Chloé Nardin: “I really struggle with what the term ‘fashion designer’ implies.”
The CSM BA Womenswear graduate discusses her fixation on precision over performance, and the subtle ergonomics of medieval women's clothing.
In an ideal world, a focus on quality, calibre and detail would be rewarded at first glance in fashion design. In the long run, they often are, but at the early career stage of a BA, the immediate impression you’re able to make can often seem to carry more weight than the substance of the work itself. Central Saint Martins BA womenswear graduate Chloé Nardin was unfazed; instead, she committed herself to a practice that marries technical complexity and simplicity of form: “I really struggle with what the term ‘fashion designer’ implies. Often, you see people present themselves as such, but if you were to spill a glass of water on their clothes, they would fall apart,” she says. “If I say I’m a ‘fashion designer’, someone who really makes clothes, I want that to be honest and true.”
The clothes the designer makes faintly call images from medieval European folktales to mind, ones in which apron-wearing women work the fields with handkerchiefs tied over their heads. It’s an image that some would baulk at today, dismissed as a hangover from a harmful yesteryear. Removed from its socio-historical context, however, Chloé sees something of an almost emancipatory ilk. “It predates the idea of mixed garments, which we only begin to see with the advent of women’s emancipation movements and the adoption of menswear clothing as their own—on both sociological and ergonomic grounds. You could almost think of it as a sort of vintage sportswear,” she suggests, a claim that might leave you scratching your head as you try to match the image of a dairymaid to the skin-cladding tech-y silhouettes we more readily associate with sportswear today. But, on deeper reflection, she has a point. “Ultimately, what was worn in that particular period retains an idea of movement, made with the purposes of physical work in mind—it’s workwear that has yet to come under the influence of menswear.”
“Coming back to school, having interned in the industry before CSM, was quite hard in some respects. I had a bit of an existential crisis, wondering ‘What are we doing here? There are people my age with their own brands, making real garments!’ I think that fed into my work and made me focus on being really neat.”
With its sculpted bonnets and dresses with apron-ties, the designer’s graduate collection shares a degree of aesthetic common ground with the era’s proto-activewear. But, with its focus on the movements of the wearer’s body, her work has just as much in common with the technical rudiments of sportswear as we know it today. “Most of the time when I’m working in the atelier, I’m working with my body—whether that’s on the floor with my pencils and all sorts of tools, or running from machine to machine. This idea of clothes that accompany the lives of active women, of fashion that isn’t stiff and that accompanies your movement, is something I really cherish and which lies at the core of most of my work,” she explains.
It was this awareness of the interaction between her own body and the clothing she wears that informed her choice of fabric. She’s an avid wearer of jerseys, as much for the practicality of its stretch as for the enhanced draping effects that its weight provides. Yet, though it may be a humble, familiar material, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t come without its own particular issues. “Jersey has a bit of a bad reputation!” laughs Chloé. “The main problem is that even if you get the right sheen—ideally matte—it’s still very thin and you can see everything through it; and not in a nice way, like how you might see a nipple through a silk shirt, but in a way that can come off a little tacky,” often calling a Boohoo.com bodycon number to mind.
“The tutors are there to remind you of the outside world. Sometimes, your head’s buried so deep in your work, you need to be reminded that the world outside may not understand unless you give them that transformative performance. I think it’s unfortunate that it’s the only way to demonstrate a certain approach; it’s one I could have adopted, but that’s not what I wanted to show of my clothes.”
To counter the undesirable effects that her chosen cloth posed, Chloé painstakingly layered each piece, turning a typically limp textile into one with a reassuring substantiality, contouring to the body, or falling into confident pleats at the hem. Despite the seeming ease of the silhouette, the process of creating that sense of solidity was no mean feat: “It was a bit of a pain in the ass, to be honest!” she admits. “It asked for a fair amount of mathematical thinking: you can’t simply duplicate a piece and attach the openings together, you really have to comprehend how a garment flips inside out and reverses.”
Those already familiar with Chloé’s work will know that inside-out-upside-down hybridity has been a central feature for some time: in a video from January 2019, pleated, apron-tied dresses are neatly folded and flipped into vessels that resemble carrier bags, the handles made of what was a halter-neck. It’s a performative knack one has almost come to expect of fashion students today—which is what made it all the more intriguing when it didn’t appear in Chloé’s final presentation, despite the attempts of her tutors to convince her otherwise. “The tutors are there to remind you of the outside world. Sometimes, your head’s buried so deep in your work, you need to be reminded that the world outside may not understand unless you give them that transformative performance,” she explains. “I think it’s unfortunate that it’s the only way to demonstrate a certain approach; it’s one I could have adopted, but that’s not what I wanted to show of my clothes. To me, the performative element is a means of visually illustrating my approach. It should serve as a metaphor for the concerns of functionality I’m exploring,” she explains, “ and I didn’t want the work to solely be remembered for its performative value, rather than for the demonstration of the hybridity of the garments.”
On leaving Granary Square, Chloé experienced the “post-graduation crisis” familiar to any fresh graduate—though her departure was more of an au revoir than a definitive ‘farewell’: she’s recently accepted a place on the school’s MA. In the crisis-coloured interval, however, she took a summer trip to Japan. There, she saw Picasso’s “Pierrot”, the inspiration for a made-to-order capsule collection of nightwear-inspired jersey pieces, now available via her e-store. “While inspired by nightwear, I meant for the pieces to be neo-daytime archetypes,” she says. “Cosy, yet of a subtly vintage elegance, and resolutely sensual.”