Phoebe Philo of Celine

Order in the House

It is every fashion editor’s dream: to be seated alongside the runway at a defining moment.

Just such a fantasy came true last October, in empty office space in Paris, France. As soon as the models in Celine’s spring-summer show marched out, it became apparent we were witnessing a quiet revolution. The atmosphere in the room was electric – so much so that one editor called it “the second coming” – as the models appeared in pared-down looks, featuring nude silk tops, canvas A-line skirts, buttery leather, starched white shirts and military jackets.

The highlight of the show came at the end, though, when a willowy figure peeked out from backstage and took a hurried bow before disappearing as suddenly as she had appeared. Phoebe Philo had barely been seen since she vanished from the fashion world in a cloud of smoke four years ago, at the height of her fame. Now she was back, and everyone wanted to know why.

IT’S THE DAY AFTER the show and Philo walks hurriedly into the buzzing lobby of the Ritz, on Place Vendome. She’s easy to spot in a navy cashmere men’s-style coat from the pre-spring collection, which sits squarely across narrow shoulders and a tall frame. She’s not a classic beauty but her sharp blue eyes, high cheekbones and wispy dark hair have a certain allure. What makes her striking is her style – unfussy, clean and impeccable – much like the clothes that had us in raptures yesterday.

Whereas most designers revel in post-show pandemonium, Philo is as cool as an iced drink, although her body language sends mixed messages; she sits upright, legs tightly crossed and hands neatly folded in her lap.

“I am happy, excited, tired – there are about 50 words I can use to describe how I feel,” she says slowly, her London accent barely detectable. “Yesterday was so nice in some ways, so reassuring. It was like déjà vu, because nothing has really changed in the four years I have been gone. I guess four years in the grand scheme of things isn’t a lot, so why should it be different for fashion? It’s always nice to have a bit of distance from these things, though. You can’t be too emotionally connected.”

Ever since hitting the big time as a designer in 2001, Philo has made an effort to distance herself from the industry. She guards her private life like a Rottweiler, refusing to answer questions about family or friends during interviews (and today will be no exception). As a result there has been little of a personal nature published about her, making Philo somewhat of an enigma. Her responses are as controlled and precise as the folds on her jacket but a hint of emotion does show itself when she speaks about her work.

“I am excited about fashion. I think it’s very im- portant and relevant but what inspires me is not what other people are doing. It’s emotional.

“I don’t know if you saw the book at the begin- ning of the show,” she says, referring to an antho- logy of images detailing her inspirations. “It makes it clear that there’s a biographical thread that runs through my work. It’s a collection of images I have collected over a long time, since I was 12 or 13, that I feel I have an emotional response to. Sure I am older and more assured but the same things make me twinkle.”

It’s hard to believe that this serious woman was once a permanent fixture on the London club scene.

Born to British parents in Paris, Philo moved to Britain at the age of two and was raised in London. A college art-foundation course saw her dabble in fine arts, sculpture and design.

“Before that, I always loved fashion and customising clothes. I was always making things – changing the look of them and reworking them. I never really thought about a career in fashion but during the final two terms of my course, we had to focus on one thing – and that’s when I chose fashion design. It felt really exciting,” she says.

She went on to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where she started to find her groove as well as a personal style, cropped tops and all.

“I was a clubber. I had a gold tooth and was into the punk thing. Everyone says they can’t imagine me like that but it is still very much a part of me,” she says, tucking her hair behind her ears. “It’s still in there, in me, that kinda bit of ghetto.”

It wasn’t until she joined Chloe – with best friend and fellow Central Saint Martins alumna Stella McCartney – that her style began to extend to her work. Then, when McCartney left in 2001, Philo stepped in as creative director at the tender age of 25.

“There were too many lessons I learned there, I was so young and it was very gruelling in a sense. Having access to so many resources was a real eye-opener. Working for underground designers in London we’d make collections for GBP1,000 then, all of a sudden, we were working in Paris with huge amounts of money – and there was definitely more pressure.

“I was only just 25, so, in a way, too young to understand the enormity of it, which was good. It’s like having kids early, you don’t know what you’re doing so you just do it,” she says, looking exhausted at the memory of it all.

Her hard work paid off; Chloe developed global appeal. Self-professed “Philophiles” clamoured for anything she designed, from the Grecian dresses and chunky wedges to the heavy, padlocked bags. The future seemed bright – Philo was a successful and influential designer, happily married to London art dealer Max Wigram, with whom she had a daughter in 2005. Then, without any warning, she dropped off the radar.

