By and  on November 22, 2005

PARIS — First Jil, then Helmut, and now Phoebe?

Speculation is mounting in Paris that Phoebe Philo may exit as creative director of Chloé, a brand she helped catapult into the fashion stratosphere with feminine and influential designs.

Rather than any explosive falling out, Philo's desire to spend time with family is said to be increasingly at odds with the leadership demands of one of fashion's fastest growing companies.

Although Philo just showed her first collection under a new, multiyear contract last month, the designer is in negotiations with the company about their future collaboration, sources familiar with the situation said. While the talks are under way, Philo's role in the company could change, or she could resign her position altogether.

Chloé chairman and chief executive Ralph Toledano, reached on Monday, would only say, "We don't comment on rumors," citing the policy of Chloé parent Compagnie Financière Richemont SA.

Philo was on vacation and could not immediately be reached for comment.

The growing pains at Chloé underline the complex and uneasy nature of relations between creative people and brand stewards. Earlier this year, Helmut Lang exited the house that bears his name after sparring over strategy with Prada Group, the same company that twice parted ways with Jil Sander.

A graduate of London's Central Saint Martins, Philo joined Chloé in 1997 and worked under Stella McCartney before succeeding her four years later when McCartney set out to build her own brand with Gucci Group.

She has quickly become one of fashion's rising stars, acclaimed for a style that deftly spans masculine elements like trousers or sweaters and gentler fare such as light-as-air dresses and frilly blouses. During her tenure, Chloé's look has been widely emulated by High Street chains and the company's leather goods business has been explosive thanks to hit styles like Paddington and Silverado handbags.

But Philo has long been uncomfortable with the media limelight, valuing her privacy over the lure of fashion celebrity. The pressures and demands of helming a brand embarking on an ambitious expansion drive have also exacted a personal toll, sources said.

The designer has been less present at Paris-based Chloé recently. She returned to work last March after taking maternity leave in advance of the Dec. 13 birth of Maya, the first child for her and her husband, art dealer Max Wigram. That season, she let her design team — Sara Jowett, Natasha Lee, Valeska Duetsch, Adrian Appiolaza and Yvan Mispelaere — take the bows while she watched from the front row.Subsequently, the company opened a design studio in London at Philo's behest.

The behind-the-scenes turmoil has not disrupted the success of Chloé. Market sources estimated the brand generates wholesale volume of $300 million, and Richemont chairman Johann Rupert last week singled it out as a star performer as the group reported strong sales and earnings in the first half.

"This business has outperformed its peers, more than doubling its sales in the six months under review," he said in a statement, adding that Chloé boasted unique design positioning and strong management. "Chloé is developing its wholesale business and rolling out its international retail expansion program."

Last year, Richemont confirmed it would invest "tens of millions of euros" in an expansion drive that could see Chloé become a billion-dollar player. The multiyear plan calls for an expanded retail network, a bigger communications spend, expansion into jewelry, watches, lingerie and baby apparel, plus a renewed emphasis on its diffusion and fragrance businesses.

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