"philophiles" : phoebe philo’s third act
solve sundsbo. hair by samantha hillerby at streeters london. makeup by polly osmond for victoria’s secret beauty at art department.
phoebe philo: the 38 year old
céline: creative director
It wasn’t the best way to start the day. “When I was leaving the house this morning, my husband saw what I was wearing and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing, you complete freak?’ ” recalls Phoebe Philo with a laugh. “He said that skinny jeans, a sweatshirt, a Crombie coat and loafers are the uniform of the British National Party. And he has a point.”
As that scene took place in the couple’s North London home, a little trans-Atlantic translation may be helpful. First, the phrase “you complete freak” is considered a term of endearment on this side of the Atlantic. Second, the British National Party is a bunch of right-wing extremists and suspected racists, many of whom do indeed sport that uniform. A lesser woman might have changed. Not Philo.
Let’s look more closely at what she’s wearing, shall we? Her jeans are cut just so in a delicate shade of pale blue. The fine cashmere sweatshirt is in a similarly subtle gray. Then there’s the camel cashmere Crombie. “It’s cut very specifically like a double-breasted coat, but worn open like a single-breasted coat,” she explains. “The cut of the shoulder and sleeves is twisted at the front, so you get this feeling that it’s sitting on your shoulders.” As for her shoes, they’re a pair of Church’s men’s brogues several sizes too big, but none of the women’s brogues looked right.
Shoes apart, everything comes from the first collection that Philo, 36, designed as creative director of Céline: a collection that the fashion world was very, very eager to see. A designer’s debut at a new label is always exciting, especially if it is backed by a luxury colossus, as Céline is by LVMH. But this particular designer is the fashion superstar who made Chloé one of the hottest labels of the early 2000s. The willowy look of those leggy girls who spent much of the last decade in floaty minis with clunky shoes and even clunkier bags was Philo’s doing. Then she made herself — and her clothes — seem even more alluring by dropping out of fashion for three years to focus on her family, ending her self-imposed exile with a comeback at Céline.
“There’s this incredible mystique about Phoebe,” says Lisa Armstrong, fashion editor of The Times of London. “She’s this cool London girl who always did the right thing at the right time at Chloé and walked away from it at the absolute height. Everyone talked about her first Céline show as if it was the second coming. The atmosphere in that room was electric. We were all waiting to see what she would do.”
She didn’t disappoint. From the crisply chic safari jackets and dresses to the starched hem of a long white shirt peeping out from beneath a natty A-line skirt, Philo’s spring collection for Céline was a triumph. Impeccably cut and refreshingly unfussy, it combined sleek shapes with a restrained palette of white, black, camel, blue, nude and khaki. There were echoes of Céline’s heritage as an accessories house in the leather T-shirts and trims; the flatteringly fluid silhouette that her Chloé fans loved was there in the high-waisted, wide-legged pants.
It was also a breath of fresh air at a time when fashion needed a respite from recession and the glamazon Paris Vogue look of black leather and big shoulders that had swamped the runways in recent seasons.
“It feels like a bit of calmness and cleanliness are what’s needed in fashion now,” says Philo, sitting in her London studio, beside a gleaming white Don Brown sculpture of his nearly naked wife, Yoko, and teetering piles of art books with colorful Post-it notes peeping out from the pages. “What we’re doing at Céline is crisper and more structured than at Chloé, but that’s very much about where my taste is now. We’ve kept everything quite clean and quite fluid, with a very simple color card. I’m very much into staple pieces, but with a twist — something that feels of the moment.”
Tall and boyishly skinny, Philo has always been her best model. She is very pretty but subtly so, with fine cheekbones, captivatingly large eyes and fine honey brown hair tied back in a tiny knot. Her voice is deceptively girlish for someone who is so self-assured with, as she puts it, “a certain steeliness.” The giveaway is her laugh, which rolls around the room loudly and saucily, often at her own expense. “The thing about Phoebe is that she’s so clever, so creative, so lovely and all of that, but she’s also really fun,” says the jewelry designer Solange Azagury-Partridge, who is godmother to Philo’s son. “She’s got a great sense of humor and a real potty mouth.”
