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One autumn, during Paris Fashion Week, I sat next to a table of tastemakers at a pavement café and earwigged an extraordinary conversation. One of the party had caught a fleeting glance of Phoebe Philo crossing the road earlier that day. Now they all wanted the details.
‘Describe the jumper, exactly,’ said one.
‘Was there a bag? How did she hold it?’
‘When you say wide-legged trousers, were they cropped or puddling over the trainers?’
This went on for at least 25 minutes. No detail was too niche to unpick. This was 2015, when Philo was creative director of Celine, and her own wardrobe — a window to her legendary taste — gave significant clues to the coming winds of fashion.
The fashion world’s obsession with the London-based designer still endures — as illustrated by the excitement among Philophiles when she briefly resurfaced in July to announce the 2022 launch of a namesake line. Details are scarce: LVMH is a minority backer; Philo’s brief statement included her wish ‘to be independent, to govern and experiment on my own terms’. She hasn’t said much else — on-brand for the Garbo-esque 48-year-old, who has previously said ‘the chicest thing is when you don’t exist on Google. God, I would love to be that person!’ Celebrating anonymity in an age of over-saturation is very much Philo’s vibe, as is running her career in her own way, which may explain why she has made this move, rather than signing up with a brand, such as Chanel, which is continually said to be chasing her.
During her time at Celine, from 2008 to 2018, her taste reverberated internationally. If you have ever instagrammed a Swiss cheese plant (a regular feature of her Juergen Teller-shot campaigns), left your hair half-tucked into your polo neck, or worn tailored trousers with Stan Smiths, you have felt her influence.
Her acolytes love her not just for the clothes but what they represent. Often quirky and covered-up, her Celine was the opposite of the hyper-sexualised, youth-obsessed Nineties and Noughties. She never chased celebrities — Kanye West might attend a show, but only as a fan; her campaign stars included Joan Didion, looking immensely cool at 80.
There wasn’t much body diversity, looking back, but she championed age, intelligence and the female gaze. Her fans were upset when she was replaced by Hedi Slimane, a designer known for his leggy, youth-centric aesthetic. Niche acts of vandalism broke out: when Slimane removed the accent from Celine, Philophiles drew it on billboards in marker pen.
Philo grew up in Harrow. Her mother was a graphic designer who created David Bowie’s iconic 1973 Aladdin Sane album cover, her father was a surveyor. She met Stella McCartney when they both studied at Central Saint Martins, and life wasn’t all navy blue cashmere in her 20s. The pair sound almost Edina and Patsy-esque: reports have it that Philo went by ‘Pheebs’, was obsessed with ragga and had a gold tooth. In 2000, along with Liberty Ross, Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley, she and McCartney starred in a very Noughties pole dancing-themed cover shoot for Katie Grand’s Pop magazine.
Her first job was as McCartney’s assistant at Chloé. The fashion industry first knew her, says 10 Magazine fashion director Claudia Croft, as ‘Stella’s wing woman really. There was such a buzz everywhere Stella went, and Phoebe was much more in the shadow.’ So when Philo was unexpectedly appointed as McCartney’s successor at Chloé in 2001, there was real excitement. ‘It was quickly clear she was the real deal — kind of a genius, with this elusive quality,’ says stylist and ES fashion director at large, Bay Garnett, who attended an early show after Philo asked to borrow a banana-print vintage top Garnett had styled Kate Moss in for Vogue, which became a motif for spring/summer 2004. Around the same time Philo’s Chloé launched the Paddington bag, with its huge padlock, a cornerstone of the it-bag era.
But in 2006, at the height of her success, she left and took a sabbatical after having her second child of an eventual three, with her husband, art dealer Max Wigram. At the time, says Croft, ‘it was a bit of a shock — the industry had never heard of people at that level stepping away to spend time with their family. It brought a different perspective on who she was.’ It also left fans wanting more, something that would become a pattern.
Anticipation was high at her first Celine show in 2009, which featured models in buttery leather T-shirts and beige wedge clogs, and had the industry rhapsodising this new, minimal look. Philo’s own bow outfit — honey-coloured blouse, artfully mussed hair and tailored black trousers — also became a thing. Many Celine models, such as Daria Werbowy, looked Philo-esque, with arched brows, cut-glass jawline and cheekbones.
‘She is like a muse herself,’ says Rok Hwang, founder and designer of Rokh, who worked under her at Celine. ‘She is very frank about what she likes and gives really clear direction. She tries everything on so she can see whether she likes it or not.’ The atmosphere in the studio, he says, is ‘kind of jolly’, not least because she brings in eccentric pieces — a pair of crystal-studded cowboy boots, say — as inspiration.
‘It’s quite free-flowing,’ agrees make-up artist Dick Page, who worked on Celine shows and campaigns. On show day, Page adds, ‘she didn’t have any press backstage before. Some shows can feel like a stampede or a party, but it was a nice environment.’ He continues: ‘What’s so attractive to people is the clarity of her ideas. She has such a strong sense of herself. She’s not fudging anything.’
So what’s next? The market has changed so much since she captured the zeitgeist at Celine. Her low-key luxury approach then, says Vikram Alexei Kansara , editorial director of The Business of Fashion, ‘struck a chord in the wake of the recession of 2008. It is really interesting that the world is at another big pivot point with Covid,’ he adds. ‘She has an uncanny ability to see and shape the zeitgeist, to express what we are thinking but didn’t know we wanted.’ She will have to face new challenges, too: social media and e-commerce, from which she previously shied away, are more vital than ever and Covid-19 has put even more spending power in the Chinese domestic market. Awareness of the ethics of fashion production is critical — everyone I spoke to expected that the new label would occupy the cutting edge of ethical and sustainable production — as are concerns about diversity and representation.
If anyone can make it work, it has to be Philo. It feels like the question of what we want to wear — and tacitly who we want to be — after a sad, strange 18 months is about to get a stylish answer. I’m hoping for a fun, timeless, roaring 2020s vibe with sexy yet comfortable shoes — but what comes will probably be something I did not know existed. Whatever arrives, it will be minutely unpicked by Philophiles everywhere.