If you’re lucky enough to be successful—and cursed enough to be “cool” at the same time—there’s always an awkward moment where your weirdest visions become someone else’s daily life. For French designer Natacha Ramsay-Levi, it happened on a street corner in Paris circa 2005…and it never stopped. “You see someone wearing your idea on the street, and you say to your friend, ‘Oh my God, I made that!’” says Ramsay-Levi from a studio in Spain. “And I still say that. Every time.”
She’ll soon have even more opportunities. This month, the veteran of Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, and Chloé launches an unexpected new range called NRL for ECCO (as in, “Wait, like the shoes my Outdoor Ed teacher wore?”) that makes her coveted style available for far less cash. “I feel very good about it, because they have one of the best [design] teams I’ve ever met,” she says. “I was very impressed since day one by [their] innovation… the quality of the products are there. I would say the responsibility also with which everything is done is amazing."
Ramsay-Levi began her career as a teen intern for Balenciaga during Nicolas Ghesquiere’s famous tenure. She was in the atelier helping build Beyoncé’s epic “robot leggings,” and teetering “Lego shoes,” not to mention the brand’s signature City bags (which still command full-price attention at boutiques worldwide today). We think of Mary-Kate Olsen as the former avatar of luxe mess, but fashion insiders always knew the smeared mascara fingerprints of the trend could be traced back to Ramsay-Levi’s Parisian careen through the designer’s inner circle.
“We were all kind of amazed with her,” says Charlotte Chesnais, the jewelry sculptress whose time at Balenciaga overlapped with Ramsay-Levi. “She is super cool, yes, of course. Also, she knew her own mind, and she was not afraid to say, ‘Yes, this look. This is it.’ As a young woman in the fashion world, her confidence really helped show me the way.”
Those #uninfluenced by Ramsay-Levi’s early efforts had another chance to go all in when she was named creative director of Chloé in 2017. She was 37 years old and had big Susanna boots to fill: those of womenswear legend Clare Waight Keller, who was departing for Givenchy, and would later design Megan Markle’s wedding dress and a killer capsule for Uniqlo. But in a confident first collection, Ramsay-Levi nailed it. Gone were the scalloped pastel overcoats and beige-pink knitwear that anchored the brand’s established hold on Girl World. In came cropped moto jackets, brown corduroy suiting, and a cut-out pointy boot just witchy enough to make magic on the sales floors. Ramsay-Levi cannily rebooted the brand’s signature horse print—a Stella McCartney staple—but never made the equine styles feel like a redux. She lured Florence Pugh to her front row and took her show bows wearing high-rise jeans, her hair loose, her smile exhausted. Reviews were positive, and sales held steady—though business publications complained that a lack of “it bags” could hurt the label’s viability. And then in 2020, it all stopped.
“I was working in an environment full of fears,” she says of her past experiences. “I don't believe anymore in those big umbrellas. I prefer things that are a bit more intimate.” Ramsay-Levi was swiftly replaced by the formidable Uruguayan designer Gabriela Hearst, whose capably fresh designs, environmental awareness, and expanded sizing brought their own version of joy to Parisian style. But for those invested in Ramsay-Levi’s commitment to female-led, art-fueled clothes and accessories (It’s me, hi, I’m the sad girl, it’s me…), her departure felt like a little kick in the shins. But it was also the beginning of a sea change.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 48 million workers participated in The Great Resignation, leaving office jobs for more flexible work or entirely new careers altogether. Women were 11 percent more likely to do so, indicating a childcare crisis and unfair division of household labor—but also, a rising class of women determined to define work on their own dynamic terms. Some created their own companies, like Cynthia Sakai of Evolve Together and Willie Norris for Outlier, while others moved from cities to farms, or vice versa. As a Xennial woman whose journey to mid-career was frontloaded with high-visibility hits, Ramsay-Levi wasn’t an expected member of this group. But, she says, perspective can creep up on you, even when you’re not asking for it.
“What happened to me, with the COVID and the strikes, it should have given me the will to change a bit [and] to shift a little bit the way we were doing things [at Chloé]… It appeared that it was not really possible,” she says. “I could not connect anymore.”
That feeling of disconnection was ultimately what spurred Ramsay-Levi to make a drastic change in her creative and professional life, even though to the outside world, it looked like she had it all… and could zip it all up in a coveted status bag. “I was like, ‘Okay, maybe the system will not change. Maybe it’s just me who needs to change,’” she sighs. “You know, if there is one thing that is important for me, it is [that] not knowing is a value. I've always been a bit against the general environment where everybody has an opinion, which is where I was. I think at the moment you have an opinion, you close everything off.”
Ramsay-Levi took some time to regroup and spend more time at home—she has a school-age son and stepdaughter—before pairing with At.Kollektive on a small batch collection of responsibly made, reliably kooky investment pieces. Naturally, they sold out.
From there, Ramsay-Levi defined a clear goal: “Work with people who I love … Believe in what I make. Of course there's a part of risk in everything. But the risk has to be something we believe in.” In October, she joined up with At.Kollektive’s parent company ECCO to fuse her version of French Girl Chic with their ethos on Scandi Girl Comfort. “I went to visit the factory… and the way the shoes are made is really impressive. Also, being able to design accessible footwear was really interesting, because in luxury, of course, the products are very high priced! This is affordable, but very high quality… It's a bit more edgy, maybe, or it's a bit more advanced. But you can still buy them and wear them!”
On their website, ECCO calls Ramsay-Levi a "visionary.” When I mention this, she balks a little. “I don't see myself as super avant-garde,” she says. “I don't think that's my strength, to be super honest. I admire people like that, but me? I see myself more as a translator. I see what’s out there and make it real for more people.”
I ask Ramsay-Levi how she’ll know this ECCO collection is a success. “Oof,” she says. “Before, I felt at a moment where fear was stronger the second you were ‘successful’… It felt like the more success you could have, the more fear it was raising. It was bullshit ruled by fear!” She names a fellow luxury designer who recently left a wildly lucrative role at a major fashion house. “It happened to [them] too. It's been a huge success, but then for [the parent company] it was not enough! People were unhappy with them. Can you imagine?”
Instead, Ramsay-Levi encourages taking a more holistic view of a win. “To me, the success will be here at the moment that we've made something that the clientele is really excited to have and that is made well. That's really my point of view, you know?... That’s the authenticity of success… Did we love making it? Do you love wearing it? That’s it.”
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Faran Krentcil is a fashion writer for Marie Claire and a contributor for Elle, The Wall Street Journal, Harper's Bazaar, and the BBC. She is the founding editor of Fashionista.com and a former Tumblr style ambassador. She is also an illustrator who has done work for Bergdorf Goodman, Topshop, and Bleach London. Faran is currently a professor of fashion journalism and critical theory at Parsons School of Design and The New School. She lives between New York City and Narnia.
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