Philo was born in Paris to British parents, who moved back to Britain before she was 2. She was brought up in Harrow, on the outskirts of London, and still speaks with a suburban twang. Her father is a property manager. “He’s absolutely not into fashion at all, God bless him,” she says. “My dad is totally of the school that you need one pair of shoes, one pair of pants, one of everything and you only buy another one when it falls apart.” Her mother is different. “She’s always had her own sense of style. She worked as a graphic designer and later as an art dealer, and when she had a bit of money she’d go out and buy something. I remember her taking me to Yves Saint Laurent, and she bought this fabulous electric blue mac.” Philo recalled her mother coming to parents’ meetings at her school in Harrow, dressed glamorously in a YSL coat and jeans even in the pouring rain. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I was just like — arrrgh! Can’t bear this happening to me.”
When Philo was 10, she customized her school leotard to look like Madonna’s. A few years later, her parents bought her a sewing machine, and she started making her own clothes. After high school, she studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins College in London, where she was drawn to mid-1990s minimalists like Helmut Lang and Jil Sander. (You can spot echoes of their work in her Céline collection, which is edgier than Sander’s but not as edgy as Lang’s.) “I was experimental at college, but in my own funny little way,” she recalls. “I’ve always been attracted to the wilder things, but not when it comes to my own work. I’ve always had a sense that if I can’t wear it, what’s the point?”
After graduating, she hung out in London for a few months, helping her Saint Martins chum Stella McCartney with her first collection. “It’s all a bit of a blur,” Philo says. “Though I do remember being really skint, things like the electricity being cut off because I couldn’t pay the bill.” When McCartney was made creative director of Chloé in Paris, taking over from Karl Lagerfeld (who wasn’t pleased to be succeeded by someone a few years out of fashion school), she asked Philo to go with her. “We were very young and it was fun, but there was a lot of work to be done,” she recalls. “There was lots of pressure, though for sure that was more on Stella.”
When McCartney left Chloé to create her own label in 2001, Philo stayed on as creative director. The fashion press has been obsessed with their relationship ever since. Are they still friends? Are they even speaking?
The most popular answer to both questions is no, supposedly because McCartney was disappointed when Philo didn’t follow her. Philo won’t discuss it, but it must be irritating to find yourself trapped in fashion’s version of a Beatles soap opera, even if you are cast as supercool John (or maybe the dreamy dark horse George) against McCartney as her dad.
It was the year before she took over at Chloé that Philo fell in love with the London art dealer Max Wigram, whom she married. Spending weekdays in Paris and weekends in London just about worked until she had their first child, a daughter, Maya, now 5. “We were like this little nomadic tribe,” she recalls. “I had this bag that just followed us everywhere. Nappies. Bottles. Sleeping on the Eurostar. Stuck in the tunnel for six hours with a 6-month-old baby. It was madness. Max came to Paris as often as he could, but he had a business in London. It wasn’t sustainable.”
Azagury-Partridge was doing the same commute from London to Paris, where she was then creative director of Boucheron. “Thinking about it now, I feel queasy,” she says with a groan. “That sort of life sounds very glamorous and it was great on many levels, but it takes a toll physically and emotionally. You’re always rushing, and always tired.” Lisa Armstrong, who has two older daughters, remembers seeing Philo at their local Starbucks in London during that time. “I bumped into her with the baby. Phoebe looked very thin and very pale, just exhausted. She said, ‘How do you cope with working and motherhood?’ Not long after that, she left Chloé.”
What did she do? “For the first year I just vegged out, and the weeks just kind of went past without me having to do anything. I remember just loving the fact that I didn’t need to be anywhere at any particular time. I got back to basics. I was interested in things like my husband, my family and my friends. We did lots of little trips that I’d book three days before, which is something I’d never been able to do. I really stepped out of fashion. I didn’t look at the collections, didn’t read magazines, didn’t buy much. I wore my pajamas a lot, if you want to know the truth, and tracksuits. Basically I looked like a bit of a slob. The second year I had my son, Marlowe, and it was wonderful to have that experience without working. I had him, and then this came up.”
