jodhpurs, and suave velvet suits — all rendered in that plush autumnal palette. Of particular note is Natacha’s liberal use of brown — what for some can be a challenging hue she has made simply delicious. Imagine the louche looks worn by Anjelica Huston in the 1970s, or the French film icon Stéphane Audran. Natacha is an avid cinephile; her most recent watch was Tesnota (“Closeness”) by the Russian director Kantemir Balagov (“I can’t stop thinking about it”).

But it’s at her home where one gets a full picture of Natacha’s high taste. Her place is a lively mix of the haute and the homely. Once through the white-walled and rosewood-parquet reception and into the sitting room, an explosion of jazzy artworks and mid-century furniture awaits. Two gold-and-marble floor lamps by Kazuhide Takahama flank a signed poster by Thomas Demand; ceramics by the early-20th-century potter Louis Lourioux and the Memphis master Ettore Sottsass share shelf space with work by the acclaimed British postwar potter Alan Wallwork, family photographs, and drawings by Natacha’s five-year-old son, Balthus. A large silk-screen poster from the series “The Alphabet” by the photographers Inez & Vinoodh and the French design studio M/M (Paris) — depicting the letter N, naturally — is propped against the wall. (“I didn’t want to hang anything because the apartment’s a rental.”) Encased in a glass box is a lobster from the Paris taxidermist Deyrolle, a gift she received for her 30th birthday. Natacha’s perched on a sumptuous, navy-blue quilted 1968 Arflex Strips sofa by Cini Boeri, smoking a Marlboro Light.

“I like that mix and clash of styles,” she says. “To have something contradictory thrown in there — it’s very French, non ?” She gestures towards a 168cm green plastic cactus standing by two pod-shaped Elipson BS50 speakers in her sitting room. “It’s by Guido Drocco,” she says. “It’s a coat rack.”

Natacha’s apartment is scattered with the clothing overspill that identifies a true fashion fanatic. Pieces from her personal jewellery collection are sprinkled in glass bowls; designs by her friend Ligia Dias and Elie Top mingle with serious gold pieces she has designed for Chloé (“I like gold to be very gold”). Jewellery is one of the style statements that Natacha has brought from her own wardrobe to the house. “I wear a lot of simple T-shirts and cashmere knits, so a splash of jewellery adds sophistication.” Long, chunky chains; thick cuffs; even knuckledusters — in a Chloé collection? “It’s not a knuckleduster!” Natacha counters. “It’s a bunch of individual rings all linked together. I was working on a bag, and I just wrapped the chain of the strap around my hand and thought it would also work as a ring. Voilà !”

In the hallway, shoes from Prada, Pierre Hardy and Louis Vuitton are collected in a heap, albeit a very glamorous heap, all buffed patent leather and snazzy platform soles. With a collection somewhere in the region of 60 to 70 pairs, Natacha keeps several at her parents’. “I’m not precious about my clothes,” she says. With wardrobe space tight, she resorts to skinny wire hangers. That way, there’s always room for more. “I love clothes,” she says. “Love! Love! Give me! Give me!” Lately her hectic schedule at Chloé has meant there’s scant time for shopping, so she hits select outlets for the essentials. “If I go to Comme des Garçons, I know I’ll get a good sweater; if I go to Prada, I know I’ll get a good sock.”

And if Natacha needs anything else, she can always make it. Chloé’s atelier is world-renowned, after all, and its artistic director is the best model for her own work. “I will be 40 in two years, a significant age for women,” she says. But she knows that it’s just the beginning. “I look back and think, OK, the choices I’ve made, now they’re my life. It’s nice.” And Natacha’s life in design is proving a seductive proposition to customers new and old, who are answering her call to dress to inspire.

“I think I have talent,” she says.
“I love what I do and I’m a hard worker. My work’s not avant-garde, but it’s beautiful, it’s special and people want to wear it. That’s what’s most important to me.”