What makes a fashion icon? In our era it’s a phrase that’s difficult to cleanly define. Thanks to Instagram, designers, models, and It-girls come in and out of vogue with breakneck speed, and quiet achievers with career longevity are often overlooked. But if you’re looking for a good working definition, your safest bet is to start with Phoebe Philo and work backwards. The British designer, best known for her tenures at the French heritage maisons Celine and Chloé, creates clothes that reduce otherwise sensible women to histrionics. The New York Times called her “the Chanel of her generation”. The Guardian called her ‘Female Gaze’ aesthetic the most influential sartorial movement since Dior’s ‘New Look’ in the 1960s. So where has she been for the last four years?
To understand Philo’s future – namely, the eponymous label she is launching with backing from LVMH in early 2022 – it is essential to understand her past. The Paris-born, London-based designer began her career at Central Saint Martins, where she met and quickly bonded with fellow student Stella McCartney. For the first few years of her career, Philo worked under McCartney when she took over the reins from Karl Lagerfeld at Chloé. When McCartney left to launch her namesake label in 2001, the then 28-year-old Philo stepped into the creative director position herself. It’s difficult to overstate the impact Philo’s five years at Chloé had on modern fashion. Not only was her boho-inspired girlish aesthetic a commercial hit – she increased Chloé’s global sales by 60% – it was a cultural hit too. Her wide-leg, high-waisted jeans, chunky wedge sandals, Grecian-style chiffon dresses, and array of cult handbags (the Chloé Paddington being the best example) became the ubiquitous look of high-end Noughties style. In a 2008 interview with the journalist Hadley Freeman – conducted before Philo had designed a single piece for Celine – Freeman called Philo “this century’s most influential designer of womenswear” on the basis of her Chloé tenure alone.
But of course it was at Celine, where she took over in 2008, that Philo solidified her status as a fashion god. At Chloé Philo crafted the wardrobe of the mid-Noughties It-girl. At Celine, then a languishing French heritage brand, she wanted to create the uniform of the sophisticated working woman. Philo, then 38 and the mother of two young children, quickly established an aesthetic MO for the new Celine woman: tasteful tailoring, unexpected splashes of colour, exaggerated silhouettes, and unfussy, sometimes clunky accessories – simple gold earrings, puffy oversized clutches, ‘ugly’ shoes. The look, defined by Philo as “contemporary minimalism” backstage at her debut show, went on to define the look of mid 2010s, inspiring the likes of the Olsen twins’ The Row, Elin Kling’s Totême, and Catherine Holstein’s Khaite. It felt like a visual palette cleanser from the gauce-chic velour tracksuits and Ugg boots that defined Y2K dressing, and it struck a deep chord with a generation of working women who didn’t necessarily find empowerment or sex appeal in bodycon dresses and six-inch heels.
Philo’s artistic execution, including her minimal, Jeurgen Teller-lensed campaigns and her choice to cast a then 81-year-old Joan Didion as the face of the Spring/Summer 2015 campaign, established Celine as the thinking woman’s brand. Her handbags, among them the Phantom, the Trapeze, and the Trio, became cult favourites, while her fan-base – self-identified as ‘Philophiles’ – spanned from hard-to-please fashion editors to the still-emerging Kardashian family. “She always had those key fashion moments – but her designs are incredibly timeless,” says Fiona Stuart, founder of the West London vintage store Rellik. “They are always made with the most gorgeous fabrics, and always cut really well. They’re very feminine but have also got a tomboy streak. It’s kind of a feminine masculinity. I re-read a fantastic quote from Phoebe the other day, she said: ‘After my break, it felt better for me to work on an idea of a wardrobe than too much trend. I worked hard to create things that stand the test of time.’ That’s always what the clothes felt like, as part of a timeless wardrobe, rather than part of a trend.”
When, in 2018, Philo announced she was leaving Celine after a decade at the helm, fashion types went into a protracted state of mourning. In Paris, a clique of well-heeled front row regulars including Yasmin Sewell, Gaia Repossi, and Giorgia Tordini, gathered at the Place Dauphine, dressed in their finest Philo threads, to mourn the end of an era. Speculation about where Philo might go next was rampant – some suggested Chanel, others Alaïa or Bottega Veneta (the latter was a position her director of ready-to-wear, Daniel Lee, would go on to fill with aplomb).