“This” — Céline — was founded in 1945 by Céline Vipiana to make bespoke children’s shoes. During the 1960s, Vipiana diversified into women’s ready-to-wear and dressed those very smart, slightly starchy, middle-aged Parisiennes whom you still spot in posh arrondissements like the Seventh and 16th. Yet Céline stayed in the style boondocks except for the six years when Michael Kors revved it up. (Remember Rene Russo’s wardrobe in “The Thomas Crown Affair”?) The brand survived, thanks to LVMH’s financial muscle, albeit as the fashion equivalent of a “still big in Asia” dinosaur.
When LVMH came calling, Philo felt ready to return to fashion. “It was getting to feel a bit skanky,” she says, laughing. “It was good to take a break, but I love working, I love being part of a team, and I love fashion. I even love the structure, schedules and crazy deadlines. It was time for me to get motivated again and to get back into something.” She toyed with introducing her own label, but Céline really appealed; even its low profile seemed like a plus. “It felt like a clean slate,” she says. “But it also felt interesting because Céline was founded by a woman, and what it had stood for historically was clothes for women by women. And it has this sense of belonging to Paris with its elegance, decadence and those saucy, steamy ‘Belle de Jour’ women that I find really seductive. I think we all secretly fancy a bit of that.”
But Philo was willing to work only on her own terms, which meant being based in London and having carte blanche to reinvent the brand with her own team. “Phoebe knows exactly what she wants and sticks to it,” says Katy Baggott, who negotiated the Céline deal for her as her agent. “She’s great to work with because she’s very clear, very trusting and there’s no wavering.”
Philo started work at Céline in the middle of 2008 and devoted the first year to rebuilding the business by opening a design studio in a derelict Georgian town house on Cavendish Square in London, hiring a new design team (some of whom came from Chloé) and rethinking the company’s branding, marketing and stores. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone so precise and detailed as Phoebe,” said Peter Miles, the New York-based graphic designer who developed Céline’s new brand identity. “She sees things microscopically. ‘Can you just make the logo two millimeters shorter?’ ‘Can you move it down there by three millimeters?’ I had to change things by the smallest margins on boxes, bags, ads, business cards, everything, but always for good reason.”
By the time the first clothes surfaced last summer — as the pre-collection for this spring — Philo was settled in Cavendish Square with a manageable schedule. She still travels to Paris, but only for a couple of days a month, when she camps at the Ritz.
“It makes a huge difference being based in London,” she says happily. “The nanny arrives at our house in the morning. I drop my daughter at school and drive to work. Then it’s leave work, drive home, and the kids are there. There’s a bit of madness, then I put them to bed, have supper and a bit of a catch-up with my husband and go to sleep.”
They live very quietly. Philo cherishes her privacy and, unlike the media-savvy McCartney, is never followed by paparazzi on the school run or slipping out of London restaurants with Gwyneth or Madonna. “I’m completely anonymous, and I can’t imagine anything worse than losing that,” she says.
“I feel very protective of my life outside of my work. I don’t really go to things in the industry, although I do go to things in the art world because of Max. The people I generally see know me really well and like me for who I am. I know that sounds really bleh, but it’s true.” She and Wigram often spend weekends with the children at their parents’ country homes, where she can indulge her passion for horse riding. “Phoebe’s priorities are totally right,” Azagury-Partridge says. “Her life is very much about family, her husband and children and their extended families. Being so self-contained really helps her to get on with the job, because everything else just bounces off.”
Just as well, given that Philo now has to pull off a fall collection that’s at least as hot as her spring one. “It’ll be a continuation,” she says. “There’ll be great fabrics, and great cuts. Those are the things that always work and give women the investment pieces that seem relevant again now. This coat, for example, I imagine I’ll still be wearing it in 10 years’ time. I can’t see why I won’t.” Pajamas and tracksuits? “Ha! Haven’t quite squeezed those in yet.”