What do fashion's new-gen critics think of Phoebe Philo?

@hautelemode, @fashionboyy, @louispisano and more share their thoughts on the former Céline designer's much-anticipated return to the industry.

by Mahoro Seward
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26 August 2021, 3:13pm

This summer has brought with it a spate of buzzy fashion dispatches (c.f. Gucci and Balenciaga’s mutual “hacking”; Demna’s turn as the creative director for Kanye’s Donda event in Atlanta; Frank Ocean’s new luxe label, Homer), but one that’s trumped them all is the announcement that, three years on from leaving Céline, Phoebe Philo is to make a long-awaited return to the industry. Rather than taking the top position at a pre-existing house, she’s building one in her own name, supported her old bosses at LVMH. You can read a comprehensive recap of the news here, but, even without the finer details, you more than likely already understand what a big deal this is. 

If you don’t, just take a look at the reactions of Phoebe Philo’s far-reaching, incredibly loyal fanbase -- better known in fashion parlance as the Philophiles. They’ve been unanimously overjoyed, as if the second coming of their messiah had been announced. Their enthusiasm is, of course, justified. Both in her time at Chloé -- first as Stella McCartney’s deputy from 1997 until 2001, and then at the house’s helm until 2006 -- and in her fabled tenure at Céline from 2008 until 2018, Phoebe has played one of the most definitive roles in shaping the contemporary fashion landscape. As Luke Meagher, the YouTube and Instagram fashion commentator best known as @hautelemode, puts it, “she very much created the defining aesthetic of the 2010s”, a particular brand of quietly commanding elegance that continues to inform what you see on offer from Bottega Veneta to boohoo.com today. 

Indeed, as the coverage by the industry’s legacy style titles suggests, the news of Phoebe Philo’s namesake venture is certainly cause for celebration. At the same time, however, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for a more nuanced discussion around what Phoebe Philo’s fashion legacy means to a new generation of fashion consumers, and whether what once made her work relevant still does today. For these conversations, you need to look beyond fashion’s traditional media platforms to a new guard of fashion critics; fresh minds that have built vast audiences on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube for the refreshing wit and frankness of their commentary.

The vast majority have shared in the rapturous excitement around the return of one fashion most prolific -- not to mention most talented -- creative directors, extolling the quality and sincerity of Phoebe’s vision. At the same time, though, they’ve pointed out concerns around issues that have only become more pertinent during the designer’s three-year hiatus -- racial and body diversity, and sustainability as examples. Unencumbered by firsthand nostalgia or long-standing loyalties to the designer’s legacy, they are able to offer more balanced, comprehensive insights into the fashion industry’s reactions to one of its biggest news stories of the year so far. Here, six of them offer theirs.

Luke Meagher, @hautelemode 

What were your first reactions to the news? 

I think it's great that she has her own brand, and I understand why LVMH has done it. And it’s of course really exciting for all the people that loved Phoebe's era of Céline. As a designer that went away for a few years, though, it'll be interesting to see what the actual reaction will be when she returns, because I feel like designers that do go away always have a bit of a harder time breaking back in.

What does Phoebe Philo mean to you on a personal level? Are there any collections of hers, or even looks or pieces, that you hold particularly dear? 

In the past couple of years, I've come to realise that she very much created the defining aesthetic of the 2010s. She really reinvigorated a sort of 1970s style by making it very clean and minimal. Looking at AW10 or SS11, for example -- the fact that she just dropped a casual sweatshirt with a simple pant, and then got everybody to do what she was doing without asking is really important to note. There's just so much from those early collections that really trickled down, to the point that we're still seeing those motifs crop up today in mainstream fashion and popular culture.

What would you say are the key differences between the period of fashion history that Phoebe defined, and fashion today?

