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Phoebe Philo's design philosophy: First the woman, then the clothes

By Nora Veerman


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Phoebe Philo in October 2016. Credits: PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP

Phoebe Philo is embarking on her own. After a thunderous decade as creative director at Chloé and Celine – Céline with an accent that is – followed by five years of deafening radio silence, Philo is set to return with the launch of her own label in September. The brand was established with support from luxury conglomerate LVMH and will bear her name. And it's not just any name: the words Phoebe and Philo are enough to make thousands of fashion aficionados swoon these days. But what does the name Phoebe Philo really stand for? What has characterised her work so far and what can we expect from her brand?

A mischievous kid from London

Phoebe Philo was born in Paris to British parents. When she was two, the family moved to London, where Philo grew up. In her teens, she was reportedly already reworking her own clothes. It was therefore natural for her to study at the renowned fashion academy Central Saint Martins after graduating from secondary school. Philo completed her studies in 1996. Her graduate collection was characterised by "Latino influences and gold jewellery" wrote the Guardian several years later. According to the newspaper, it showed Philo's "skill in both cut and styling".

At university, Philo befriended fellow designer Stella McCartney, who graduated a year before Philo and went on to work for Chloé at just 25. Not long after Philo completed her studies at Central Saint Martins, she joined McCartney in Paris. Officially, she worked there as a design assistant, but according to the magazine The Face, Philo also served as McCartney's "stylist, friend, casting consultant, therapist, muse and right-hand woman" at Chloé.

At first glance, it was a crazy combination: refined Chloé helmed by two young, rebellious girls from London. McCartney wore oversized jackets, Philo a set of gold teeth. "We were inseparable," McCartney told Time Magazine in 2014 about her collaboration with Philo. "In Paris, we worked side by side, the naughty kids from London at the Chloé".

Chloé Spring-summer 2000 Credits: Catwalkpictures Archives

The Chloé years

McCartney left quite a mark on Chloé. She combined contemporary styles with vintage influences and bold prints. The spring 2000 collection is a prime example and included suits with pointed lapels and fringed open-work tops, as well as a tiny gold bikini and a T-shirt with a print of a skull with rabbit ears. McCartney's collections were punctuated with influences from the club scene and elements of lingerie. "Playful, sexy, romantic" and "distinctly British", AnotherMag wrote of her collections. "A combination of Savile Row craftsmanship and girl power cheekiness."

Although she was officially 'second in command', Philo was also said to have played a significant role in designing the collections at the time. When McCartney left the brand in 2001 to start her own label, Philo stayed on as head designer. Although Philo had been with the house for several years, she single-handedly created a new direction for Chloé. Her work was less direct, less rock 'n roll, moving more towards suave, casual elegance. Her first solo show for Chloé in 2002 showcased lots of breezy silhouettes in white with lush florals and openwork fabrics. The looks were still sexy, but less explicit and provocative.

Chloé Spring-summer 2002 Credits: Catwalkpictures Archives
Chloe Spring-summer 2002 Credits: Catwalkpictures Archives

Philo proved to have a razor-sharp instinct for what was going on in young women's lives and what it took to get there. "Phoebe Philo strikes a chord hardly anyone else can," wrote Vogue critic Sarah Mower about her spring 2005 collection: "A groove of loose, casual loveliness." It featured loose-fitting dresses, skirts and blouses in shiny fabrics, with lace trims and ruffles. Strikingly, the result was not dreamy or delicate but rather casual and cool, paired with casual scarves and military jackets and half-open button closures. The collection had "the indescribable 'it' factor", said Mower.

The Paddington, a bag made of supple leather with a large lock dangling from it, which Philo introduced in 2005, also had that 'it-factor'. The bag was worn by celebrities of the time, such as the Hilton sisters, Nicole Richie and Mischa Barton. The year the bag was introduced, Chloé's global sales increased by 60 per cent.

Throughout her five-year tenure at Chloé, Philo constantly kept her finger on the pulse. From chic summer shorts to festive jackets and soft winter coats with pockets, time and again Philo struck the golden middle between beautiful and functional, elegance and nonchalance. Her collections also remained innovative. Even the last collection Philo made for the fashion house still lent Chloé a "fresh shape, proportion and vitality", Mower wrote at the time. The spring 2006 collection featured white A-line dresses with embroidery, skirts and neat jackets, based on the grandma chic of the 1960s but unmistakably modern thanks to the clean lines.

