It’s Phoebe Philo Season  – What does her work mean to New Zealand fashion designers?

Following both the success and speculation of Phoebe Philo’s eponymous label launch, FashioNZ asks some of our leading fashion designers to share how she has influenced their work – in the past, present and, perhaps, future.

When Phoebe Philo’s website first appeared in August, offering nothing but a serifed logo and a sign-up form, FashioNZ asked: “Will Phoebe Philo immediately reclaim her place at the top of the modern tailoring podium? Or will the styles and silhouettes she pioneered, now adopted en masse, just mean more wide-legged pants wade through?”

Following six years of anticipation after she left her last fashion post as creative director at Celine, and three further months waiting for her new website to go live, Phoebe Philo – finally – launched her namesake brand on October 30. The first direct-to-shopper edit A1 showcased 150 seasonless styles, produced in numbers “notably less than anticipated want,” as the brand factsheet foretold. This, it said, was “a responsible balance between production and demand” – although such scarcity did lead to a fashion frenzy, with many Philophiles going into overdrive and overdraft to purchase a special piece.

According to fashion watcher @stylenotcom, the fastest-selling piece was a silver necklace that spelt MUM over and over, and which sold out in 15 minutes. The next was the ski goggle-esque sunglasses in black. Then, perfectly dropped jeans in a black cotton drill and drop trousers in grey pinstripe wool. In the first hour, half of the collection sold out. At the time of filing this story, 11 pieces are not in the red.

Throughout her career, the English fashion designer has let her clothes do the talking. There has been no show or spectacle – and only a tight handful of critics were allowed to preview the collection in person.

“Almost as soon as I began pulling out the clothes, I had the impression that I was seeing something completely new and, more, that fashion had taken a big step forward,” wrote the sometimes-scathing Cathy Horyn for The Cut. “It was the kind of movement that people have been waiting for. And I must admit that her ideas made the work of some of her peers look rather contrived.”

After an audience with the designer, editor-at-large for Business of Fashion and FashioNZ contributor Tim Blanks noted: “There’s the luxe minimalism she was known for at Celine, but also a raw, shredded edge which breaks with her immediate past.”

Philo’s body of work is an exercise in restraint and release – from thoughtful everyday tailoring to feathered and fringed coats. Her models walked assuredly down the Celine runway in ‘ugly’ fluffy shoes, so that brands like The Row and Loewe could run in complete toe cleavage heels and rose-instead-of-a-heel pumps, respectively. Yes, there is irreverence in her collection – but Philo is known for making clever clothes for clever dressers. “I’ve always had a sense that if I can’t wear it, what’s the point?” she told The New York Times in a rare interview in 2010.

Philo’s return to the industry as a 50-year-old female founder (Philo manages the company but has a minority investment from LVMH) is a point of difference to note in the industry.

This past fashion month, several new creative directors made their debuts for major luxury houses – Peter Hawkings followed in the footsteps of his predecessor at Tom Ford, Sabato De Sarno at Gucci harked back to the Tom Ford-era for the brand, and Simone Bellotti joined Bally fresh on the heels of his role at Gucci. Rather full-circle, if not exclusionary. 

Then, after a tearful farewell to Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen (including a single tear from Naomi Campbell on the runway) Seán McGirr was named as her replacement, as a relative newcomer, and another young, white male.

While Chloé (a label that Philo worked at for five years) has appointed Chemena Kamali as another female creative director, succeeding Gabriella Hearst, Philo’s new venture is one of the few female-led labels in the upper echelons. However, for some fashion followers, the launch fell short. “Imagine starting a brand in the year of our lord 2023 and not considering size diversity,” wrote Vogue stylist and editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson on Instagram, of the clothing range that extends to size 14. 

Tim Blanks, Editor-at-large of The Business Of Fashion

For those who are used to high prices and limited sizes in the luxury fashion space, the launch was still an exciting entry. “There’s too much detail for the collection to be considered a blank slate of any kind. Think of it more as a tapestry out of which she will tease threads across her coming edits,” concluded Tim Blanks. “And, bearing in mind the power of the unique connection Philo has with her fanbase, exactly how this will enhance that relationship is going to be the running watch-this-space story of the year to come.”

With Philo, the work is always personal. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the launch was closely watched by some of our leading fashion designers – each with a unique connection to her work.

Anna Murray of Laing

“I have been influenced by Phoebe’s approach towards designing clothes that women can wear at any time of the day and at any age,” says Anna Murray of Laing. “Her designs give women options – to casualise or elevate depending on your styling options. Always luxurious, but versatile too. Often referred to for her minimalist approach, she also can be playful and bold. Her work at Chloé showed that and again now with her own label with the Zipped trouser and the Dahlia brooch.”

The Zipped trouser, may we add, can be zipped up to show off a heel, a calf, or, deviantly, continue all the way up. The Dahlia brooch (still available) is oversized and made of ‘spiked tubular organza’ – stretching out playfully on the shoulder like a pet.

Rebe Burgess of Rebe

While these designs are daring, most of the collection is unwaveringly wearable. “I resonate with her design philosophy: that clothes are meant to be worn,” says Rebe of contemporary womenswear label Rebe Burgess. “She has always created pieces that are functional, modern, and will live in the wearer’s closet for years to come.”

This balance – and emphasis – on form and function has informed Rebe’s first ready-to-wear collection, Resort ’24. “For instance, a quality piece of outerwear like our classic blazer or trench coat not only looks elevated but is versatile. These pieces can be easily styled with various combinations to enhance the wearer’s everyday experience.”

Liam Bowden, Deadly Ponies’ creative director and founder

Philo’s impact on minimal and often oversized bags is still being felt in the trickle-down effect of fashion today. “From an accessories point of view, her influence has been defining an entire category and shape that has filtered through every company, including us,” says Deadly Ponies’ creative director and founder Liam Bowden.

Deadly Ponies’ throw-it-all-in Bellboy tote is inspired by Philo’s large Cabas bag designs for Celine. Interestingly, at this tenure, Philo had the chance to pull from heritage brand pieces and modernise them. “It will be interesting to see how she might re-interpret the style she’s introduced in a new and more exciting way down the track,” adds Bowden of her new work. “Her previous designs, on first inspection, were very minimal and plain – so who knows, in two years’ time, everyone could be carrying a bag like that [XL Cabas].”

<em>Lauren Tapper, Creative Director of Harris Tapper</em>

The Phoebe Philo effect is all-encompassing. “Phoebe’s influence has permeated perhaps beyond actual product and into how we view clothing as an extension of ourselves,” says creative director of Harris Tapper, Lauren Tapper. “Personally, we (alongside many, many others) have found her influence heaviest in imagery, mood and sensibility; her work feeds the customer looking for an anti-male gaze, understated and subversively feminine approach to presenting oneself.”

While Bowden acknowledges that Philo’s artistic-led approach to design has been embraced by luxury brands in her absence – and those with larger retail footprints, advertising budgets and marketing teams to capitalise on product successes – she still has a strong, and patient, customer base who want to see her rise back to the top. 

“Coming onto the scene, she’s got a dedicated customer base that’s been waiting years for this moment – that is exciting and cool,” says Bowden, who is keeping his fingers crossed for a Philo menswear moment. “I don’t think she’ll be able to get there as quickly as she was able to with Celine. It’s more of a 10-year proposition.”