In December, Phoebe Philo announced her departure from French brand Céline after a decade at the helm. "Working with Céline has been an exceptional experience for me these last 10 years,” the designer said in a statement published by WWD. “I am grateful to have worked with an incredibly talented and committed team and I would like to thank everyone along the way who has been part of the collaborations and conversations…it’s been amazing."
Rumors circulated an industry in flux that she would be taking Christopher Bailey’s place at Burberry, but they were squashed with last week’s appointment of former Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci. There’s been no indication from Philo or her team that she’ll be working for a competitor brand, which leads both fans and industry voices to wonder what’s next for the British designer and her inimitable vision.
Change is intrinsic to the nature of fashion, and in many ways, an integral part of its DNA — but something in the air right now feels more fraught. Designers are playing musical chairs and generating instability; over the last few years, alongside Bailey and Philo’s departures, Alber Elbaz left Lanvin, Raf Simons moved from Dior to Calvin Klein, Jonathan Saunders joined and resigned from Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander Wang left Balenciaga (which then appointed Demna Gvasalia), and Dior hired Maria Grazia Chiuri, its first female creative director in its 70-year history. What feels most unsettling is that the aforementioned creatives are taking charge of heritage fashion houses with a seemingly conflicting, and even older, aesthetic to their own.
Heading up Céline now is Hedi Slimane, the French-Tunisian designer who previously took the reins at Yves Saint Laurent, got rid of the “Yves,” and transformed the label into a hard-edged, sexed-up, suited-and-booted brand. (Think campaigns featuring Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson.) We wait to see what he’ll do with Philo's legacy in his self-created role as Céline’s first-ever artistic, creative, and image director,
While there has been inevitable chatter around all of the recent designer moves, the loudest cries have come from longstanding lovers of the Céline that Phoebe Philo created. To understand why so many people feel mournful about the future of the French fashion house, we must first understand what Philo brought to the previously staid label, and what exactly that meant for women around the world.
“For me, Céline was the only brand that ever truly created wearable and timeless fashion for an empowered and dynamic woman,” Roberta Benteler, Avenue32 founder and street style star, tells Refinery29. “Clothes that are wearable in an everyday context, that don’t go out of fashion, and that don’t over-sexualize women.” In contrast to the souped-up sex appeal of women like Kim Kardashian West and more-is-more designers like Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, Philo’s sleek designs championed a quieter kind of power. It's worth noting that neither approach is the “correct” way to be a woman. It’s simply that with Philo, there was no extra embellishment or peacocking, just a simple bias cut or color combination that marked the confidence of both the designer and the women wearing her pieces. These were clothes for women who are sure of themselves.
From fantastic tailoring that made slouchy two-pieces over a plain white T-shirt the contemporary power suit to her unmistakable color palette (the camels and ivories, the navies, but also that brilliant poppy red she often returned to), Philo’s aesthetic was significant without having to shout. “Clean, without fuss, and the cut was always impeccable,” MINT editor Irina Lakicevic says of the brand. “The garments have always had a certain appeal; one could easily spot Céline from miles away, even when mixed with other brands. It really had its own aura.”
Alongside reinventing classic pieces like trench coats and loose trousers with clever details and sleight of hand, one of the reasons Philo’s Céline seemed timeless is because she evaded trends — harder to nail than you’d imagine in a post-post-modern world ruled by references. While avoiding the creation of collections that would easily date, she brought to a new audience a pared-back simplicity that went on to shape the way we dress. This has only subsided recently, thanks to Gucci’s Alessandro Michele. At the heart of “normcore” or “minimalist” dressing may be simplicity, but functionality is there, too. “Phoebe was one of the first designers to openly say that that was okay in fashion,” Amira Arasteh, an advertising assistant at Wired and GQ, explains. “I think that was a strong message to send out to women and girls.”
