October 8, 2010 11:02 pm

Lunch with the FT: Phoebe Philo

Céline’s creative director, who has an uncanny ability to understand what women want to wear, talks to Vanessa Friedman
Phoebe Philo

Phoebe Philo, the 37-year-old creative director of Céline, is surprisingly frail for someone who a year ago accomplished the Herculean feat of turning the river of trend and washing fashion’s Augean stables clean of decorative bling. A 2010 nominee as British Designer of the Year, she was also behind one of the most heralded collections at last week’s women’s wear shows in Paris.

Medium height, with wispy brown hair and prominent cheekbones, her thin frame swamped by a black leather jacket and a long, man’s shirt over slouchy black trousers, she can seem almost fragile. On the other hand, she has chosen St John, a restaurant in Clerkenwell, London, known for its “nose to tail” menu of offal and other meaty innards, so clearly she has a carnivorous, protein-packing side.

“Well, it’s run by a friend,” she says when she arrives in the stripped-down white space and sits at the paper-covered table. “And it has a straightforwardness that I quite like. It’s very to-the-point.”

To wit: there are “peas in the pod” on the menu. Literally. Undressed, unshelled, peas in the pod, like the kind you get in the market. Or, as Philo says, like the kind that might have “come right from the garden”. She orders some of those with fresh lemonade – the kind they make in America, with just lemon juice, water, and sugar – plus a green salad, some cured mackerel and a roast beef sandwich, because she “rather fancies some white bread”. I opt for lemonade, some cauliflower and lentils, a green salad and a cheese plate. Philo looks at me appraisingly.

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Vanessa Friedman

“Are you vegetarian?” she says. I shrug.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, twitching her mouth. Because really, we both know my dietary issues are incidental here. “The food is very good,” offers Philo, and we both look around the room. Then she adds: “I’m just not very interested in decoration.”

This is true, apparently, not only with restaurants but also, it turns out, when it comes to conversation. Philo’s speaking manner is as streamlined and plain as the gold bands on her ring finger (one thick, one thin), and when she talks it is carefully, without drama or oration – her voice is modulated, adjectives are sparing. She doesn’t babble to fill space; she’s comfortable with long pauses. She thinks things through, and that goes for the design of a shirt, as well as the place she chooses to discuss that shirt, as well as what she says about the shirt, as well as the decision to start designing that shirt in the first place.

This may seem like reading too much into a venue but I don’t think so. I think Philo knows exactly what she is doing. After all, she has earned her self-consciousness.

Born in France to British parents (her mother is a graphic designer, her father a surveyor), she grew up in London as one of three children, went to Central St Martins College of Art and Design, and famously left fashion four years ago after an enormously successful five-year stint at Chloé. She had joined the French fashion house in 1997 when her art school friend Stella McCartney was appointed creative director and brought Philo along for the ride.

Philo took the reins of Chloé in 2001 when Stella left to open her eponymous house and, for a few years, transformed the brand into a Zeitgeist-setting machine that persuaded a generation of women that they really, really wanted to dress in a combination of Bonpoint-meets-huge wooden wedges, with lacy babydoll tunics and peasant skirts (and pay a lot of money to do so).

Even more, during her time at Chloé, Philo effectively defined the “It” bag, more than doubling sales with totes featuring names such as the Paddington and the Edith. Then, after marrying her husband, art dealer Max Wigram in 2004, and having her first child, Maya, the same year, she decided she could not balance family life in London with work in Paris, which involved constant travel back and forth on Eurostar. So, despite the fact that she also won Designer of the Year at the British Fashion awards that year, she quit her job “to spend more time with her family”. This was another feat, kind of like slaying the Nemean lion, that left the fashion industry with its collective jaw on the floor: walk away from all that success? To stay home with her baby? How could she?

“Pretty easily,” she says now, efficiently shelling peas.

She took two years off, had another baby (a boy, Marlow) and, when she decided she “wanted work back in my life”, also decided it would be on her own terms. In September, 2008, she became creative director of Céline, owned by luxury goods group Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH).

What was it about Céline that made her want to return? The house, which had been bought by LVMH in 1996 for €412m, had a revolving door of designers over the years – Michael Kors was creative director from 1997-2004, followed by Roberto Menichetti, who only lasted a year, and then Menichetti’s former assistant, Ivana Omazic – and had yet to establish an identity. It was, generally, regarded as something of a lost cause. No one had any expectations of the brand, because mostly people didn’t think about the brand.

“Céline certainly didn’t mean very much to me,” Philo says, pushing aside the peas to make room for three more plates that have arrived, and forking up some lettuce. Instead of seeing the lack of signature as a problem, however, she saw it as an asset.

“When I was deciding whether or not to take the job at Céline, I didn’t really look at the history of the house,” she says. “I had other offers to come back but they weren’t right, or they wouldn’t let me stay in London, which was non-negotiable. But this would, and I liked the fact the name didn’t stand for anything any more. Yes, the stakes were higher, because everyone was looking at me, and competition is fiercer because of what happened with the economy, but I also felt: it’s really not relevant to me what Céline has been or where it has been. It will be whatever I make it for the time I’m there.”

This is something of a fashion apostasy, as one of the industry’s tenets when dealing with an older house, such as Dior or Givenchy (or Céline, which was founded by Céline Vipiana in 1945), is the extreme importance of a brand’s “DNA”, and what it means, and whether a contemporary product is true to said “DNA”. For a designer to reject that premise is, well, like cutting off the Hydra’s heads.

