A day after the confirmed news broke, I’m still processing. Not because in this political, environmental, social and quite frankly, restless fashion climate, news of Phoebe Philo’s departure from Céline is shocking. Particularly since rumors have been swirling for years and quickly gained momentum when the Burberry proposition came into play after Céline CEO, Marco Gobbetti, left for the brand and Christopher Bailey subsequently announced his own departure. No – it’s because I can’t imagine Céline without Phoebe or Phoebe elsewhere after such a seminal 10 years. She was a staple within the ‘I heard from a really good source she’s totally leaving after next season’ rumor mill, but I always figured she’d pull a Karl and just reign over Céline for decades to come. The fit was impeccable.
So what’s so hard to grapple with? There are the obvious and more immediate losses including my love for the insanely expensive but exquisitely designed pieces for which I find myself refreshing Vogue Runway the second the music stops after each show. Then there’s Phoebe’s consistently fresh point of view that’s often imitated (yes you Zara, et al.) but never replicated – which after 10 years is no easy feat. Ultimately, I’ve come to understand that the real cause, is the macro sentiment of: What Phoebe at Céline taught women. A big statement for what is arguably, one of the least inclusive brands on the spectrum today.
Phoebe, through Céline, is a barometer of taste for women, including those who have never even owned a single piece of her collection. Her uncompromising nature in following her North Star resonates with women who want to navigate through life and style in the same way – by focusing on what’s really important.
Aesthetically Philo was a break from the norm at the time. The mainstays of fashion told us to up the sexy and adhere to conventional ideals of how to be attractive. Phoebe’s mantra was the complete opposite; be you and more importantly, do you. She recognized at a time when most didn’t, that women are practitioners, multitasking and rigorously doing-the-work and as such she created intelligent, multifaceted, collections.
She was one of the first designers to truly manifest the now prevalent idea that the woman should wear the clothes, the clothes shouldn’t name the woman. Her genius attention to the detail, form and function are an seasonal ode to how a woman navigates her world, always accentuated with the most luxurious fabrics, applications and techniques, that are often blind to the untrained eye. Her approach to cut, form and tailoring is always considerate of how a woman moves through her space, creating looks that are more often than not a little off, at times even a little ugly (by conventional womenswear standards), and not always conducive to how a man would prefer women to dress. She took the baton handed to her from luminary designers like Miuccia Prada, streamlined and muted the aesthetic, and ushered in a contemporary style of dressing – from which, terms like ‘man-repelling’ would be coined.
This is not just about fashion. The way she conducted her career at Céline is also of considerable note. The precursor to this was set up when she took a break from working at Chloé – which was the height of her career – to spend more time with her family after giving birth to her first child. Not a familiar move (in fact maybe an industry first for a high profile designer), or one that most women in the industry and beyond can afford to make, but in my opinion a noble one no less for a women of her profile. We know all too well that at times the fashion game breeds burn out and familial casualties.
When she decided to go back to work, she made the non-romantic, real life decision not to uproot her family from London to Paris for her job at Céline. Another bold move. Additionally it’s known that Phoebe works till 6pm sharp everyday in order to get home to her family and that her time at work was just that, WORK, efficient and with no time for the additional frills that come with a high position in high fashion.
She’s elusive; rarely being photographed or interviewed, limiting even some mandatory obligations, like after the shows. This was not to be pretentious – I imagine it’s because she just doesn’t think it would add much more value. Her focus has always been the work, not the industry pressure to conform and perform. The bravery to just let her work speak for itself is astounding. I say brave because in an industry where almost everything is open to interpretation, the fall out has led to the over explaining of the simplest of concepts. She relies heavily on the intellectual prowess of those who engage and consume what she’s selling.
Speaking of not conforming, Phoebe’s digital game has not been typical of someone in her position or of an LVMH brand. Wrongly or rightly, for the longest time, she has been incredibly reluctant to the idea of opening herself up and relinquishing any control to social media and e-commence, choosing none of it. In an age where social media is paramount and online sales are now in some cases exceeding brick and mortar, most thought it could cause enough tension to end her tenure at the house. She infamously stated ‘I’d rather go naked than use Facebook’ – harsh for a woman in the business of making clothes. Ironically, Céline went on to become one of the most revered and shared brands across digital platforms, on the strength of the collections and quarterly ad campaign series, even boasting multiple unofficial, high engagement Instagram accounts, the most popular being @Celine.World with over half a million followers. When Céline finally joined Instagram in February, to much fanfare, the subversive use of the platform (mirroring their now iconic and seemingly nonsensical inspiration scrapbooks) was fantastically irreverent. My favorites were the Hulk figurine and the bangers and mash posts, which some people thought was uploaded accidentally.
Lastly there’s the actual economics of her decade at Céline. From the jet-set fabu-nope lifestyle bestowed by former creative in charge Micheal Kors after Céline was acquired by LVMH in 1996, to its subsequent free fall into fashion irrelevance, Phoebe had the vision and nuanced sensibility to breathe a whole new life into the house, while taking it from a rumored $200 million company to just shy of a billion dollars to date.
These ideals, work-life/family balance, eschewing social media, and uncompromisingly taking a business to triple digit growth, were ones that women would typically shy away from, for fear of being perceived as difficult and demanding. But somehow having this precedence set in the most stylish, current way, delivered through this luxury lens, makes me and others feel emboldened to carve our own pathway in the image of our making if we work hard and continue to hone our craft. Preferably also in comfy, slouchy and freakishly stylish attire and no make-up.