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PARIS — Phoebe Philo, one of the biggest fashion stars of her generation, is getting ready for her comeback after three years on the sidelines.
And her first designs for Celine, to be unveiled in June for the pre-spring and cruise seasons, sound like they’re in tune with the times, underlining how much the industry has changed.
Fireworks are out: Realism is in. “[Celine] never stood for flashy fashion. It always felt like it was pretty sober, and that feels really relevant,” Philo said in her first interview since taking the creative helm of the brand, owned by luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. “It’s going to be more about a foundation for a wardrobe.”
For her debut pre-collections in particular, “I want it to be less about fashion and trend and to do something more about pieces and style,” she stressed.
Philo, whose hip-yet-girlish clothes and coveted bags catapulted Chloé into the designer big leagues, said she’s happy to be back at work after three years out of the spotlight and focused on her young family, Maya, 4, and Marlow, just 20 months.
And while she declined to show any sketches or clothes just yet, Philo discussed her approach at length.
“I’m designing the collection in capsules and there’s going to be a part of it based on iconic pieces,” she told WWD over a cappuccino amid the gilded splendor of the Ritz dining room here. In her inimitable mix of tomboy and chic elegance, Philo was wearing a “very small” men’s motorcycle jacket tossed over a loose, band-collared men’s shirt and a pair of cotton tuxedo pants from her Chloé days.
“I would like them to be investment pieces,” Philo said of her forthcoming collection, sounding serene and confident. “There’s going to be a big emphasis on trousers and jackets and blouses, and pieces that mix together. It’s also designed in such a way that it takes you through the day. It’s certainly how I dress, and it feels right.
“For a design point of view, it’s very considered, and when it’s merchandised and styled, I hope it’s accessible,” she said. “I want to make the experience of buying and wearing clothes an easy experience. There’s a soberness to it, and a classicism to it. I hope the pieces will be relevant for a while to come.”
For a woman who once experimented with more out-there personal style early in her career, up to and including gold teeth and long fingernails, Philo has certainly toned down, grown up — and maintained her arm’s length rapport with the media-saturated and hype-ridden fashion world.
“I don’t need to be around fashion to be inspired,” she said, describing her time-out from the industry as “lovely.”
“I didn’t really follow fashion. I don’t think I ever really have, though. I don’t buy fashion magazines and read them cover to cover,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s been a very calm time and very real. It was about some time for myself, which gives me a lot of strength now.”
Since accepting the creative director post last September, a sign that LVMH kingpin Bernard Arnault is serious about revving up his second-tier brands, Philo has been building her design team, which is based in London at her request.
“London is where I personally feel very happy, and it’s home,” she said. “It’s where my family is. Also, I think it’s really interesting, the idea of doing something with a French brand out of London — to try and break out of the old French house system.”
The shift, along with undisclosed changes in production, has created redundancies in Paris, and a reorganization that will see up to several dozen Celine employees from the design studio and atelier lose their jobs, according to sources.
Celine declined to comment on the reorganization, but it is understood efforts will be made to place affected employees elsewhere within the luxury group, which includes such brands as Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Givenchy and Emilio Pucci.
Meanwhile, Philo confirmed she has already traveled to Tokyo with members of her team on a fact-finding mission: primarily to look at “architecture and graphic concepts” and reacquaint herself with a market she had not visited for eight years. “I was more interested in how fashion stood in stores,” she said. “Plus the street style in Japan is great, just looking at people.”
The designer, who will have creative purview over store design and advertising, said she has yet to choose her collaborators for boutiques or advertising. Yet she spoke freely about what attracted her to the Celine project.
Philo counts a vintage Celine skirt and blouse in her wardrobe, and from what she’s seen of other clothes in the archive, “they’re very practical, beautiful, accessible pieces.
“There’s nothing historical that needs to be reinvented. It feels like a blank slate,” she said of a house founded in 1945 by Celine Vipiana and based initially on shoes and, later, chic sportswear. “It feels like it can be quite pure and fresh and talking about now, not harking back to an era that was iconic….It’s a brand that’s very much for women, designed by a woman. That didn’t feel forced.”
A graduate of London’s Central Saint Martins fashion school, Philo was classmates with Stella McCartney and worked with her when McCartney launched her own collection after graduation. Philo followed McCartney to Chloé in 1997 and took the top job in 2001 when McCartney left to set up her own fashion house in a joint venture with Gucci Group.
With her good looks and striking personal style, Philo succeeded in accelerating Chloé’s rejuvenation and catapulting it into the high-margin leather goods business. But she resigned for personal reasons in 2006, mainly to spend more time with her children and her husband, art dealer Max Wigram.
In addition to doing some under-the-radar consulting for Gap Europe, Philo is said to have put out feelers to fashion’s biggest players — including Gucci Group and Chloé parent Compagnie Financière Richemont — about launching a signature fashion house, in addition to interviewing for a range of high-profile jobs, including Valentino, sources said.
Philo arrived at Celine in tandem with a new chief executive officer, Marco Gobbetti, who had orchestrated a turnaround at Givenchy. Together, they will be faced with rejuvenating a brand that has seen a revolving door of designers in recent years, and mixed results.
Philo succeeded Ivana Omazic, a designer tapped from Prada Group in 2005 to steer Celine into woman-friendly territory. Omazic herself succeeded ex-Burberry designer Roberto Menichetti, who had a lackluster one-year collaboration at Celine.
The brand has yet to reclaim the buzz it enjoyed when Michael Kors was at the design helm, from 1997 to 2004. Omazic exited the company last October, but her team remained in place to design the fall-winter collection, which will not be put on the runway.
In an interview, Gobbetti described 2009 as a “transition year” at Celine, citing high interest — and expectation — in Philo’s designs.
While far less prominent than Louis Vuitton, Dior or Fendi, considered “star brands” in Arnault’s luxury parlance, Celine is a sizable business, with a retail network of some 130 stores, concentrated in Asia, which represents about half the business. Market sources have estimated Celine’s volume at around 200 million euros, or about $290 million at current exchange rates.
The business is believed to be close to break-even.
Gobbetti said the retail network would remain “the backbone of our distribution,” while spying plenty of upside potential with wholesale, which he described as “underdeveloped,” particularly in the U.S. Philo said she deliberately decided to sit out the Paris runway shows next month, as a way to “give the brand a bit of a break” and not succumb to fashion’s “fast and furious” pace.
“I prefer to take control of the situation rather than letting the situation take control of us,” she said.
Yet her eagerness is plain, and she relishes the chance to make her new fashion statement on the runway come October.
“I feel very strongly that we’ve got something very interesting to show,” she said. “I personally feel quite ambitious and excited about getting back into work and getting started.”