I don’t look at it so much in terms of clothing, per se, because I think that what she did is quite timeless. It’s more of an environmental shift. Diversity and inclusion are much more pressing today, and there's also a much greater focus on issues of sustainability and ecological responsibility. Also, there are quite a lot of designers that worked under Phoebe that have either taken over very prominent brands, or started their own. There’s Peter Do, Léa Dickely and Hung La at Kwaidan Editions, Rokh Hwang at Rokh, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski at Hermès, and Daniel Lee at Bottega Veneta. They’ve taken over large segments of not only the luxury accessories market, but the luxury clothing market, too. So I do think she's going to have to sort of nudge her way back in and say, 'Hi kids, remember who's Mom! Move over, I have shit to do!' 

The aesthetic that Phoebe pioneered has often been described as aspirational. Do you think that’s still the case today? 

I think people do still find it aspirational. It speaks to this idea of quiet luxury, and I think that’s something that people who love fashion want to get into -- and I think that the recent success of the competitors to Phoebe's new brand are showcasing that. A lot of people want to feel the way that ‘the Céline woman’ looks. They want to feel part of that minimal tribe that doesn't have to try that hard and can seamlessly throw different pieces from a wardrobe together to create a look. 

What do you hope to see from Phoebe’s new label?

I really think that if there’s a designer that can do plus-size clothing in a way that clients really want, it’s Phoebe. I truly hope to see Phoebe's brand adapting to the environment that we're currently in, and truly understanding who her target market is, what they want and need, and what they believe.

José Criales-Unzueta, @eljosecriales

What does Phoebe Philo mean to you on a personal level? Are there any collections of hers, or even looks or pieces, that you hold particularly dear? 

To me, Phoebe is a role model in the way in which she’s navigated fashion. I find her persona more aspirational than her clothes. There’s something about how private she’s been, while simultaneously being so present, that is very hard to achieve these days. Many designers chase popularity because it will help sell clothes, but she managed to focus the conversation solely on her work. That’s really admirable. As for looks, it has to be from Céline Resort 2017. Those tailored jackets… I think of them often. Particularly the single-breasted jacket in look 25 with the hidden closure. They represent Phoebe’s Céline so well. An experiment and study of proportion, shape, menswear, fit, minimalism… the subtle but decisive updates to a traditional piece. It’s so special. 

Speaking more broadly, what does the 'Old Céline' aesthetic represent to you? 

I think it has created an interesting lane with respect to how we look at fashion. People love to describe Phoebe’s Céline — especially the more minimal side of it — as “intelligent”, “professional”, “mature”, and while there’s truth to that, I think that we need to evaluate why we equate minimalism and neutrals with intelligence.  A person walking into a room wearing a neon two-piece suit can be just as bright. 

What would you say are the key differences between the period of fashion history that Phoebe defined, and fashion today?

Fashion today is much more digital and moves much faster. We have pop stars wearing looks that walked down the runway weeks ago and won’t be in stores for months. The way in which you reach and communicate with a customer has also changed, and I’m curious to see what Phoebe’s approach will be to this. Yes, she already has a customer base, but there’s an entire generation that doesn’t put her on the same pedestal as the ones that came before. I’m also quite curious to see how Phoebe’s private persona will work with this very public era. An added layer is that, over the past couple of years, fashion has diversified into an innumerable range of aesthetics and subcultures. There isn’t just one thing that works anymore and customers aren’t as brand loyal as they used to be.

What do you hope to see from Phoebe’s new label? 

I really want to see menswear and an expansion in sizing. I think today’s landscape has changed in terms of who the customer is, and most importantly how the customer shops. I also hope to see an updated perspective. I think people often forget that Phoebe isn’t only the minimalism she’s so known for. Phoebe’s Chloé and Phoebe’s Céline were not the same, and even within her tenure at Céline there’s an evolution. I think people expect her to design the same things she designed back then, but Phoebe was designing for the times, and I think that today she will do the same. To expect the exact same as before would be to pretend she doesn’t have the range to grow and evolve and I think we all know that’s not the case. 

