The woman who invented Prêt-à-Porter
Most of the big fashion houses were named after their founders, making the designer’s names live on way after they’re gone, becoming thus unforgettable.
Behind Chanel, there is Coco Chanel. Behind Dior, Christian Dior. Behind the House of Fendi, there are Adele and Edward Fendi. Behind Gucci, Guccio Gucci. Behind Balenciaga, the great Cristóbal Balenciaga, and the list goes on and on.
And who’s behind the French fashion house Chloé? Was there a Madame or Monsieur Chloé?
As a matter of fact, no. The founder of the Parisian brand was Gaby Aghion, a name that sadly, not many know about but should because she was a fascinating woman ahead of her time and an example of women’s empowerment!
Gaby Aghion was born Gabrielle Hanoka in 1921, in Alexandria, Egypt. She was part of the local elite, her father being the manager of a tobacco factory. The young Gabrielle studied at the French school, where she met her husband, Raymond Aghion when they were both seven years old. They married at the age of 19. Both their families were Jewish and wealthy, Raymond’s were cotton exporters.
Because of Raymond’s left-wing political views, the young couple emigrated to Paris in 1945, where they met all sorts of exciting people as Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the anti-establishment movement Dada, the poet Paul Éluard, writers such as Lawrence Durrell and Louis Aragon, the painter Picasso etc. They led an interesting life, bohemian but at the same time, comfortable, mingling with the intellectual and artistic elite in Paris.
By 1952, Gaby had gotten a bit bored, she had bigger aspirations other than being a "Lady-who-lunch" and told her husband she had to work. She designed six models of plain summer dresses, bought high-quality cotton, buttons and hired a seamstress who had worked in haute couture to sew them in a maid’s room above the couple’s Parisian apartment, which she’d turned into her workshop. The beautiful dresses in relaxed styling were a hit! Instead of naming the brand after her, she chose a friend’s name, Chloé, because she thought her own name reminded that of a fortune-teller.
Gaby Aghion wished to offer women beautiful, light and feminine clothes that did not follow the formality of the luxury fashion houses of the 50’s. She was an emancipated and free-thinking woman, who wanted clothes that were exquisitely made in high-quality fabrics but also, that allowed her to move freely. Aligned with the couple’s political views, the Egyptian designer thought quality fashion should be more accessible to the masses; her modern collections were available from the rack and were designed so that the clothes could be easily altered to fit, quite the opposite of the Haute Couture made-to-measure garments. This was an extremely modern concept for that time and Aghion named it “luxury prêt-à-porter”, coining the expression Prêt-à-Porter, which means ready-to-wear in French. Her progressive vision proved to be spot-on and the fashion industry soon followed her steps.
A year after launching Chloé, Gaby joined forces with Jacques Lenoir, who would take care of the business side of the fashion house while Aghion continued being the creative head. About this period, the designer said: “Everything was yet to be invented, and this thrilled me.”
In 1956 they had the first Chloé show at the Bohemian Café de Flore, home of the intellectuals and artists of the 40’s and 50’s in Paris, who would sit there for hours, smoking Gitanes, while sipping wine and re-inventing the world. Chloé’s ready-to-wear show over breakfast at the Café de Flore became a twice-a-year event and one of the highlights of the French fashion calendar.
Gaby Aghion had also a knack for discovering young talents. Among other promising young designers, she hired the stunning Maxime de la Falaise and Karl Lagerfeld at the beginning of his career. In 1966, she made Lagerfeld the main designer at Chloé, where he remained for the next 20 years, leaving in 1992 for Chanel. Brigitte Bardot, the Italian opera singer Maria Callas, Princess Grace of Monaco and Jackie Kennedy Onassis were among their many famous clients.
“All I’ve ever wanted was for Chloé to have a happy spirit, to make people happy.”
The Egyptian designer and businesswoman sold Chloé in 1985 but remained involved with her fashion house, attending almost all shows and giving her opinion until her death at the age of 93. By the way, one of her last requests was that her death shouldn’t delay Chloé’s spring show in 2015.
Photos via Chloé