“It felt like the right thing to do; right for me, the right time. It was really personal, I had my daughter, I knew I wanted more children. I just felt like having a change and something new,” she says, her eyes softening. “What was nice was having two full years where I didn’t do anything. I didn’t work at all and I had my son. And I wasn’t bored. From going to school to college, then to university and work, I had never stopped. I’d had a job since I was a teenager so I had never had time where I didn’t have things to do. It was just exciting not to work.

“I didn’t follow the industry at all; I didn’t have any desire. I didn’t live or breathe fashion and I still don’t.”

Three years into her sabbatical, though, Philo started dabbling in fashion again, working as a consultant for Gap Europe one day a week from her north London home. A year later, she was tempted back into the world she so easily abandoned by French brand Celine, which wanted her as its creative director.

Founded in 1945 by Celine Vipiana, the label wasn’t a heavy hitter in the industry at the time, although it boasted relatively strong sales in Asia. As part of the LVMH empire, the brand received some buzz when Michael Kors was on board (from 1997 to 2003) but the years that followed, when Celine was under the guidance of Roberto Menichetti and ex-Prada designer Ivana Omazic, had been quiet.

When Omazic left early last year, a team headed by LVMH wonderboy Marco Gobbetti was brought in. Gobbetti had previously worked his magic transforming Givenchy into a cool and profitable luxury brand and executives were hoping he’d do the same for Céline.

“It was a combination of things,” says Philo, about her decision to rejoin the industry. “I had been approached by people for various projects. I talked to LVMH about my own brand and the Celine thing had been coming up in conversation. It worked because it worked – it wasn’t like one person made it happen – it just all came together.

“I didn’t know a huge amount about Celine, although I knew historically it was known for its leather goods. There was also an element of it that was about a woman who was refined and into practical luxury, and that suited my vision.”

This time around, Philo has experience and maturity on her side. She insisted the brand’s operations move to London, so she could be closer to home, and decided to wait until October before showing her first runway collection.

Furthermore, taking a break from fashion had given her insight into her new customer: a modern, mature woman who balances work and motherhood, and who longs for clothes that are luxurious and real. Essentially, a woman like Philo.

“I am so close [to the clothes] that it doesn’t matter what people take from it. [My debut wasn’t a] referenced collection but it felt like a book, almost autobiographical, with so many pieces that are personal for me, that came from the gut.

“This is the beginning of something exciting and interesting. It’s about a woman who is confident, powerful and inspired, and into an intrinsic value of luxury – not overdesign but a refined, intelligent cleanness. I’ve worked closely on proportion, cut, fit and fabric. It’s a clean and good start with clothes that are right for now. We can build from it – it wasn’t too much or little of anything: it’s a platform from which to jump off in the future,” she says.

As powerful as Philo’s vision looks and sounds, she is the first to admit that the real test will come when the clothes filter into stores. It may not help that her sleek designs are the antithesis of the exaggerated proportions that have dominated fashion for the past few seasons. And even though the economy is picking up, it is yet to be seen whether women are willing to spend heavily on spiced-up wardrobe staples.

“I have a pragmatic view on that stuff. From afar, the clothes seem very simple and clean but when you look at them closely you see that there are lots of details and a workmanship that is very rich. I think, especially in this [financial] climate, it is important to focus on quality, simplicity and craftsmanship.

“The nonsense has cleared up a bit and I think that maybe there’s a more straightforward attitude [to fashion], which I appreciate. There’s a bit of relevance for fantasy and forward thinking but I think that the recession has brought a bit of reality to us all. I have never been one of those fantastical designers and I don’t want to get too caught up in all of that stuff.

“What we need now is a bit of space, a bit of clean up – I’m not saying it’s right for everybody but this is how I want to take Celine forward. It’s a new beginning for me personally, as well.”

Philo speaks with such determination that it’s easy to forget that she has already left the industry once to seek balance in her life. Will she be able to handle the pressure this time?

“Some days are easier than others. It’s life and again I am pragmatic about it. It’s not a walk in the park and that’s one of the reasons that I took a break. Getting my home life sorted out was what was really important to me and now our house is a stable safe place.

“The balance has its challenges but without putting in that time those years ago, it wouldn’t be what it is now. It sounds a bit spiritual and a bit ‘hippy talkie’ but I really feel that you get back what you’ve put in and I have sorted stuff out, so my family is supportive that I am back to work.

“A good day for me is getting up, being with my kids, drop- ping my daughter at school, doing a good day at work, going home, sitting with my husband and going to bed. Simple. My challenge is to stay present and in the day.”

As published in the SCMP, April 25 2010