Louis Pisano, @louispisano

What does Phoebe Philo mean to you on a personal level? Are there any collections of hers, or even looks or pieces, that you hold particularly dear? 

On a personal level, Phoebe Philo means very little to me. I was never the sort of demographic she catered to and I don’t just mean in a tax bracket kind of way. HOWEVER, Kanye in the silk pyjama shirt from SS11 lives in my head RENT FREE, and anytime the SS11 campaign images with Daria Werbowy with the skateboard came up on my Tumblr dashboard I reblogged. Like, that was fucking chic! So was the ICONIC colour block coat that every street style star had. And, of course, like every other fashion blogger of the early 2010s, I wanted a Céline Luggage tote, specifically a hot pink one after seeing a certain Spanish boy blogger with one. 

Speaking more broadly, what does the 'Old Céline' aesthetic represent to you?

MONEY. The ‘Old Céline’ aesthetic represented MONEY. A rarified world of cashmere and buttery leather. The ‘Old Céline’ woman didn’t need to shout at you she had money, she whispered it. It was a lifestyle.

What would you say are the key differences between the period of fashion history that Phoebe defined, and fashion today?

The key difference between the period of fashion history that Phoebe defined and fashion today is that people no longer stand for lack of diversity and inclusion. That era of fashion was about the consumer being told what is and isn’t in fashion. Today it’s the other way around.

The aesthetic that Phoebe pioneered has often been described as aspirational. Do you think that remains the case today?

I agree, ‘Old Céline’ was VERY aspirational. It just remains a shame that the woman that one was supposed to aspire to be was exclusively white. Do I think that remains the same today, YES. That remains the standard in the industry no matter what tokenised castings try to say.

What do you hope to see from Phoebe’s new label? 

I hope she’s been taking note of the conversations that have been happening, of what people no longer accept. I hope this is an evolved Phoebe Philo with a broader worldview, and when I say worldview I don’t just mean the exclusive Caucasian enclaves that the ‘Old Céline’ woman frequents. I hope she looks back at her work at Céline and designs for everyone she didn’t design for before. 

Benji Park, @fashionboyy

What does Phoebe Philo mean to you on a personal level? Are there any collections of hers, or even looks or pieces, that you hold particularly dear? 

To me, Phoebe Philo is someone who screams accessible luxury -- not in terms of price but in terms of people being able to see it as clothing they could wear. Something that I think no one can take away from Phoebe is that she made clothes that people want to wear, regardless of who they are. I remember seeing a Senior VP from Goldman Sachs, an incredibly powerful woman, standing next to a 19-year old stylist who was studying at UAL, and they were both wearing the same Céline trousers, and I remember that fascinating me. Here were two people at very different places in their lives, and yet they were wearing the same piece. 

Speaking more broadly, what does the 'Old Céline' aesthetic represent to you?

I think ‘Old Céline’ represents an era where reimagined minimalism was popularised. She came in with a very streamlined, curated minimalism that exhibited an interesting use of leather, mohair and tweed. She still also gave us silhouette, texture and colour, but in a refined way. It also represents a sense of feminine comfort -- it was such a safe brand to shop and it hit that sweet spot of commercialism and creativity. I remember a lawyer telling me that she could go into a Céline store and pick any piece out in a rush, knowing that it would be not only professional but also stylish. She made clothes that elevated women in their every day, I've noticed that she's one of the few major designers where people truly love wearing her clothes, not because of the flashy materialism of it, but because they genuinely bring an easy edge and chicness to a wardrobe. 

What would you say are the key differences between the period of fashion history that Phoebe defined, and fashion today? 

Diversity. Phoebe Philo for me, in one way, actually harks back to an era of intense exclusivity and a perpetuation of extreme norms. She was one of the last designers who really stuck to using skinny white models, and I remember looking through a couple of the lookbooks and thinking how monolithically European it was, to the point that it was almost odd. I feel that everyone who loves Phoebe Philo will say that post-BLM, everyone's looking at her work through a lens of American racial politics. But how else can we look at it now? And maybe the issue is that we weren't looking it that way before.

