A Revelatory New Exhibition at the Jewish Museum Reinvigorates the Legacy of the Founder of the Famed Fashion House Chloé
"Mood of the moment: Gaby Aghion and the house of Chloé" at New York's Jewish Museum focuses on the designer's vivacious, even flirtatious energy.
It can be hard to remember, but the French brand Chloé was revolutionary when it was first debuted by the Jewish designer Gaby Aghion in 1952. The fashion industry was much more formal, with women wearing hats, gloves, and full skirts—the lingering influence of Dior’s “New Look” from five years earlier. Most notably, it was male-dominated, men imparting a look of stiff propriety onto women.
Then along came Aghion. Born in Egypt and introduced to fashion when her family invited seamstresses to her affluent home to recreate the latest in Parisian designs, she emigrated to the City of Lights with her husband and became enmeshed in the rich world of Left Bank culture. As for fashion, she designed from experience, with a distinctly female point of view, emphasizing ease, elegance, simplicity, and—gasp!—comfort.
“One day I told my husband that I didn’t want to live off his money,” she said in an interview used in a film about her life, which was quoted in her 2014 New York Times obituary.
“At the time I was surrounded by my intellectual friends,” she said. “It amused them that I believed in all of this. ‘We give it two weeks before she gives up,’ they said. But I soundly believed and held on.”
The name Chloé was that of a close friend, chosen for the look of its sinuous, feminine curves, but it also became the symbol of a new type of woman—young, free, casual, feminine. The name Chloé was a reflection of the young bohemian spirit that Aghion saw on the street. In fact, her first presentations were not shown in stuffy salons, as was the custom, but at cafés where Aghion often spotted this free-spirited type.
With a light touch and an eye for high quality, her clothes demonstrated the dramatic change taking place in society. They were often made from simple, durable fabrics like cotton poplin and had straightforward cuts and silhouettes, sometimes with a frill or touch of lace. She became known for her dresses and smart tailoring. Equally as shocking was the fact that Aghion was a working mother in the 1950s.
This spirit is on full display at the Jewish Museum‘s show “Mood of the moment: Gaby Aghion and the house of Chloé,” which opened last week. It takes a look at not just the pioneering designs of its founder, and the way she upended the look of the time, but also at the way her brand has evolved in the decades since, acting as a conduit for a string of extremely talented designers to take that original idea and update it for the times. After she left the house she founded, designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Gabriela Hearst and Phoebe Philo have all carried Aghion’s vision into the future.
The show presents all this with more than 150 garments and various sketches and documents from the brand’s archive. In them, one can see the way women’s roles in society have changed in the latter half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st. There’s a surprising breadth and variety in the outfits presented, and yet that vivacious, even flirtatious energy is a constant.
Perhaps that has to do with that fact that, despite being an innovator, Aghion was no slave to fashion. She was known for wearing her own uniform, a skirt and a blouse. In fact the blouse is so foundational to the brand that the show closes with 50 iterations of it. It’s a hint at the psyche of a woman who was at once steadfast and feminine, who was able to push past the confines of her time and yet create concoctions that were imbued with grace and delicacy.
“I never asked anyone for their permission,” Aghion said in an interview before her death (which is quoted in the museum’s press release). “I was responsible for my own life! I wanted to have an activity of my own—not to make money, but because creating something of your own brings you great happiness and pride.”
See below for more images from the exhibition.
“Mood of the moment: Gaby Aghion and the house of Chloé” is on view at the Jewish Museum through February 18, 2024.
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