A Portrait of Phoebe Philo 


Vanessa Rosales

This is the image of a pensive, steely-looking woman clad in lose-fitting leather trousers, a chunky ivory turtleneck knit, and a sleek deep-navy coat placed over the shoulders.  Sitting on a tiger-printed sofa, the luxurious pieces in her ensemble are unexpectedly finished by a pair of light grey, shocking pink and neon yellow Nike sneakers. Dedicated followers of fashion might reckon that this stylistic hybridity extends itself beyond this portrait, shot by David Slims in 2013, for Vogue magazine. It is sprinkled in the electric images of digital street style outside the major fashion shows, in the globally recognized diaries of fashion bloggers, in the visions of everyday life on the sidewalks of urban life; all in which hypermodern women dress with a sophistication that may be completed not with stilettos, but with sneakers. The look proliferates in our sartorial landscape. Pheobe Philo, the woman of the image gazing into the lens, epitomizes it. Her personal selections of attire make the look a frequent apparition. She has drenched Céline, the luxury brand she creatively commands, with such an aesthetic of relaxed sleekness. The brand’s signature qualities are a reflection of her own sartorial temperament.

The idea that women need not be preoccupied with the overwhelming variety of ornamentation has its mirror in the sartorial legacy of Coco Chanel. The similarities between Mademoiselle and Philo are visible: simplicity as the ultimate form of elegance; modernism in shape and spirit; subdued chromatic palettes; understated glamour, practical chic, cool femininity and the underlying ideal that clothes should offer women the possibility to move, to think, to act and to be beyond the graceful pleasures of appearance. It is a sartorial philosophy with comfort as a vital vector, made of clothes for active female lives. For Chanel, the woman of fashion dressed well but unremarkably and without eccentricity. Philo’s clothes are filled with just such features.

Both Chanel and Philo also share the trait of dressing themselves in the clothes they make. Their clothes are visual messages of their own biographies. But, contrary to Chanel, Philo is both a wife and a mother. Hence, their sense of feminine modernity differs in that Chanel created clothes that bestowed women with a liberty of movement for unprecedented roles and activities; whereas Philo’s garments are made for women who integrate both independence and family into their womanhood.  In 2005, after overhauling the French brand Chloé into spectacular commercial success, a press release announced she was straying away from the terrains of fashion to channel her energies into her children and husband.

In a 2010 interview with the sharp and graceful Penny Martin for The Gentlewoman, Philo explained how contemporary women’s excess of dominance and independence might signify their loss of acceptance and softness. It was precisely Chanel’s unyielding nature as a woman that made a life without marriage and children one of her most painful realities. But Chanel was and had to be a woman of her time. Hers was a context in which wild success and faithfulness to herself were not necessarily aligned with conventional female roles. Philo, however, is a daughter of her post-feminist time, where women are allowed to combine strength with delicacy, in clothes, love and life. This she masterfully translates into clothes that materialize the encounter between polar opposites: luxury and sportswear, the feminine and the masculine, humility and lavishness, subtleness and fortitude. The encounter of dichotomies within a single vision mirrors a time where fashion – as femininity and life itself – are dominated by eclecticism.

Philo, who was born in Paris to British parents in 1973, was raised in suburban London and belongs to a cool cohort of designers that have bloomed from Central Saint Martins. In 2001, right after graduation, she was summoned by friend Stella McCartney as part of the creative team for Chloé. When McCartney departed to start her own label, in 2001, Philo stepped in as creative director of the French brand, where she crafted a distinctive look that combined minimalism, feminine fluidity and desirable, go-to accessories. Four years later, at the height of her success, Philo audaciously withdrew to spend more time with her first-born Maya and her husband, art dealer Max Wigram. She remained a fashion outsider for three years. But in doing so, she not only proved herself an eccentric within a work-obsessed industry, she also made tangible some of the larger issues concerning contemporary femininity: how to juggle motherhood and individuality.

In 2008, luxury brand Céline announced Philo was stepping into the house as creative director. The French brand, created in 1945 by Céline Vipiano did not have, as other classic Parisian maisons, an ingrained identity that called for careful interpretation. It was as Philo calls it, “a clean slate”, which coincided with a significant trait: it was founded by a woman who, like Philo, makes clothes for other women. Since her reinsertion to the fashion world as director of Céline, Philo has created a distinctive look that converts the now into clothes. Her work is more philosophy than mere design.

These clothes are often about contrast, (worn-in fabrics with things that are newly done); sharpness mixed with suavity; structure and proportion, in the shape of cocoon, sculptural coats, tailored trousers, chunky knits, crisp chic jackets, and hems of long collarless shirts peeping from A-line skirts. The look is essentially polished, fundamental, chic in a French way, sleek and deeply modern. But, I would add, Philo’s aesthetic is deeply hyper modern, strengthened by her own trajectory as a mother, wife, creative and woman with financial ability. Her clothes often evoke ideas of what intelligent, contemporary woman truly desire. Beyond the terms usually embraced by the jargon of glossy publications, Philo strives for a breed of comfort that can be only truly understood by women, whose experience of clothes is often drenched with duality: an inner debate as to whether the excess of ornamentation can distract them from investing themselves in something else other than appearance. Philo’s clothes allow a fashionability that coincides with a functional femininity.

The sleekness, the unremarkable quality of the design, the unfussy nature of beautifully made clothes all speak of a wider theme in the current fashion zeitgeist: women seeking comfort to lead active, realistic lives. If some designer’s works are able to mirror wider themes of the modernity they are immersed in, Philo’s work reflects a synchronicity between womanhood and fashionability. The dichotomy between appearing and being is one of feminism’s most enduring and ardent battles with fashion. For decades, feminism called for functionality in dress as a means for women to transcend appearance as their unique source of identity. The image of Philo in luxurious, divinely tailored coats and bright-hued sneakers seems to materialize a contemporary femininity that reconciles the dichotomy of being comfortable and being fashionable. Hers is an aesthetic that strives on sartorial feminism.

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