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Who Will Dress the Philophiles?

Fans and retailers alike reckon with the reality of a post-Phoebe Philo Céline, signalling opportunity for brands who could fill the gap.
Illustration by Victoria Berezhna for BoF | Images: InDigital
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — The thing many fashion followers will remember most about Phoebe Philo's Céline is the continuous stampede of It-bags. From the Phantom to Trio to the Cabas, they fuelled dozens of trends and inspired hundreds — or maybe even thousands? — of knockoffs. But for a more rarefied (and moneyed) group, it's the fashion that will conjure longing.

“I was never hooked on the handbags,” says Alyson Cafiero, a Brooklyn-based fashion and jewellery consultant. “But I was a big fan of the clothes.”

Cafiero began purchasing Céline when Philo showed her first collection for the LVMH-owned fashion house in 2009 and has continued intermittently ever since. She currently counts approximately two-dozen Céline pieces in her wardrobe, which sit alongside a collection of Alessandro Michele Gucci items that fill an entire room. As someone with "downtown" tastes who travels in "uptown" circles, Cafiero values Céline for its sophisticated, singular vision. "They're basics that are anything but basic; trendless pieces that have impeccable quality," she says. "I dress for myself, and these clothes are an extension of me."

While Cafiero has “weaved in-and-out of Céline” over the years, she started paying close attention once again when rumours of Philo’s departure from the house began surfacing in 2016. This season, she has already purchased multiple pieces, including the $590 “CÉLINE” PVC shopping tote — a deviation from her typical anti-It-bag stance — as well as a red cape-back dress ($2,450), trousers, a pair of white python Mary Janes and pair of mules. She also put in requests for a calfskin cape ($6,200) and a vest ($2,050). And she may buy more: perhaps one of the fringed pieces yet to arrive in-store.

It seems as though Cafiero and her friends are preparing for the post-Philo era at Céline — now led by Hedi Slimane — with the same fervour as conspiracy theorists stockpiling toilet paper pre-Y2K.

Polina Proshkina, a consultant who splits her time between New York and Russia, has long spent 40-50 percent of her clothing budget each year on Philo's wares. This season, she has already purchased two lingerie-inspired dresses — both $4,000 each — the new chunky calfskin sneakers ($850) in black and white, that PVC bag, a suit that she'll "cherish forever," a wrap dress in cotton micro-faille ($1,250), a "couple" of other bags, as well as another dress in viscose twill. "I absolutely bought faster and more into it in the early stages this season," Proshkina says. "I didn't want to take a chance this time."

There is a palpable nervousness amongst some Philo devotees on how they will fill their closets from here on out.

In the secondary market, one way to measure a brand’s temperature, demand for Céline is on fire. Re-commerce megaplayer The RealReal has seen unique searches for the brand increase 42 percent — and revenue increase by 60 percent — since Philo announced her departure on December 22, 2017. As a result, the site has increased prices of the most iconic styles by up to 20 percent. “Now is a great time to consign,” notes The RealReal’s chief merchant, Rati Levesque. Céline declined to reveal data on current sales momentum, but analysts put total sales for 2017 at €950 million.

Though quantitative data is hard to come by, knowing that incoming creative director Hedi Slimane's vision is likely to be drastically different from Philo's — they not only differ in aesthetic, but also in the way they fit clothes on a body — there is a palpable nervousness amongst some Philo devotees on how they will fill their closets from here on out.

These devotees are not limited to women only; over the years, Céline became an almost-secret resource for a small, but notable niche of men who dismiss ideas of gendered clothing. Philo's personal style was also a point of reference for many of her customers. A working mother of three who wore her own pieces with great frequency, iconic imagery of Philo — a 2010 shoot for Gentlewoman, her runway bow in Stan Smiths — were continually considered.

Slimane's first womenswear collection for the label will not arrive in stores until the spring of 2019, so Philophiles have time to plan their exit strategies. (On Tuesday in Paris, the brand will host an Autumn/Winter 2018 presentation designed by the in-house team. And then there is the Pre-Fall collection, images of which will be released this summer when it arrives in stores.) And while Slimane will undoubtedly turn the brand's aesthetic upside down, wiping away everything from influential store design to the logo, there is also a chance he will keep a few of the best-selling products around in his race to triple the house's revenues within five years. After all, the YSL Tribute sandal, perhaps the most identifiable item from the Stefano Pilati-era of the house, is still being produced today, years after Slimane left Saint Laurent and nearly 10 years after it was first introduced.

Which is all to say that there is still time.

“We are seeing more of a sheer panic of what’s to come, but not an uptick in sales just yet,” reports Laura Vinroot Poole, owner of the Charlotte, North Carolina, specialty retailer Capitol. “But there is that fear of the future, the fear of the unknown, the fear of life without Phoebe. Especially because Phoebe’s sensibility and minimalism is really starting to move into full swing as the antithesis to Guccification. It leaves an open wound and a corner of the market to be served.”

Phoebe's sensibility and minimalism is really starting to move into full swing as the antithesis to Guccification.

Beth Buccini, owner of specialty retailer Kirna Zabête, which has locations in Manhattan's Soho neighbourhood, East Hampton, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and Palm Beach, says that Céline is currently Kirna Zabête's best-selling brand across brick-and-mortar stores. Like Vinroot Poole, Buccini described her clients as "excited and anxious" to add to their collections. More ready-to-wear pieces have sold at this point in the season that what is typical for the brand.

As for who might be poised fill the Céline void? "I think there is a great opportunity for many female designers who have yet to fully break into mainstream or receive the respect they deserve," Buccini says. "Like Victoria Beckham, Rosetta Getty and Gabriela Hearst."

To be sure, there is a cadre of designers scratching a similar intellectual itch, most notably Jonathan Anderson at Loewe and Christophe Lemaire and Sarah-Linh Tran at Lemaire, who manage to communicate a similar aesthetic vision without making the wearer look sexless or uncomfortable.

"I like Joseph, I like Tibi, I like Regina Pyo," says Proshkina, whose impulse purchase of the year was a Schiaparelli couture gown. "I like Loewe, which is more whimsical and will replace the trendier Céline pieces. I just bought something from Gabriela Hearst. But there are slim pickings." (She's also interested to see what Michael Rider, Philo's designer director, will do in his new post at Polo Ralph Lauren.) For those who were originally drawn to Philo's meditation on minimalism, The Row is another option.

But while there are new ideas floating around, many, if not all, of these brands relied upon Philo to be their North Star. Without her agenda-setting collections, will they lose their way?

“There are so many designers, but nothing stands out,” says jewellery designer, stylist and Céline consumer Mia Fryer. “I don’t feel the same connection.” Fryer almost exclusively wears Céline shirting and suiting, counting about 35 pieces in her current wardrobe. (The rest are packed away because of an impending move to Los Angeles.) Instead, she plans on abstaining from shopping for a while in the hopes that a new designer will inspire her, or that Philo will emerge once again. “Céline is just a name,” she says. “What I like is not Céline, it’s what she creates.”

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