To the casual "non-follower" of fashion, womenswear label Chloé is likely a complete unknown. The only things you know about Parisian brand Céline are likely to have come out of Kanye West's mouth. But chances are, no matter your fashion aptitude, you've heard of Phoebe Philo.
With rumors swirling about Philo's departure as creative director from Céline, it's impossible not to look at the impactful legacy she'll be leaving behind—not just in Parisian high-fashion circles, but on the combination of women's and menswear, and (perhaps more importantly) the racks of fast-fashion giants like Zara.
It all begins in 1997, when Philo, a friend to Stella McCartney, joined the rising designer as an assistant at Chloé. Upon McCartney's departure to found her namesake label, Philo stepped into the role of creative director, her first collection being Chloé's Spring/Summer 2002. Inevitably, Philo would find her footing within the low-key French label, capitalizing on an archive of girly, playful designs that, as Business of Fashion puts it, "made Chloé one of the hottest invites of Paris fashion week, and a commercial success." She would depart Chloé following the brand's Spring/Summer 2006 collection, to focus on family. She would reemerge as Céline's savior beginning with the 2010 Resort collection. While most guys won't be wearing her designs at Chloé, it cannot be understated how deeply her style resonates in the house—even to this day. A look at Chloé's latest collections is a reminder of the masculine touches (the pooling, '70s-era trousers, for example) that are a clear holdover from Philo's personal style. Sure, Chloé is certainly more feminine since Philo's departure, but—like Raf Simons with Jil Sander—it's clear that in some ways, Philo's aesthetic never really left.
But for all of the work Philo did at Chloé, it's what she's done (and is continuing to do) at Céline that has made her a household fashion name. To put it simply, Philo carried over her affinity for menswear in women's design and neutral colors into her work at Céline. But that's grossly understating the work. Without a doubt, Philo repeated what she had done at her previous gig, turning the understudy French label into one not just one of Paris' biggest players, but also a crowd favorite amongst fashion insiders and editors. Philo is often hailed, as Tim Blanks put it, "a designer who knows what women want," which uniquely dovetails with her own personal style.
Explaining her introduction to Céline in an interview at the 2014 Vogue Festival, Philo said:
"When I came to the house, I had an idea of what I thought the core values of Céline should be. Céline had no recognizable silhouette, no famous historic designers, it hadn't been licensed out in the Seventies and Eighties as many other brands had. I've never really looked into archives anywhere I've worked, actually… I feel, like it or hate it, it doesn't matter, I just like it to be strong. I think it's worth doing something differently."
For a brand that once had no "recognizable silhouette" Philo's freedom within the brand quickly remedied that problem. From "winged" tote bags, to slouchy trousers with turtlenecks, the brand became the vision of Parisian chic. Commenting on one of Céline's best collections, Resort 2012, critic Nicole Phelps remarked:
"As for the clothes, Philo is still pushing the wardrobe concept, covering the basics and then some. The thing is, in her hands nothing is ever basic: bold, or maybe even brave, is more like it."
Looking at a Céline runway show, it's believable that a woman would be simultaneously comfortable—but fashionable—in Philo's designs. The designer herself condemns the "sexualization" of women through clothes, insisting upon the very basic idea that, "women should have choices and women should feel good in what they wear."
Even Kanye West opted to wear a tunic from the house's Spring/Summer 2011 show during a performance at Coachella in the same year. Needless to say, he's been an outspoken advocate ever since.
But it's the ease of Philo's designs that not only make her popular among women (and men), but make her the perfect designer to "inspire" fast fashion retailers. Much has been made about the fast fashion's tradition of copying what's on the runway, but for Céline, the issue has been particularly acute. Taking everything from silhouettes to the very same runway models, brands like Zara have thrived by not only taking Céline's popular design aesthetic, but offering it to the masses at major markdown. This is the paradigm under which fast fashion giants operate their businesses today.
But as Kanye West said in his now-legendary first BBC interview with Zane Lowe, there's still no replacement for the genuine article:
"You can have on a Zara pant, right? And a girl walks in with the Céline version, and you feel like shit."
As for Philo, she takes it in stride, feeling more flattered and excited, even through the blatant ripping-off. Besides, fast fashion brands will want to copy Philo's work on it's accolades alone; which include an “International Designer of the Year” from the CFDA in 2011 (presented of course, by Kanye West), and an OBE honor in 2014.
If Philo is truly leaving Céline as the rumors suggest, that's more of a disappointing turn for her current house than for fashion itself. While the designer has often stated her need to step back from the fashion cycle (a break from 2006 to 2008 to spend time with her then-newborn daughter being the most notable example), it's part of what allows her voice to be razor-sharp when it comes to pairing down both inspirations and collection pieces. That skill will travel with her to where ever she lands, much like it did during her transition from Chloé to Céline.
"[Céline] is the perfect storm of a truly original fresh voice, absolute perfection of quality, utter standards, disciplined brand stewardship and good timing,” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president and fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, in a 2013 Business of Fashion Céline profile. While the compliment is certainly aimed at the Parisian house, that praise has everything to do with the work of Phoebe Philo.