Natacha Ramsay-Levi
Photo by Karim Sadli

Natacha Ramsay-Levi: “You have to push things further”

Short Profile

Name: Natacha Ramsay-Levi
DOB: 17 January 1980
Place of birth: Paris, France
Occupation: Fashion designer

Natacha, where does your creative process as a fashion designer start?

I think there’s a strong sense of sincerity to my work. To me, the creative process is something very intimate and personal; I can only relate to what I feel, and what I think. It can start with a book, with a feeling, with a state of mind, it can start with a character. It’s kind of a small puzzle because there’s not just one thing, it’s like pebbles that you gather, one piece at a time, and then once you start doing things, you understand why the other things were there at the beginning.

And things start to fall into place.

As fashion designers we are not artists. We are artisans, in a way. But the role of an artist is to make visible things that are invisible for the rest of the world. You try to understand what is the subconscious out there, and make that visible. For us as designers, it’s about trying to feel what is on the edge, what’s going to become visible, and giving a voice to that.

“In fashion, you also always have to perform, and that leaves only narrow space for creativity to flow.”

It seems like a very reactive process.

True, to me, the creative process, it's really just having the capacity to be open to everything, looking at things, and then just reacting to one thing or the other. Basically, I’m looking for a way to translate the message through the clothes and the shoes… You gather all those little pebbles that then become the tool for me to express the message I have.

Is it sometimes difficult to then translate those inspirations and ideas to a larger team?

I mean, it’s difficult but at the same time, it’s comforting. If you have an idea, and you’re not sure if it’s good, you have to put it out there, out loud! You can’t be totally shy. You’re right that your ideas have to be good enough to bring the full team with you on board. It’s more challenging than difficult, I would say. But in fashion, you also always have to perform, and that leaves only narrow space for creativity to flow. You don’t always have time to let ideas come to you, you have to push things further. It’s a balance between working with this narrow space, but also being open and flexible for this co-creativity, for these exchanges that are always happening back and forth with your team. And it’s true that for designers, one of the secrets is: who are you working with?

Relating it back to an artist, it’s a different process to a painter whose actual work is much more solitary.

Right, as designers, we’re surrounded by people! I think it’s part of the problem in the industry right now because basically, you become a manager. You have to have great ideas, but you also have to be a manager and that takes a lot of the energy. I think that can contribute to you losing your creativity a bit. So to be able to choose your team and the people you work with, and being very clear about your process, it’s almost like asking for silence. You can’t have noise all the time around you. You have to choose the right ones because you need to protect yourself.

Especially when you work at a big brand like Chloé where you were the creative director until recently…

Chloé is a brand that is very democratically run. Everybody can talk, it’s very free in that sense, which is great but also very noisy. I think the key in that kind of situation is to find one person that you feel comfortable with for every topic, one person you can trust, sort of like co-captains because you’ll never find someone who can do it all. I like the idea of an open studio which has, not a hierarchy, but different roles. Everybody is good at something, you know? I was a manager at Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton for many years, and you can’t give somebody a job they don’t know how to do. That puts everyone in danger, and I don’t like that. So it’s best when people are happy with what they do, and I like to choose one person who is best for each specific role.

Apart from the team, how do you choose your collaborators? For one of your last collections for Chloé you worked with the artist Rita Ackermann.

When I asked Rita to work with us on the collection, it was because I was reading one of her books and some interviews of hers, and I was like, “Yeah, what she says is exactly what I’m trying to say.” So we brought her on! Usually those ideas come to me when I’m researching, it’s not like I’m trying to find someone… It’s just a link that happens and I think, “Oh, that would be great.” I love to gather people and to work all together. I think it’s an important part of fashion.

What was it that drew you to work in fashion in the first place?

This is something I questioned myself about when I stopped working at Chloé six months ago, like why did I do this? Why did I choose fashion? And I think very innately, I chose fashion because we could create beauty. And while you create beauty, you can also communicate a message. And I realized this is the only role I want to play. That’s it. I don’t need to be Superwoman or a big businesswoman. I don’t care about being a manager, I want to create things. It’s not that I have been questioning fashion, but I've been questioning what I want to do and how I want to do it.

“I don't want only work to dictate my whole life anymore. I love my work and am very dedicated to it but I also want to make decisions for myself.”

I think a lot of people have been reevaluating their work life and the industries they are working in during the pandemic.

True, and we don't want things to go back to how they were, but we don't exactly know either what is going to be the next step. We don’t know what we want but we know what we don’t want. What are we doing with this crazy globalization of things? Especially in fashion. When I designed 20 years ago, I kind of knew the different markets and different kinds of people. I don't know anymore, because the global market has grown so much from every part of the world! I don’t have the pretension to say, “Yes, I know what the world wants.” I don’t know what the world wants.

Has the pandemic changed you as a person as well?

On a personal level, the pandemic gave us space to be autonomous again! Suddenly you don’t have someone who takes care of your kids, or who does the cleaning, or who brings your food for lunch when you don’t have time. You just do everything yourself, and this is something I don’t want to lose anymore. I don’t need a babysitter for myself. I think it changed how much our life was structured by compartments, you know, very clearly planning the schedule, moment to moment: the moments for the family, the moments for work, the moments for holidays… I kind of feel that the future will be about putting aside all those blocks, all those borders. I want to think largely about life and have it be coherent; and I think that’s also part of the reason why I left Chloé, to take back that coherence between the way I think and the way I live…

Those two things became too separate at some point?

It became like two different worlds. I want to integrate things more easily. In the beginning we were talking about artists and I think their lives are much more integrated. Their studio is of course something important but their family is never far. To me their structure is much more free. The structure of my Parisian life became just wrong… I think that that changed the most.

Are you happy with the changes you’ve made to your life and career so far?

I'm very happy! Since I stopped working, I basically realized that I don't want only work to dictate my whole life anymore. I love my work and am very dedicated to it but I also want to make decisions for myself and organize everything else around that. I want to give new meaning to materialism through craftsmanship in order to restore a more active relationship with the world and with politics. This would create a singular story that incorporates my work into my life and my experiences.