Can High-End Fashion And Sustainability Co-Exist? Chloé Has Designs On Style With Purpose

For many, the fashion houses of Paris are the epitome of luxury, where high-end materials meet boutique style. At Chloé, now in its 70th year of creating feminine ready-to-wear fashions, style and sustainability are coming together as the brand pursues a focus on purpose.

I recently visited Chloé CEO Riccardo Bellini at the company’s headquarters in Paris. In our wide ranging discussion he told me, “Fashion, at its best, reflects and influences society. This is the power of fashion.” Since joining Chloé in 2018, Bellini has developed a focus on the future with a goal of re-energizing the brand. “Then the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, which led to profound thinking about not only the business model but the very role that we wanted this luxury brand to have in society.”

The pandemic made the Chloé team realize that its values were just as important as its aesthetics, he says. “We realized that at the core of our fundamental values is the belief that modern luxury needs to take more responsibility and accountability for the impact it has on society and the planet. So we chose to move toward purpose.”

That movement includes examining the company’s environmental impact and shifting its designs away from its dependency on raw materials that contribute the most to Chloé’s carbon footprint. It’s a learning process, Bellini says, that led the company on the path to become a Certified B Corporation in 2021. “To avoid greenwashing or any other traps that we might have fallen into throughout this process, we wanted an external assessment or certification to hold us accountable,” he says.

Now, Bellini and others at Chloé are pursuing new and deeper ways of enhancing their social and environmental impact and designing with an eye on sustainable style and long-term viability.

Chris Marquis: Tell me a little bit about Chloé’s history and vision. What are the values behind this luxury brand?

Riccardo Bellini: Chloé was created in 1952 by an incredible Egyptian woman named Gaby Aghion who moved to Paris after the war. When she created this fashion line, it was the first luxury ready-to-wear line on the market. At that time in Paris, the only way to get clothes was through a couture shop or a little shop in the streets that was copying from couture. The concept of ready-to-wear — clothes that you could buy straight off the rack — did not yet exist.

Gaby traveled to Paris from Egypt, where women were freer in the way they dressed. In Paris, the corset was still a typical part of couture fashion, but Gaby had a different vision. She aspired to create a more fluid dress that could liberate women from the rigidity of the corset and allow them the freedom to move. She introduced her first collection at Café de Flore, one of her favorite cafes in Paris and a popular meeting spot among artists at the time. The models walked around the cafe during breakfast to create a strong, open, and joyful experience.

When Gaby created Chloé, she chose to name the fashion line after a friend instead of after herself, as was typical in Europe at the time. This helped create a brand that represented women’s empowerment rather than a single person. Chloé has always been rooted in the belief that uplifting and empowering women is fundamental to society, and this belief has played a big part in the brand’s evolution. Many inspiring individuals have contributed to Chloé’s designs over the years, including Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Phibi Philo and now Gabriela Hearst. And through every creative chapter in Chloé’s history, the brand has stayed rooted in progress.

Marquis: How did the idea of sustainability and environmental responsibility get layered into this vision?

Bellini: When I joined Chloé in 2018, I was tasked to re-energize the brand and develop a plan for its future. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, which accelerated the transformation of our thinking about not only the business model but the very role that we wanted this luxury brand to have in society. This was a big source of inspiration in our decision to move toward the purpose-driven business model.

Fashion, at its best, reflects and influences society. This is the power of fashion. It has always captured the cultural currency, so to speak — a period of time is forever reflected in its fashion. And the coronavirus pandemic was a pretty intense period. Within it there was a lot of reflecting about how we make the choices behind our aesthetic, as aesthetic has always driven Chloé’s fashion. But the pandemic made us realize that our values were just as important as our aesthetic.

When developing a plan for the company’s future, we had to first look at its DNA. We had to ask what the purpose of the company was, and figure out how to fit that purpose into the company’s future. We realized that at the core of our fundamental values is the belief that modern luxury needs to take more responsibility and accountability for the impact it has on society and the planet. So we chose to move toward purpose.

Marquis: Many consumers see luxury as the opposite of sustainability. How do engage with your consumers about this new purpose?

Bellini: The fashion industry can play a very powerful role in driving awareness and relevance to a cause. Of course, its traditional dependency on certain materials contributes the most to carbon emissions. But when we started to focus on how we could become more eco-conscious and place this new focus at the core of our messages to consumers, we received a very powerful response. They showed a desire to learn more about this complex subject matter. So from the moment we chose to become more transparent about our sustainability ambitions, we began to create a much stronger relationship with them.

Ultimately, consumers choose companies they trust. In many ways, I believe our competitive advantage in the future will be about this trust. By building strong connections with our clients and driving more awareness about our eco-conscious choices, we will build solid trust over time about the seriousness of our commitment.

