The woman behind the launch of the year

The woman behind the launch of the year: She became a big fashion name despite hating publicity and now, with her own label about to debut, PHOEBE PHILO remains a fascinating contradiction, says former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman

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On 27 July, posted an urgent missive. ‘Drop Everything! Phoebe Philo’s website is open for registration.’ 

They could have dropped the surname Philo from the announcement and everyone would still have understood. Because in fashion there’s really only one Phoebe.

So who is Phoebe? And how come she has such allure that, months before we’ve seen a single image from her much anticipated eponymous label, thousands have taken up her offer to register online?

The single Instagram page from the brand has gathered 248,000 followers – following nothing at all so far. This is not because Philo has masterminded a massive social-media campaign to fire up interest in her launch like so many rivals do. 

Far from it – for one of the most influential and revered designers of this century she has spent the past couple of years completely off-radar, her plans as secretive as Zelensky’s daily itinerary.

Phoebe when she was queen of Celine, Paris 2016

Phoebe with Alexandra Shulman in  2004 

In a world where most of the leading brands are headed by men, Phoebe Philo has carved out a career entirely on her own terms. She is not just a talented fashion designer with such an innate sense of style she can make a plain camel coat look like the most desirable item of the season. She is also a spear-carrier for the many women in the industry trying to juggle the incessant demands with any kind of personal life.

Philo’s childhood was spent in the Northwest London suburb of Harrow on the Hill with her graphic designer mother Mary and surveyor father Richard. She was a pony-loving child who won a place studying art and design at the prestigious Central Saint Martins, where the fashion course was a celebrated incubator for leading designers including Stella McCartney, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.

In 1997 McCartney was appointed creative director of the French fashion house Chloé. With her celebrity surname, eye for a commercial trend and more than a soupçon of boho London attitude she was a maverick in the austere world of French luxury.

And she brought her friend Phoebe Philo with her. Philo’s adopted Brixton style, complete with gold tooth and acrylic talons, belied her way with accessories and sense of the moment, and when McCartney left to launch her own label in 2001 it was Philo who was handed the keys to Chloé.

However, only when she left Chloé in 2006 and took over Céline after two years’ maternity leave – almost unknown in fashion circles – did it emerge how exceptional she was. She demanded the brand’s owner LVMH set her up in headquarters in London so she didn’t have to live in Paris. Each week the mountain of workshop samples travelled from there to London to be critiqued and sent back. Allowing Philo to establish her team in London was a tremendous vote of confidence from the proud Parisian house.

Her take on what to wear made Céline an immediate success. The minimalist-with-a-twist collections were an invigorating palate cleanser in the aftermath of the 2008 banking collapse. Ostentatious logos and gaudy excess began to look crass, and Philo’s personal taste for the understated was ideal. Something fresher and more relevant was wanted and she provided it.

Immaculate tailored jackets, narrow cigarette pants and sensual but sober silk shirts were star pieces of her first collection in June 2009. Over the next year she brought us the revival of plain white Adidas Stan Smith sneakers (her footwear of choice as she took her runway bow), mannish coats, funnel-neck oversized cashmere and the furry-soled backless mule.

Pre-empting much of the age diversity we see more of in fashion today, she featured octogenarian writer Joan Didion, known for her affection for oversized sunglasses, in one of her ad campaigns. When Didion’s belongings were auctioned after her death in late 2021 a pair of her Céline sunglasses fetched around £21,500.

Something more than pure design talent was clearly at work. It wasn’t just the collections, the terrazzo-marble-floored stores or the plain leather totes that made the brand so desirable but the creator herself. As someone said to me the other day: ‘Phoebe is the woman I want to be.’

Phoebe’s silk dress for Chloé on the catwalk, spring 2005.

Philo is not unaware of the power of her own image. All the models on the runway, for example, mimicked Philo’s rigorously scraped-back hair and pale bare face. If the rumour is true that for her campaigns she will be using the Canadian-Ukrainian model Daria Werbowy, a woman who shares Philo’s brand of beauty – scimitar cheekbones, searingly clear blue eyes, clothes-hanger body – it appears she will again be using herself as house model.

Lounging for a shoot in a pair of snakeskin sliders, oversized white cashmere sweater and leather trousers, she epitomises the kind of luxury that permeates her work. The Philo woman spends money and likes a statement accessory – Céline jewellery was one of the big sellers – but she particularly likes the idea that the look is not ‘mass’. She’s a member of a club that only those who know want to join.

For a woman who guards her privacy ferociously and has been quoted as saying, ‘I have an innate fear of fame’, the projection of her own appearance on the brand is a contradiction. But Philo is a woman of contradictions. In her personal life she is warm and funny, devoted to family and friends. In professional circumstances she can be guarded and cool.

She lives between a large house in North Kensington where the scuzzy end of multicultural Ladbroke Grove meets the hedge-fund crew, and an estate in Somerset near the wildly fashionable village of Bruton, where her mother and sister have opened Philo & Philo, a homeware shop and gallery.

Writer Joan Didion fronted Céline’s spring/summer 2015 ad campaign

Her friends range from a few of the British establishment crowd who grew up with her Old Etonian husband Max Wigram to the stars of 90s Cool Britannia: the jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge, fashion stylist Cathy Kasterine, leather designer Bill Amberg, photographer’s agent Kim Sion and partner Jarvis Cocker, artists Jake and Dinos Chapman…

When I hosted a dinner years ago to launch a Chloé shop, I assumed that Philo would like somewhere a bit downtown and booked a Notting Hill restaurant for the party. Word came back that she would much prefer a newly opened Mayfair private members club.

When I interviewed her at the Vogue Festival 2014, on stage in front of 1,000 people, I was exposed to her generosity in agreeing to do something she would so clearly hate, then exposed to a mortifying hour on stage, with her refusal to engage in the performance we had to put on. While she is wildly demanding and self-critical – word is that at least two, if not three, iterations of her new brand’s launch collection have been binned – she is also driven by a conviction that she should follow her instincts.

Phoebe Philo and husband Max Wigram attend African Solutions To African Problems – Luncheon at Il Bottaccio on May 20, 2008 in London

Celine Paris fashion week, 2018

At Céline she refused to have any truck with social media and online shopping as other luxury brands were jumping on that wagon. Five years on, she has flipped 180 degrees and her new brand is entirely digital-driven, selling direct to the customers, with no third parties getting in the way of her vision.

The last time I saw her was when we ran into each other in a café just off London’s Portobello Road in 2019. It was a rainy afternoon and she was about to collect her children from school. I had recently left Vogue and she had recently left Céline. We swapped a few stories about how nice it was to have a different life, a new freedom.

This autumn she has exchanged that freedom for the launch of one of the most highly watched brands in recent times.

The pressure on her is enormous. The expectation is huge. But if anyone can live up to it, Phoebe Philo can.

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