As Phoebe Philo steps away from the brand and a new guard is sworn in, Bibby Sowray investigates how Céline has changed the way we dress
Phoebe Philo: to you, it may be nothing more than a satisfyingly alliterative name. But I’d stake good money on the likelihood that the woman it belongs to has had a significant impact on what you have worn for the last decade, even if you don’t know it.
As the Creative Director of French fashion house Celine, Philo has been the archetypal taste-maker. It’s a fact all the more apparent now that she has departed the brand after 10 years at the helm. Those slip-on skate shoes you wore to death? Because of her. The Adidas Stan Smiths you lived in for two years? Philo. Pool slides and furry Birkenstocks? Her again. Pyjama dressing? Yep. The triple-pouch cross-body bag you carry daily? Uhuh. That perfectly mannish Crombie coat you turn to each winter? I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Her influence has been expansive and consistent, dictating the catwalk-to-high street trickle-down system while boosting Celine’s annual sales from €200 million to more than €700 million (according to analysts) despite the fact it remained resolutely anti-ecommerce until earlier this month. But further to the individual - and often unlikely - items she has elevated to lust-and-must-have status is the impact of her aesthetic as a whole; clean lines, fluid silhouettes, timeless elegance with twist.
“She championed the aesthetic that women longed for, offering empowering pieces that fit perfectly into the modern women’s wardrobe,’ says Lydia King, Selfridges Director of Womenswear. It’s an opinion echoed by many of the fashion industry’s leading figures.
“She was the first designer that created a collection that I felt I could wear a complete look from, she created such an impact through her minimal, modern aesthetic,” agrees Sophie Hersan, co-founder of designer resale site Vestiaire Collective, which has seen a not-insignificant 11% rise in sales of pre-loved Celine items since Philo’s departure was announced in December last year. “Wearing Phoebe’s designs makes you feel well dressed in an understated, almost causal way.”
At Celine, Philo was a woman designing for women who dressed for themselves and no one else. There was no male gaze in this equation, a rarity in an industry that remains overwhelmingly male-dominated in its upper echelons. It’s a pertinent point in the current social climate of course, but Philo was doing this 10 years ago.
“For me, the most significant trend she sparked was that of female empowerment and the realisation that clothes don’t have to sexualise women,” comments Debora Rosa, an established influencer, stylist and creative consultant. “She empowered women to dress the way they want, to be fearless and sexy without showing too much.” As such, Philo’s aesthetic arguably made its biggest mark on the way we dress for work. Wide-leg tailored trousers usurped pencil skirts; languid silk pyjama-style shirts replaced fitted, staid white cotton ones; the mannish Crombie was commandeered for women, thrown over the shoulders like a cape of confidence; sneakers became acceptable office wear for many. She helped women break the corporate uniform mould.
But it would be remiss to deduce her impact while at Celine to purely aesthetics; she sparked much-needed change in the fashion industry. When she joined the then-floundering Celine in 2008 she negotiated a deal that saw the brand’s design studio relocate from its native Paris to her hometown of London, meaning she could continue to live in city with her husband and two children. The toll of commuting between the two capitals whilst she had been Creative Director of another Parisian label, Chloe from 2001 to 2006, had taught her that she didn’t want to compromise on family for the sake of work. Unapologetically, she wanted balance so she made it happen.
Similarly, when pregnant with her third child in 2012 she cancelled the label’s autumn/winter 2012 show, replacing it with a less-demanding presentation. It was a move unheard of in the relentless fashion industry. Now it’s commonplace. This refreshing sense of perspective, combined with her unbothered mentality towards self-publicity - she once said “The chicest thing is when you don’t exist on Google” - resonated with her customers as much as the strong simplicity of her designs. In a world that likes to exaggerate and dramatize, Philo’s Celine was the cool kid who quietly trod its own path, never offering so much as a backwards glance at its peers.
So where do we turn now Philo’s Celine is no more? She will be succeeded at the brand by Hedi Slimane, the former helmsman of Dior Homme and Yves Saint Laurent (which he famously changed to Saint Laurent). He will bring a dedicated following with him, but it’s a following that is devoted to his signature grungy, rock’n’roll aesthetic that risks alienating Philophiles.
The Row, the label belonging to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, is a strong contender to fill the Philo-shaped hole. It shares Philo’s eye for strong simplicity and focusses on last-forever quality. But it is in fledgling designers that the real potential lies. Jacquemus, the namesake brand of Frenchman Simon Porte Jacquemus, is fast-becoming a go-to for beautiful pieces that champion minimalism with uncomplicated detailing, whilst also offering almost-cult bags and off-kilter footwear, much like Philo did at Celine. London-based Rejina Pyo is another to look to; she shares Phoebe’s woman-for-women sensibility. On the high-street Jospeh, COS and Arket have practically been built on Philo’s Celine blueprint to create their own more-affordable iterations, and this shows no signs of changing despite the ending epoch.
But if all you’re interested in is getting your hands on a piece of bona fide Philo-era Celine, consider a pilgrimage to Bicester Village, where her designs will be stocked until the end of 2018 at discounted prices. The brand’s numerous ‘It’ bags are the most-coveted items amongst shoppers there, with the classic triple-pouch ‘Trio’ bag the store’s most-wanted item; for those in the know, it is always worth asking staff what they have in the stock room as this popular design isn’t always on show within the boutique.
If you want to invest in a sure-fire future icon, consider the kooky clear vinyl shopping bag from the spring/summer 2018 collection; global fashion search platform Lyst.com has seen over 1,000 searches for the item in the last week alone. And if you’re already lucky enough to own some Celine, cherish it. “I believe there are many pieces that will go to become iconic collector’s items and those in possession should archive them,” advises Hersan.
As for Philo’s next move, it’s anyone’s guess. Her family is the most important thing to her, and for now that is her focus. And after years of relentless taste-making, trend-setting and maintaining a consistent aesthetic that never faltered, she deserves some time off.
Words: Bibby Sowray