“I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking, ‘Is this Céline?’” Philo shrugs, finishing her mackerel, and making what is clearly an understatement. You get the sense she thinks, but wouldn’t say, that such philosophising is actually idiotic. That what matters in the end, for fish or for clothes, is not so much where something comes from but how good the final product is. It took her about six months to hammer out a contract she was happy with, one that would allow her control over both her life and her output. LVMH built her a studio in London (Céline formerly had headquarters in Paris, and all its previous designers – an American, an Italian, and a Croatian, had moved to be closer to it, as opposed to the other way around). The company closed a number of stores and destroyed all the old inventory so there was no physical reminder of what had come before. It also gave her aesthetic power.

“I felt quite clear from the offset about what I wanted to do in terms of fashion – or certainly what I didn’t want,” Philo says. “I wanted something that felt honest, that was a mixture of what I want to wear and how I want to live. I felt it needed to be quite simple and very real.”

The result was a collection of camel body suits; high-waisted, perfectly cut flares and A-line canvas miniskirts, often trimmed in black leather; and oversized crisp white shirts. These were so different from what had come before – both from Philo at Chloé and from every other designer in the leopard-spotted, Swarovski-trimmed bubble years – that it sent the industry into yet another orgy of adoration, and once again established Philo as a designer with an uncanny ability to understand what women such as her wanted to wear. (And she does wear her own clothes; the man’s shirt she’s wearing is from her pre-spring 2011 collection. She says “about half her wardrobe” is now Céline.)

Collection number two, which also featured her ingenious way with a knit, was in the same vein, as was collection three, which just made its bow in Paris, in which Philo loosened her own rigorous silhouette to allow for slouchy silk trousers, and replaced evening gowns with black-tie jumpsuits. Her first advertising campaign, which featured a group of models cut off at the chin and neck, and, most shockingly, was not airbrushed or altered in any way, was conceived to “make the product the star. It was not about lifestyle. It was about clothes: Boom. This is it. No smokescreens.” She has never hired a celebrity to be a brand “ambassador”. She doesn’t even like to use the word “brand”, preferring “house”.

“It’s very old-fashioned as an approach, I guess. It was very important to me that with Céline we went step by step, with no giant strategic plan. I feel very much that I am a human being, with human limitations, and I need to respect that.”

Apparently, her limitations also include her stomach. When her sandwich arrives – two large slices of farm bread and one small piece of roast beef in between – she looks at it, sighs and says: “I didn’t realise how filling this would be.” She then dissects the creation and remakes it to her own, more streamlined, specifications, so only one piece of bread houses the beef.

“Time is my biggest luxury,” she says. “Finding time to do things outside of fashion, which I think for a designer is incredibly important.” She takes her children to school, getting to the office at about 10am, and is home to put them to bed. “It never feels easy,” she says.

Away from work, she spends a lot of time watching the news and reading newspapers in bed. In their actual paper incarnation. She does not spend a lot of time hanging out online and has not embraced the virtual world the way so many of her fashion peers have, either personally or professionally. She is not on Facebook. “I couldn’t think of anything worse,” she says. “I’d rather walk down the street naked. I don’t use it and I don’t communicate with my friends like that. I just don’t have the desire to have that much contact with anyone who isn’t my family and friends.”

“I always wanted to do something you could take home at the end of the day,” she says, rejecting coffee and dessert. “My happiest memories at school are of art. This is just an extension of that. I mean, I love the idea of turning an idea into something women wear.”

As transformations go, it sounds almost mythical.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor. Trends from Paris fashion week

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St John

26 St John Street, London EC1M 4AY

Peas in the pod £4.00

Cauliflower & lentils £6.00

Pickled mackerel £7.10

Cheese plate £9.00

Beef sandwich £6.50

Fresh lemonade x3 £5.10

Bottle of sparkling water £3.00

Green salad x2 £9.00

Total (including service) £49.70

..................................................

From ‘It’ bags to camel coats, Phoebe Philo’s greatest hits

The Chloé Paddington bag

Philo was responsible for several seminal fashion trends during her time at Chloé but none was more powerful than her “It” bag. Arriving in stores in March 2005, the Chloé Paddington, which cost £750, was essentially a satchel. Philo added her trademark twist by combining it with tough brass buckles and a chunky padlock – only the lucky owner had access to this little piece of luxury courtesy of the accompanying key. Dozens of high street spin-offs and lengthy waiting lists were spawned.

The Chloé babydoll dress

Philo’s aesthetic at Chloé was simple: it was pretty, feminine and easy to wear. Each piece, however, possessed an ironic touch. Take the popular, and much copied, babydoll dress: emerging on the spring 2006 catwalk with puffed sleeves, a high waist and hemline, and in virginal silk, it was girly through and through until you got to the heavy-duty footwear (see the stacked heel). Here was how grown women did girly.

The Chloé stacked heel

After years of the spindly stiletto heel, Philo took a chance and broke rank, twinning her airy smock dresses with something a little clumpier. Stacked wooden heels and wedges appeared on sandals, lace-up shoes, and knee-length brown leather boots, affording Chloé fans and women everywhere some much needed comfort and pavement stability.

The Céline leather T-shirt

Leather and T-shirt were two words that tended not to be seen in the same sentence before Philo turned up at Céline. At the spring 2010 catwalk, her first show for the French fashion house, they were teamed up: square, sleek, in black and then olive green. As far as durability and utility were concerned, a stronger statement could not have been made. Wallis, Marks and Spencer and Dorothy Perkins were quick to follow up with their own cut-price versions (the Céline version cost £1,978) as leather finally made it into the mainstream.

The Céline camel coat

Few items lend a woman’s wardrobe more sophistication than the camel coat – and Philo knows it. What’s more – she knew it before the others did. Camel was everywhere in her first Céline collection, and then in her pre-autumn 2010 line, it appeared: a straight-cut camel coat with wool panelling costing £2,442. Weeks later on the autumn 2010 catwalk, camel coats were everywhere. Philo’s ability to know what women want – even before they do – has become her greatest asset.

Nicola Copping

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