PARIS — Now that it’s clear that change ushered in by 2018 will include the departure of longtime Céline creative head Phoebe Philo, attention has turned to who will replace her and what’s next for the famously discreet fashion star.
According to a source with knowledge of the matter, Philo will not work for another label in the near future and her successor at the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned house will be named in the coming months.
While speculation in recent weeks has centered around the possibility she could follow the label’s former chief executive officer Marco Gobbetti to Burberry, a source told WWD that talk of such a move is not true.
“She wants to take a break, as she has done in the past,” the person said, citing the designer’s three-year hiatus after resigning from Chloé in 2006 and noting the emphasis she places on her private life.
Although WWD reported last month that Philo was spotted early one morning at Burberry’s Horseferry House headquarters in London, those close to her say she does not want to work at the British brand.
Burberry declined to comment on Friday.
The fall 2018 collection to be presented in March, as well as pre-fall presented in January, will be the last collections crafted by the designer for the brand, who leaves the company in January. She was in the brand’s Paris office earlier this month shooting the pre-fall look book with Juergen Teller.
In the interim, the label’s collections will be designed by Céline teams, “in keeping with the craftsmanship the house is renowned for,” the source said.
In a statement Friday, the designer thanked the people she worked with at the label.
“Working with Céline has been an exceptional experience for me these last 10 years. I am grateful to have worked with an incredibly talented and committed team and I would like to thank everyone along the way who has been part of the collaborations and conversations….It’s been amazing.”
LVMH chairman and ceo Bernard Arnault said: “What Phoebe has accomplished over the past 10 years represents a key chapter in the history of Céline. We are very grateful to Phoebe for having contributed to the great momentum of this Maison. A new era of development for Céline will now start and I am extremely confident in the future success of this iconic Maison.”
Philo, who arrived at the brand after taking time out to raise her family, had won acclaim for a stellar stint at Chloé, and transformed Céline with sleek and luxurious leather goods and modernist clothing.
A graduate of London’s Central Saint Martins fashion school, Philo was a classmate of Stella McCartney’s 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.
Philo was widely credited for catapulting Chloé into the big leagues with her hip and feminine clothes and accessories but resigned for personal reasons in 2006, mainly to spend more time with her children and her husband, art dealer Max Wigram.
With her streamlined nouveau classics, the designer is credited with transforming Céline from a ho-hum house into a hot fashion franchise with a strong press and retail following as well as bringing minimalism and realism back to fashion.
Cementing her vision of the modern Céline woman, she also unfurled an array of hit handbags, propelling the brand into a leather goods powerhouse. She did so with help from Johnny Coca, Céline’s former head design director for leather goods, accessories, shoes and jewelry. Coca later left Céline to become creative director of Mulberry in 2015.
Under Philo and Gobbetti, who served as ceo of the label, sales at the brand reached more than half a billion euros in annual revenues, according to estimates. While LVMH does not report sales of its individual labels, analysts estimate Céline sales at around 800 million a year.
“She brought Céline back to being a woman,” said Mary Gallagher, European associate for New York-based search firm Martens & Heads. “The combination of an extremely strong ceo and an extremely creative and powerful female designer was just an incredible match. The kind of match that in future years will be benchmarked, in the way people talk today about Tom Ford and [former president and ceo of Gucci Group] Domenico De Sole.”
The label has been dogged with talk of Philo’s departure since 2015. A raft of designer exits including Raf Simons from Dior and Alber Elbaz from Lanvin fueled such speculation, prompting the company last year to issue an internal memo signed by Philo and Gobbetti — who was still running Céline at the time — attesting to their commitment to working together.
Gobbetti said last month he had launched the process to find a successor to Christopher Bailey, who will officially leave Burberry at the end of 2018 after a 16-year tenure of designing for Britain’s largest luxury brand. Bailey’s last collection for the label will be shown in February, while an in-house design team is already preparing to take care of Burberry’s September collection.
Gobbetti has declined to comment on whether Philo is in the running. Market speculation about Gobbetti’s future choice — who will be charged with forging a new luxury template for the brand that would appeal to the new, laid-back luxury customer — has also included Elbaz, Kim Jones, Riccardo Tisci, Tomas Maier and Stuart Vevers.
The news of Philo’s departure from Céline throws added uncertainty into the designer market, which is already rife with rumors amidst the wide selection of potential candidates for big-name labels.
Veteran talents on the market include Stefano Pilati, who exited the Ermenegildo Zegna Group in 2016; Peter Dundas, who was let go by Roberto Cavalli in 2016 and recently launched his own label; ex-Givenchy couturier Tisci, who remains on the sidelines — but still works with Nike — after his Versace gig fell through, and Elbaz, who has been keeping a low profile after leaving Lanvin, although he’s said to be working on a project in London.
There are also fashion’s rising stars such as Simon Porte Jacquemus or behind-the-scenes talent Ilaria Icardi, a former design director at Céline who is currently the design director at Victoria Beckham.
Sources familiar with Céline also believe that Michael Rider, who has been working closely with Philo as design director, ready-to-wear, at the company, is also a strong candidate as is Jonathan Anderson, who is currently creative director of the LVMH-owned Loewe, and the man behind the J.W. Anderson label.
LVMH has already been talking to deputy designers at a wide swathe of fashion houses, although it remains to be seen whether they’ll take a chance on a relative unknown. “LVMH is very rarely tempted by a number two,” said one headhunter, who asked not to be named.
Gallagher is putting her bets on Coca, who has been with Mulberry since July 2015, and who has in the past worked for Bally and Louis Vuitton on accessories. “It would be kind of a coup….He’s done an amazing job at Mulberry, and we insiders know that he was behind the big build up of accessories at Céline,” she said.
A Mulberry spokesperson declined to comment on the details of Coca’s contract.
“I see the trajectory of a person with all that experience, and having created all that revenue that made the brand so much bigger than it was when he and Phoebe and Marco Gobbetti first joined it. Having been the creative director of accessories, which was really the backbone of the brand during his tenure, it would make sense to me that they would want him back again,” Gallagher added.
As for Philo’s future, Gallagher concurred it was not likely she would go anywhere soon, citing a likely long non-compete agreement.
“Phoebe is kind of a wild card,” Gallagher noted.
Luca Solca, luxury goods analyst with Exane BNP Paribas, had some specific ideas of where Philo could land: “I think she would be perfect for Chanel or Bottega Veneta — Phoebe has proven to be exceptionally talented when it comes to create a blockbuster high-end handbag style (like Trapeze, for example). With their icons seemingly tired, both Chanel and BV would need that capability a lot. Someone who can create chapter two for matelassé or tressé.”
Like Céline, those two labels face a highly competitive landscape with a number of luxury brands setting their sights on the fast-growing Chinese market.
In a study last month, analysts at Bernstein noted the diverging brand momentum in China, citing star brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Fendi as powering ahead while Chanel is one of the more “flattish” brands, and Céline, Burberry and Bottega Veneta among the “sluggish” labels there.
Gearing up for the technologically astute Chinese consumer, Céline launched a WeChat account in that market last month. Traditionally reluctant to embrace the digital sphere, Céline established an Instagram account in February and launched its first e-commerce site in France earlier this month with plans to extend it to Europe and the U.S. next year, followed by Japan in 2019.