But, in keeping with the woman who once declared that “the chicest thing is not to show up on Google”, Philo simply disappeared. Her successor, Hedi Slimane, soon arrived, not only scything the brand’s famous l’accent aigu, but overhauling the entire Philo-for-Celine aesthetic. The latter seasons of Philo’s tenure became immediately iconic, and the resale price of Philo’s archival pieces soared.
“I started on the runway as an exclusive for Alexander Wang [in 2015], and then that season I also walked my first Celine show in Paris,” says model Charlee Fraser. “There was a backstage photo that they happened to take of me that the Celine team really loved, so I booked the next two or three Celine campaigns from that photo.” Fraser went on to wear some of the most memorable looks from the Celine archive, walking in consecutive runway shows throughout Philo’s last three years. There was Fall/Winter 2016, look 14 – the bright orange poncho and slouchy trousers. Spring/Summer 2017, look 10 – the sweeping black chiffon dress and mismatched boots. Spring/Summer 2018, look two – a swirl of meticulous beige layering. “When I first started doing international shows I was so undereducated about the fashion industry that I didn’t know how big [Celine] was. I look back now and I think ‘That’s insane’,” says Fraser. “There was a season, I think it was 2018, where I did this beige look – it was a double raincoat situation – and that specific image went viral. It turned out to be one of the most iconic Celine collections which obviously, at the time, I didn’t know, but looking back at it now it’s like ‘Wow’. I feel so incredibly blessed to have been a part of that era.”
There was a palpable sense of an ending in the months and years that followed Philo’s departure. Her influence on fashion was seen everywhere – alongside Lee’s obscenely successful tenure at Bottega Veneta was the meteoritic success of Peter Do and Rokh Hwang, also both former designers in Philo’s Celine atelier. But Philo’s loyal acolytes had been lying in wait for an announcement that would finally come on July 12, 2021: “Phoebe Philo Is Launching Her Own Brand, Backed By LVMH”, read the triumphant Business of Fashion headline. Cue: a proverbial digital meltdown. “Finally the copycats will have some new material to work with,” quipped one Twitter user. “I need to get very rich before Phoebe Philo launches her brand,” joked another.
“I’ve already had people come into the store and say ‘I’m so excited!’” laughs Stuart, who has been consistently selling pieces from Philo’s Celine archive for the last five years. “There’s definitely a renewed interest since the announcement was made, but I don’t think people ever stopped loving and buying her clothes.” Stuart – whose fan base includes Kate Moss, and whose store is frequented by the world’s most esteemed creative directors, with Philo among them – says the key to Philo’s appeal lies in its proprioception, or, the way you feel as you move about the world while you’re wearing her pieces. “There’s a sense of comfort in the clothing and the accessories that has a noticeable impact on how you feel and act,” she says. “The pouch bag is technically a clutch, but it has the comfort of a hot water bottle. The coats or ponchos are beautiful outerwear, but you feel as if you’ve been wrapped in a blanket. Very few designers make you feel that way.”
Philo and her husband, the gallerist Max Wigram, will be the sole directors of Phoebe Philo company, which will receive financial backing from the luxury conglomerate LVMH. “I am very much looking forward to being back in touch with my audience and people everywhere,” Philo said in a characteristically brief statement. “To be independent, to govern and experiment on my own terms is hugely significant to me.” The line’s arrival comes at a watershed moment for the fashion industry, which has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Retail stalwarts like Neiman Marcus and J Crew filed for bankruptcy during the early days of the pandemic, while most luxury retailers saw dips in the high double-digits in the first quarter of 2020. Now, in 2021, the promise of the “hot vax summer” failed to eventuate, and with a global recession and precarious international travel restrictions, Philo is re-entering the industry during one of its most trying periods in recent memory. And yet if anyone is up to the task, she is. Philo’s runaway success at Celine (estimates suggest she increased the brand’s annual revenue from €200 million to €700 million per year) came on the heels of the 2008 recession. It was a challenge that ultimately played to her advantage: her pared-back designs spoke to a more discrete, muted attitude toward displaying one’s wealth.
Sadly, we won’t get to see how our generation’s defining designer responds to this new fashion climate until 2022. Which means we have a good few months to agonise over what her debut will look like. But if the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Phoebe Philo is worth waiting for.