Marquis: You mentioned materials. This is where the fashion industry has received a lot of criticism, especially in regards to fur and leather. In contrast, artificial materials such as vegan leather have also received a lot of backlash for using so much plastic. What innovations or commitments is Chloé making regarding its materials

Bellini: Our journey toward creating a purpose-driven business model has been an incredible learning process. When we started, we first looked at our carbon footprint and learned that 58% of our impact was from raw materials. Distribution and our operation of stores were also contributors to our total footprint.

Because the majority of our footprint came from one source, in what you would call a Scope 2 or Scope 3 emission (indirect emissions), we started to really look at our materials. Throughout our thinking process, we decided that 80% of our problems could be solved at the design table. When it comes to materials, it’s incredible how easily you can embrace ones that have always been present in the industry. Natural materials like linen and hemp, for example, are especially low impact. So before looking at any big innovations on the market, we made a commitment to shift toward low-impact materials: What made up 10% of our materials, we would aim to make up 90% by 2025.

Next we looked at the more high-impact materials we had been heavily using and began to think of ways to tackle that. Cashmere, for example, has a very high impact, so we started to look for recycled sources. Leather is another very important high-impact material. We knew we had to consider where the leather is coming from, and how we can ensure the highest possible standard on its animal welfare and environmental impacts. In today’s market, there are many certification options that allow you to procure leather in lower-impact ways. We also looked to alternative leathers, but that’s an ongoing search as there is no real alternative to leather that doesn’t open up more issues. Vegan leathers, for example, are mostly made up of plastic- and fossil-fuel-based materials.

We have also invested a lot of time in the innovation of circular materials. To decrease the production of new materials and to avoid excess waste of our recycled materials, we began to cycle excess fabric into leftover materials that we could actually use to re-create new designs. When it comes to material innovation, there is going to be a lot said about circular material over the next few years.

Marquis: How is Chloé working to ensure equitable and fair treatment of workers in its supply chain and its own workplace?

Bellini: We made a commitment to increase the quantity of Fair Trade items in our collections, as this certification provides an extra guarantee on standards and governance.

As such, we also decided that our supply chain would shift toward more women-led social enterprises. Using our platform and the power of our brand, we began to work with other companies on some amazing projects that brought awareness to many important stories from all around the world. Some of the Fair Trade projects we have worked on include handwoven baskets made by women in Kenya in partnership with the World Fair Trade Organization and jewelry sourced from artisans who are victims of violence. The most powerful impact that you can have as a company is through its social procurement.

This year, we are bringing the share of Fair Trade products in our ready-to-wear line to 20%. Our traditional suppliers will always be checked and controlled to make sure they are aware of our standards and expectations to pursue continual improvement.

Marquis: Why did Chloé become a B Corp? It’s a bold move to be the first luxury fashion house to sign on to this certification. Why was it important for the company to shift its policies and practices to incorporate social and environmental benefits?

Bellini: When we placed purpose at the core of our business model, we were faced with many challenges: the challenge of translating purpose into a true action plan and operating it; of creating knowledge and know-how inside the company about such matters; and of turning this into a pervasive process within the company. This is how B Corp came into the game.

We wanted an operating model to help us make these purpose-driven changes. Initiating the B Impact Assessment secured a sort of blueprint about how to go about this process. And the process allowed our management to clearly identify gaps and put in place action, plans, KPI measures, and so forth. But we did not start with the ambition to actually get B Corp Certification. We simply started with the ambition to walk the talk and get as far as we could.

Legitimacy was also very important to us. To avoid greenwashing or any other traps that we might have fallen into throughout this process, we wanted an external assessment or certification to hold us accountable. We knew being held accountable would help us become a better company, and it is what we most value from B Corp. Being a B Corp goes beyond being a company that embraces sustainability, but rather being a company that believes that the power of a business can contribute positively to the world.

We wanted to be the Patagonia of luxury because we wanted to bring that same integrity and vision to our new stakeholder-driven business model. While the core of Patagonia’s mission is the plant, at Chloé, our focus is on women. Uplifting women and addressing gender equality issues is proven to have also positive impact on climate strategies. Working with women and working on the planet are two issues that are very strongly connected.

B Corp was an enabler in many ways, but at the core of our purpose-driven journey was a very strategic assessment. Our purpose is a source of competitive advantage. In the early thinking about our impact on the planet and how to take responsibility for that impact, we made strategic decisions to keep us engaged and considered a part of the equation. It’s as simple as that. Taking the moral aspect out of it, which is of course important, makes it a true business decision.

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