Chloé Spring-summer 2005 Credits: Catwalk Pictures Archives
Chloé Spring-summer 2006 Credits: Catwalk Pictures Archives

Philo left Chloé in 2006 to focus on her family. That move was not usual for a designer at the top of her career, but it was understandable. Besides, it was typical of what Philo stood for as a person and designer: First the woman, then the clothes.

Phoebe Philo at Céline

The early noughties were marked by a celebrity culture in which fame and opulence were openly displayed by way of expensive bags, rhinestones and large sunglasses. But fashion is and always has been a response system - so change came along with the rise of minimalist fashion in the second half of the decade. Typical of this development was the launch of Cos, the minimalist chain of H&M, in 2007. The rise of this minimalism was reinforced by the subsequent financial crisis. The latter marked a return to timeless looks with less embellishment and a lower 'price per wear'. "The new mood in fashion is serious," headlined Vogue.

A different image of women also presented itself: the more realistic picture of a working woman, who was not big on glitz and glamour but wanted simple pieces that were practical and comfortable but still oozed class. In 2008, Philo joined luxury sportswear brand Céline – and gave women exactly that.

Philos' first collection for the brand was the 2010 resort collection. It was immediately met with rave reviews. 'Confident', 'spot-on' and 'woman-friendly', Nicole Phelps described the collection on Vogue Runway. The collection was impeccably cut and elegant, without too much fuss, but with sophisticated details like carefully asymmetrical hems and fabrics with a subtle metallic sheen. A contrast to the more exotic jet-set looks of her predecessors Michael Kors and Ivana Omazic, with their tropical plant prints, ocean colours and references to tennis and motorsport.

By then, Philo herself of course had aged a few years, and with that, her hand of designing had changed. This was evident in the spring 2010 collection, one of long trousers with wide tops and simple-looking leather dresses. Fewer layers, fewer buttons, fewer belts, and a greater focus on lines and materials. "I thought: I'll clean up a bit," Philo herself said of the collection. She described her new path herself as "contemporary minimalism". Sarah Mower saw the "precise lines and simple formula of luxurious, sporty elements" as the outcome of "a mission to make classic functionality sexy". The strength of the collection may not have radiated from the catwalk photographs, Mower wrote, 'but every young woman in the room felt it'. After the show, a collective wave of desire went through the audience, according to the critic. This desire would later translate into sky-high sales figures.

Céline SS10 Credits: AFP

Clothing for every situation

In the ensuing collections, Philo hit the nail on the head time and again. From the shop floor to the dining table, to the club and back: Philo's Céline was there for every moment of the day. Flattering trousers, elegant blouses, chunky knits, and structured coats, gave women a wide range of options. As the initial severity of the recession receded and impulse buying returned, Philo's work remained understated. The calm self-assurance of her work bypassed the financial crisis, as did women's demand for the modern, versatile luxury Philo offered.

Philo's collections were there not only for any time of day but also for women at all stages of life. Philo made the latter clear in Céline's campaigns which featured models of varying ages. In 2015, American novelist Joan Didion, then 80, posed for Céline in a black dress and oversized sunglasses.

Philo herself sometimes referred to her work as minimalistic, but she was also labelled a minimalist by others because of her limited use of embellishments and prints. However, anyone who sees Philo's work as purely minimalist tends to emphasise the serious side of her work and misses the boldness and playfulness that emerged over the years.

Céline SS13 Credits: AFP
Céline SS14 Credits: AFP

For spring 2013, Philo introduced large flip-flops and bright yellow, fluffy pumps, while 2014 saw the introduction of graffiti-like prints and geometric cut-outs and spring 2017 featured a dress with a print derived from a Yves Klein painting. More and more bright colours and oversized silhouettes came along, occasionally even a conceptual joke, such as pumps that looked like bare feet with red-painted toenails for spring 2013 or belts shaped like magnified chain links studded with glittery stones in autumn 2016. Philo's last show for Céline, shortly before her sudden departure in 2018, showed both classic drapes and deconstructed jackets with Balenciaga-esque shoulders.

A signature style

Philo's signature, in short, cannot easily be captured in a few words. During the years at Chloé and Céline, her work grew in tandem with both herself as a woman and the women around her, from young and casual to confident and artistic. Instead of asking what Philo's own label will offer, it is perhaps easiest to ask: what do contemporary women need? In the aftermath of Covid-19 and with lingering geopolitical uncertainty, perhaps it is comfort - supple silhouettes, fine materials - but also clothes that give confidence and strength in a situation that is still volatile. Exactly how Philo will respond to this is equally unpredictable. During her long career, she has shown that she can not only respond to pre-existing needs but anticipates them.

This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.nl.

Phoebe Philo