Goodbye Phoebe Philo: Fashion's Greatest Loss for 2018
I stopped making New Year resolutions quite a few disappointments ago. You write them out, give them form and grace and the basic respect each written piece of work deserves, and all they do is let you down.
But after the 16-car pileup that 2017 has been, alterations are in order. For one, NO more skinny jeans. Trust me when I say it’s an elaborate ploy by the pharmaceutical and clothing industries to cut off female circulation and induce breathing problems. Secondly, its time to go old-school across the board, starting by saying yes to heritage fabrics, bright colours, defined silhouettes and sleek, refreshing cuts.
Credit must be given where it is due: to the creative designers of fashion houses who decide the way we dress, and the persona we choose to embody that year. Clothes are not simply utilitarian; they define and signal to others how we wish to be perceived, and soon enough we are associated with certain colours and articles of clothing. May everyone have the self-confidence and sheer strength to brave the storm of non-conformity. But for us lesser mortals, emulation is the best survival mechanism. Yet, with the departure of Céline’s Phoebe Philo, I fear we may not have a chance at all.
Philo has served as the creative director of the French fashion house, Céline, for a decade now – a period she used to effectively turn around the fortunes of a brand that had been left to the well-intentioned but vision-less whims of Michael Kors. She guided the label to the current position it enjoys as a global trendsetter, with her ‘back-to-reality’ aesthetic. It is minimalistic and functional, without compromising on its quality or the impeccability of its execution.
Philo painted the modern woman in her own image - or rather the image she exuded to a world that had too long taken the female form and mind for granted. Gone were the days of the high maintenance, dog-in-handbag princess – she was there to dress the classic woman, confident and strong in her minimalist professionalism. Céline was now noticeable from a distance by simply the effortless cut of a trench, highlighting the grace and silhouette of the contemporary lady.
Her collections were humble, attempting but never claiming to have harnessed the necessity and beauty desired by the female force. She saw to an era of clog wearing and Paddington bag-carrying It-girls. She was the Pied Piper to a generation eager to learn.
“Philo painted the modern woman in her own image - or rather the image she exuded to a world that had too long taken the female form and mind for granted.”
But she knew her way around a flute, and played a different tune when she returned from a three-year personal leave. Philo was on a course to change the way we dressed, ever so subtly that we didn’t even realise it. The camel coat, white trainers and grey suit trousers became a regular sight and it appealed to all for reasons we weren’t able to gauge – and yet we still emulated it all. Emulated, and not copied, is an important distinction to make; Philo’s designs invite a significant degree of self-expression and adjustment. A Philo creation at the Céline atelier was not complete until it was worn by a woman of a certain worth. An inconspicuous but powerful aura of poise and ability was essential. And thus was born the uniform of the modern-day woman.
The logic behind every cut and fabric choice was clearly attuned with the needs of the working female. Less is more, and a departure from a devil-may-care attitude to one rife with seriousness, was the order of the day. One can’t help but draw comparisons between Philo and McQueen; the latter blazing the trail with a desire to dress the contemporary woman in a fear- and awe-inducing style. McQueen women wore their razor-sharp cuts and flattering yet formidable shapes with pride. The Céline girl will be subtle but never invisible.
The introduction of the collections that are nothing short of timeless classics was a much needed tutorial in how to deal with and dress for the 2009 financial crash. Wardrobes were to be stripped down to a few essentials that could carry the weight of the pressure on the market – the camel coats, silk shirts and exquisitely tailored trousers, pulled together by a simple leather bag with a gold clasp, were the only tools required. Classiness, in all its modest and simple glory, had returned and was here to stay. And this is not to say that any piece was boring – midi-skirts in two-toned panels, furry sliders, white sequined dresses and vibrant little totes ruled the runway and the streets. Hell, the more boring the shade of brown, the chicer the look.
Her collections are not intended to make us feel comfortable or secure. They are unapologetic in their appeal and the space they take up – with their big sleeves and strong shoulders. They are intended to inspire a change and a personal growth that our gender – and our world – desperately needs.
Though Philo herself remains elusive and private, the power of her persona has been strong. Her post-show bow saw Adidas Stan Smith trainers disappear off shelves – though the globally imitative teenage populace, unaffected by the Philo charm, may have had something to do with that too. Everything we know of her creative process, and the derivations we have made from studying her work, point to the constant portrayal of privacy as the new luxury. And in an age where social media has left few things truly secret and personal, this is a breath of fresh air. Self-indulgence and self-care was her mantra.
2017 has seen many a tragedy, from the devastating modern-day apartheid in Myanmar, to the catastrophic appointment of the wrong person to head a nation infamous for its baseless accusations and hidden objectives. The loss of Philo to a quiet life raising a family, and that of Burberry’s Bailey and Givenchy’s Tisci, are right up there with them.
If Philo does not return, the fashion world will have lost the likeness of Lang and Margiela, a loss of mammoth proportions. This is the end of an epoch. The loss of a gentle giant, who didn’t just make clothes for women, but used the very same women as her inspiration. She studied their routines, habits, desires and pet peeves. She fell in love with what she saw and chose to honour it as best she could by immortalizing their maturity, wisdom and unparalleled dynamism in the best way she could - in clothing.