Work trousers that could be transformed by night with a sharp blazer or abstract printed blouse, or footwear that was actually comfortable while still retaining some direction — that’s how Philo made wearability, and thus function, cool. We may be used to the “dad” sneaker by now, but remember that not so long ago, wearing flat shoes — let alone commute-appropriate ones — wasn’t deemed stylish at all. “Trainers were once reserved for teenagers and cultural rebels, but they were appropriated by Phoebe, and then gained acceptance among an older audience,” Lakicevic says. “And not only that, but even if women didn't buy exactly those Céline sneakers, the momentum the sneaker trend gained was so strong that women across the globe started demanding the right to wear comfortable shoes. It was feminist revolution disguised as a white sneaker.”
The question now is whether Hedi Slimane can capture the hearts of fans as much as his predecessor could. “I was shocked when I first heard the news, as what he did for Saint Laurent is in many ways the complete opposite to what Céline stands for,” Benteler says. “Having said that, Hedi's aesthetic at Dior Homme [2001-2007] was not dissimilar to Phoebe’s, and he has made a name for himself as a ‘fashion chameleon’ who will totally reinvent any brand. Let’s see what he comes up with. It won’t be Céline as we know it, that’s for certain.”
While Slimane’s skinny-fit aesthetic certainly isn’t the most far removed from Philo’s, his “heroine chic” revival of distressed leather jackets sent down runways on hollow-cheeked boys doesn’t reflect the cool and contemporary women who embody Céline, either. Slimane has a fantastic and directional mind, but his previous work celebrates outcasts, not the everywoman. This is Lakicevic’s number one concern, too. “Even when one takes into account the brilliant tailoring Hedi is known for, how can a designer notorious for skinny jeans that barely fit a 14-year-old understand a brand that never, ever made me ask my partner, 'Do I look fat in this?'” she questions. “Hedi understands girls, Phoebe understood women.”
Aesthetics aside, the industry can't ignore the profits Slimane made at (Y)SL. Despite completely changing the vision — and, in some people's eyes, modernizing it — Saint Laurent, the business, went on to outperform season after season, according to French luxury group Kering. While the direction of the brand may not be to every Philo fan's taste, it has a very real potential for booming financial success.
If Philo's diehard following is disappointed when Slimane’s first collection for the brand is sent down the runway at Paris Fashion Week come September, they should find comfort in knowing there is solace to be found elsewhere. To some extent, Chloé, where Philo was creative director before joining Céline, retains its aesthetic, even as Natacha Ramsay-Levi, formerly at Louis Vuitton, leaves her mark. “It’s one of the other brands I look to,” Arasteh says. “It obviously has a different artistic direction, but similarities exist due to the feminine style of the brand.” Jacquemus is filling the void for Benteler, who references designer and founder Simon Porte’s similar eye. Launched in 2009, it has taken on a softer aesthetic over the past few seasons, and its fall 2018 collection is the one to shop if you’re pining for Philo’s earth-toned pieces. For a female designer that centers women as much as Philo did, Lakicevic is looking to Rejina Pyo: “She shows the same sensibility as Phoebe — there is an emotion in her design.” The London-based Korean designer whose collections are inspired by art and architecture may sate the appetites of those missing Céline’s near-perfect dresses, It-bag in-the-making accessories, and borderline-librarian ensembles.
All eyes, though, are on Loewe, which, under Jonathan Anderson's direction, is proving to be the intellectual, sophisticated highlight of the Paris schedule. With sleek cuts and smart fabrics, his critically acclaimed fall 2018 offering paired heavy tweeds with workwear-appropriate dresses and added a dash of utilitarianism with walking boots and backpacks. Plus, Anderson has already proven at his own label, J.W. Anderson, the ability to make bags that everyone covets and that hypebeasts imitate — much as Philo did with her Luggage tote and Trapeze bag, which appealed to the likes of Kardashian West as well as the street-style set.
Above all, what Philo’s following will miss is the way she made them feel — whether it was in a sumptuous silk two-piece or a knitted dress. As Lakicevic says, “She showed women that beauty doesn't necessarily lie in looking gilded and ornate.” While we’re intrigued to see what Hedi Slimane brings to the brand, we’re not holding out for the same feeling from his pieces. So here’s to a new generation of female-focused brands, and to whatever Philo turns her hand to next.