Clare Waight Keller
- Interview By
- Bibby Sowray
Like her designs, Clare Waight Keller is coolly understated as she speaks to us from her London studio on an unseasonably wet summer’s day. While she might not be a household name, she’s as big a deal as they come in the world of fashion.
A graduate of the Royal College of Art, her career to date has seen her work at brands including Calvin Klein, Gucci, Chloé and Givenchy, serving as artistic director at the latter two. She was the first woman to hold the role at Givenchy and her tenure there also saw her design Meghan Markle’s wedding dress.
She left the French fashion house in April 2020, just as the pandemic gripped the globe. She’s been quiet since, working away on her latest project – 15th September will see the launch of her debut collection for Uniqlo, titled Uniqlo:C. It’s the first instalment of an ongoing partnership, just like the brand’s incredibly successful unions with JW Anderson and Jil Sander. The collection is full of versatile, classic pieces inspired by her own wardrobe and experiences as a busy working mother. From the ultimate trench to the perfect shirt, each piece has been created with practicality and comfort in mind and perfectly illustrates Waight Keller’s ability to design clothes that work hard for women, while also looking great. (A word of advice: get your wish list prepared and be ready to act fast when it launches – we will be.)
Here, she tells us about the serendipitous timing of the collaboration, why she decided to take on high-street fashion after a career spent in the world of luxury, and explains why comfort is the real key to building a lasting wardrobe.
You’ve worked at many iconic luxury fashion houses throughout your career but this partnership is your first with a high-street brand, why did you decide to partner with Uniqlo?
About a year after lockdown, after I had taken some time out and had various different conversations, I was approached through an old friend of mine who had worked with Jil Sander at Uniqlo. I’d been such a big fan of that collection when it first came out – it actually introduced me to Uniqlo as a brand. I felt like, 10 years later, this was an opportunity for me to introduce a whole new audience to Uniqlo that followed my work or loved my feminine style but had never actually come to Uniqlo for that. It was a way to do something on an incredible scale that offered so many wardrobe options to such a big audience of women, which was super-exciting.
How did you approach designing this collection?
After Covid, I had so many friends who reassessed their wardrobes completely, and I also completely adapted to a new way of working. It became very apparent that the way my wardrobe needed to function was on a completely different level to how it had before. [Pre-Covid] I had been looking to dress up and be somewhat more formal in the way that I dressed, working for the particular brands that I did. Suddenly, I realised that, actually, my life had become much more about flexibility, practicality, comfort, things that had multiple uses, and I really wanted a very edited focus on my wardrobe. So part of how I approached the collection was from that point of view; looking at the pieces that have been in my wardrobe for a very long time and never left, consistent pieces that I always go back to – those are the things I tapped into for this collection.
“Collaborating with Uniqlo was a way to do something on an incredible scale that offered so many wardrobe options to so many women.”
What do you hope this collection offers women?
The collection itself is between 30 and 35 pieces, so you have the ability to coordinate everything in whatever way you want. It offers a sort of cross-functionality and a wonderful colour palette that you can play around with, and everything works together. Because it’s so focused, I’ve got the go-to looks that are going to be your easy transitional wardrobe and I’ve really focused very heavily and carefully on the weights of fabric. So everything can build up to heavier layers if you want, but equally it can be super-lightweight. I think that’s the interesting thing about working for a global brand on the scale that Uniqlo has, because you’re designing a wardrobe around climates all the way from 40 to 15 degrees, as we are here in the UK! You can wear the dresses on their own, or you can wear them with one of the HEATTECH turtlenecks underneath. There are ways to build up the layers so that no matter what climate you’re in, you can adapt.
What are your favourite pieces and why?
One is definitely the iconic trench coat. I’d never really worked on a trench coat before – I’d done a little bit at Givenchy – but I really wanted to distil it down into a perfectly proportioned trench, and I also wanted to consider that people wear trench coats in different ways. So, for instance, particularly in Asia, they wear things much neater, clothes fit closer to the body and more fitted. I really paid attention to how the shoulder would fit for them. But, equally, if you buy a size large or an extra-large as a westerner, where you like to wear a lot of oversized things, it still sits in the right way, so the sleeve is proportioned so that it can work up and down sizing, depending on the vibe that you want. It’s a super-clean iconic shape. And then the fluid dresses because this is an area that I think Uniqlo had not played so much in before. For me, that’s such an iconic part of my DNA that I’ve brought to every house that I’ve worked at. I wanted to retranslate that into an effortless dress that’s a wonderful transition piece.
What is the most versatile piece in the collection?
I would say it’s either the trench coat or the lightweight nylon quilted coats. There’s a longer coat and it’s just the most brilliant piece to wear in spring or autumn, when you’re just starting to either take away your sweaters or put on your sweaters. The volume and the shape allow you to bulk up or be very slim underneath. It’s super-light, you can almost pack it away, you could use it as a blanket. It’s a really great, versatile piece and I love the check print that it comes in.
“If you feel comfortable in something, it’s going to stay in your wardrobe a lot longer.”
You mentioned that you had some downtime during Covid. Did that help reignite or refuel any sources of inspiration for you?
It was very difficult for a lot of people, I do appreciate that, but for me, personally, it was actually a real revelation as I went from being on a schedule of back-to-back collections to suddenly having the freedom to look at things in a completely different way because everything slowed down. Once I started working with Uniqlo, I was travelling to Japan and New York, so suddenly I was in this new way of living where I had to pack for myself, often. I needed the practicality that when I went to the office I looked good but it was still easy. I needed things that worked together on multiple levels because, with all the baggage problems and issues, I wanted things that I could carry on. I was coming up against these problems and issues that I wanted to find solutions for - that was part of the reason why, weirdly, this Uniqlo project came at such a great time. I had first-hand experience of what I really needed from a wardrobe.
Which pieces in your own wardrobe do you always find yourself returning to?
Men’s shirts – I’ve got two in this collection, a white one and a beautiful vivid blue. They’re never far from my rail in terms of pieces to take with me on every trip. Knitwear – it’s so fantastic at any time of the year, even if you’re in summer and there’s air-conditioning. There’s a cashmere cable knit that I love from this collection. And then the big turtlenecks for winter, and the zip-up one that’s perfect to wear with a shirt underneath. Then those easy fluid dresses, because you literally can twist them into a little ball and they pop back out into shape, same with the pleated skirt. Those are the kind of practicalities that I was looking for and things that I found in my wardrobe over the last few years.
What is your advice to the woman who feels like she hasn’t yet found her own style?
I think it is a problem for a lot of women. Fashion changes so quickly now and there are so many trends on social media that you are somewhat bombarded by people who are trying to promote a specific way of looking, but that doesn’t necessarily echo your own lifestyle. I think one of the things that every woman should do is look at their wardrobe and see which pieces you wear literally every week. What keeps coming back all the time? And then you start from there. For me, it’s always been men’s shirts, really good blue jeans – find the fit that works for you and then you just buy two or three different shades of that and stick with it – and blazers.