What do you hope to see from Phoebe’s new label? 

I want to feel something, I want to see who Phoebe Philo is. It's not that I want her to be making me tea, but I want to know who's behind the brand. I buy clothes from people who I like, and the idea of clothing myself is such an intimate thing. When I wear something, I want to make sure that the ideas or ideologies of the person who designed it match with mine. What you're putting on your skin and what you're saying to the world before you even open your mouth is so important.

Hanan Besovic, @ideservecouture 

What were your first reactions to the news?

I can’t say I was caught off guard, because we’ve been hearing rumors about a comeback for a while now, even since before COVID. It’s fashion, people talk!

What does Phoebe Philo mean to you on a personal level? Are there any collections of hers, or even looks or pieces, that you hold particularly dear? 

For me, Phoebe is a game-changer. She’s someone who wasn't immediately recognised for her brilliant work, but with time people came to understand and appreciate her. Regarding her collections, I think she’s like fine wine - the longer she was at Céline, her work just kept getting better so my favorite collections are spring 2014 and spring 2018. They’re where she shined brightest.

The aesthetic that Phoebe pioneered has often been described as aspirational. Do you think that remains the case today?

I definitely think her aesthetic is aspirational -- especially today, in fact. To this day, when you mention Céline to someone in fashion, their mind immediately turns to Phoebe. When your name becomes an adjective to describe clothes, that means that you’ve created something of value.

What do you hope to see from Phoebe’s new label? 

I think Phoebe has a huge challenge ahead of her. I was watching a YouTube video by Tuba Avalon, who made some great points, one of which being: Where do you go after you’ve reached the top? Phoebe put Céline on the map for many people and created an aesthetic that people are very loyal to. She needs to have an ace up her sleeve, though, as there’s now a lot of competition in the field that she created. It will be interesting to see if Phoebe will stick to what made her so successful, or if she’ll create a new path for her brand.

 Samantha Haran, @decouturize

What does Phoebe Philo mean to you on a personal level? Are there any collections of hers, or even looks or pieces, that you hold particularly dear? 

Phoebe Philo influenced my wardrobe - and my life - before I even knew who she was. I was 11 years old when I bought my first blazer. Following that, there was a long and rather pronounced and memorable period of my life where I wore nothing but neutral tones, chasing a very particular vision of chic, contained elegance. It projected a vision of togetherness — that carried me through times where I was far from it. After studying fashion for a number of years, I now realise I owe that to Phoebe.

What would you say are the key differences between the period of fashion history that Phoebe defined, and fashion today?

I remember reading some time ago in Harper's Bazaar that before Phoebe's Céline, high fashion was loud -- 'shouty', I think they called it. I personally feel like fashion is loud once again -- or at least moving that way -- and I think this recent wave of loudness has broken down barriers and created space for different types of people with different creative styles to take centre stage. It’s now less about ‘aspiration’, and more about who has something to say -- who has unique substance and perspective behind their vision. That’s not to say that there’s no space for Phoebe, but it is definitely a different time.

What does ‘aspiration’ mean to you in a fashion context? 

Though I hold my Philo-inspired days close to my heart, I have found myself questioning the idea of ‘aspiration’ over the past few years especially. As I have started to interrogate how my definitions of ‘luxury’ and ‘fashion’ intersect with ideas about class, race and supremacy, I have begun to wonder how the particular style she creates fits into that. Who is the Phoebe Philo woman? Is she not wealthy and white?

What do you hope to see from Phoebe’s new label? 

I am excited to see what she does with it. Will it be a reinvigoration of her Céline work, or something completely new? Either way, I think something a lot of people will be looking to see, myself included, is how she contends with diversity. Her vision may no longer be relevant if she fails to expand it to reach people beyond the narrow ‘Céline woman’.

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Céline
Opinion
Phoebe Philo