This month I’m launching a blog series called Women of Power, dedicated to those who inspire me both stylistically and ethically.
This theme, like all great things, emerged organically. I was contemplating a belated wrap-up of Paris fashion week when a no-brainer came to fruition: fashion, right now, belongs in the hands of various influential and highly-powered female figures. And perhaps the be-all end-all collection from Paris – the one the whole industry held its breath for – was that under the creative direction of Phoebe Philo at the fashion house Celine.
There’s something distinctively untouchable about Philo and her vision. It could be that the woman designs solely from instinct, making clothes that she wants to wear. A London “It” girl with an impeccably strong and equally relaxed sensibility of style, shaped by her role as a professional woman, and a family one at that.
In addition to being untouchable, there’s something incredibly sobering – and empowering – about a woman who does precisely what she wants and needs to do. I hesitate to say “and is successful at balancing it all”, as I’m beginning to understand that it’s this attitude, this setting of one’s standards and limits, that makes a woman of Philo’s success just so.
I’ll provide some context. Phoebe Philo is the Creative Director of the LVMH owned brand Celine. Established in 1945 and ushered into the 21st century by American designer Michael Kors, the French luxury label had a reputation for simplistic sophistication. After Kors left in 2002 the brand went through a considerable identity crisis and struggled with direction. In 2008 Philo was hired on.
Shortly after her posting, the Creative Director launched a restructuring campaign, wiping out all but one store in the US, cutting ties with middle-ground retailer Bloomingdales, and Net-a-Porter, and removing all existing Celine merchandize from the market. The costs of re-hauling? A cool 98 million euros charged to LVMH in 2009, just to cut out existing product and regain control of the brand’s luxury image.
Philo’s judgement seems to have been respected from day one, perhaps because of her unwavering conviction in building a cohesive and completely cool brand, “I felt it was necessary to establish quality…”
But if Philo’s current situation demonstrates anything, it’s the ability for a woman to command complete control over a brand, a business, and a commitment to do it on her own terms.
Philo was pursued with perseverance by chief executive of LVMH’s fashion division Pierre-Yves Roussel. The exec. travelled to London weekly for a year to secure Philo as the brand’s Creative Director. LVMH even built Celine’s design studio in London to accommodate the designer. A 70 year old French fashion house, operating in London, under the direction of a 36 year old Brit. Seems much doesn’t it?
Rewind nine years ago and Philo was an aspiring design assistant to Stella McCartney at the French fashion house Chloe. In 2002 she took over as Creative Director and more than doubled their sales from 2002-2006, launching iconic and lucrative accessories including the Chloe Paddington handbag ($1,380, each one of the 8,000 made in 2005 was accounted for before reaching stores).
What’s more, Philo’s arrival at Celine cemented a shareholders deal with Bergdorf’s and Barney’s, giving the high-fashion retailers rights to Celine’s US market. Barney’s even featured a piece from the collection on the cover of their Spring catalogue. A declaration to the faith fashion commerce has in Philo’s vision and potential for success, and the power the woman commands as a leader in the business of fashion.
All this happened after Philo took three years off from fashion to establish “the fundamentals of life”; raising children, painting bedrooms, meeting the husband for lunch, etc. Sound a little old-fashioned? The designer speaks of this time as a necessary break from her heyday at Chloe, citing a back-to-back high-powered career, giving birth and returning to the brand to launch her final collection in 2006 as her reasons for leaving.
After Philo departed Chloe, the entire industry suffered considerably. Vogue.com’s Sarah Mower exclaimed an inability for anyone to replicate that “exact quality of casual cool” that Philo brought to the game, “because that belonged to her alone”. A void in fashion that could only truly be filled by a woman, designing for women.
So needless to say, when Roussel caught wind of Philo’s plan to return to the industry (originally under her own label), he saw an opportunity to revive his flagging Celine.
And operating out of London? Roussel respected her need to be there, to be with her family in a city where she derives her energy and inspiration. Despite at odds with Celine’s French heritage, operating out of London gives Philo a distance to drive the brand beyond the depths of avenue Montaigne.
And her vision for the brand? “Everything we are doing is about going forward”, “I just thought I’d clean it up. Make it strong and powerful—a kind of contemporary minimalism,” meaning, making things that she would want in her wardrobe.
Focus for her debut (Resort 2010) was on fabric, cut, simplicity of shape and colour. Basically, building fundamentals which runway can evolve from. And this vision coincides with cleansing the brand of its aesthetic junk.
Although LVMH does not report sales for individual brands, the response to Philo’s return has been overwhelmingly positive. The timing for her pieces are perfect, a simplistic and sophisticated sobriety of investment dressing, things that will last in a timeless manner. Clothing for real women, of all figures, for all occasions, “Because even dreamers need to go to work”.
But to me what’s truly inspiring about Philo’s impact on fashion is this power she is able to command through her talent. Given the license to run, Philo has stuck to her style in a way that few designers do. It’s dressed up yet still chill. Clean yet funked out. There’s a coherence from collection to collection which commands a confidence in the brand and the designer. She is so incredibly steady and grounded in her aesthetic, and in her convictions, it’s no wonder “the Phoebe effect” is leading fashion as we speak.
Dodes, Rachel & Passariello, Christian. (10 March 2010). “Celine starts from clean slate — Long struggling fashion house within LVMH under British designer Phoebe Philo”. The Wall Street Journal Asia.
Woods, Vicki. (October 2009). “Fast-forward Phoebe”. Vogue.
All images from style.com