Phoebe Philo's Return Could be a Turning Point for Fashion

As the much-imitated designer prepares a comeback, here’s why the launch is so significant.

Fashion 
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It’s official: Phoebe Philo is returning to fashion. More than three-and-a-half years since she stepped down from CELINE (or Céline, as it was styled during her tenure), the British designer has announced plans for her own label. The house will be partially backed by LVMH, with more details set to arrive in early 2022.

In a short statement announcing the move, Philo said, “Being in my studio and making once again has been both exciting and incredibly fulfilling, I am very much looking forward to being back in touch with my audience and people everywhere. To be independent, to govern and experiment on my own terms is hugely significant to me.”

While Philo is looking forward to being back in touch with her audience, it’s safe to assume that her audience is excited at her return. In the intervening years since she left CELINE, the @oldceline Instagram account — dedicated to her 10 year tenure from 2008 to 2018 — has amassed 377,000 followers, while as recently as 2018, Philo-era CELINE pieces surged by 30% in resale value.

“Being in my studio and making once again has been both exciting and incredibly fulfilling, I am very much looking forward to being back in touch with my audience and people everywhere.”

Beyond that, the influence of her CELINE work has rippled across the industry since she stepped down. The clearest example is at Bottega Veneta, which has experienced a resurgence under Daniel Lee, who previously served as the ready-to-wear director at CELINE alongside Philo. While his work at Bottega Veneta is different — clean and minimal designs are paired with more overtly sexual and humorous touches — there is a clear influence from the minimal and mature designs that Philo championed. LVMH Prize and CFDA nominee Peter Do also cut his teeth working alongside Philo.

Although her return is widely clamored-for — and her CELINE-era aesthetic is still influential — there’s no guarantee that Philo’s new label will simply be a return to those glory years. Prior to the announcement, Speculation was rife that Philo was working on an eco-focused collection of basics. Her work has also evolved considerably from her Chloé tenure (she was Stella McCartney’s assistant from 1997 until 2001, before taking over as Creative Director until 2006) to her time at CELINE, so who’s to say it wouldn’t change again? As The New York Times put it, Philo’s decision to return is “presumably because she has something entirely new to say, for a new world.”

In the years that Philo has been away, luxury fashion has headed in a radically different direction from the minimal and understated approach she is known for. Houses from Dior to Louis Vuitton have continued to blur any existing boundaries with streetwear, while Gucci and Balenciaga have perfected the art of branding — particularly in their recent logo-heavy “hacking” of each other. CELINE, meanwhile, has headed in exactly the direction one would expect under the guidance of Hedi Slimane: slim-cut, youth-focused, and distinctively branded.

But Philo helming her own line could also represent a shift in the wider industry. Throughout her hiatus, Philo has been speculatively linked with almost every major fashion house — from Burberry to Givenchy — and as her statement said, “to be independent, to govern and experiment on my own terms is hugely significant to me.” While LVMH is backing the project, it is understood that the label will sit outside the group, and Bernard Arnault was keen to describe it as Philo’s “entrepreneurial adventure.”

This is a significant shift, which could break the established coterie at the top of luxury fashion. Until now, designers have often risen through the ranks with the hope of landing a Creative Directorship — generally at one of few storied houses, which rotate through designers on a regular basis.This is true of Philo’s own career, as well as that of a new generation of disruptive and exciting designers from Virgil Abloh to Demna Gvasalia. At the same time, LVMH took a bold move in 2017, backing Rihanna’s entry into luxury fashion through her label FENTY. The line lasted less than two years. But by branching out under her own name, and with some degree of independence, Philo could prove that another career path is possible.

“To be independent, to govern and experiment on my own terms is hugely significant to me.”

Currently, there are scarce details about the label. The statement explained that it will be of “exceptional quality,” which many have taken to mean that it will be priced at the higher end of luxury fashion, especially given the astronomical price points of Philo’s CELINE. Others have speculated that there will be some sort of sustainability focus, and that Philo may introduce menswear. While she is best known as a womenswear designer, Philo’s CELINE collections were equally adored by men — including Kanye West, who referenced Philo in lyrics and wore a CELINE silk blouse on stage at Coachella in 2011.

Whatever direction Phoebe Philo takes her new label in, it’s an important return for the fashion industry. The designer — described by The New York Times as “the patron saint of designing for the female gaze” — left behind a devoted audience, many of whom feel underserved by fashion as it is in 2021.

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