PARIS, France — Céline creative director Phoebe Philo has informed her team that she is leaving the house after its Autumn 2018 presentation, confirming BoF's October report that first revealed Philo was exiting the company.
“Working with Céline has been an exceptional experience for me these last 10 years,” said Philo in a statement. “I am grateful to have worked with an incredibly talented and committed team and I would like to thank everyone along the way who has been a part of the collaborations and conversations… it’s been amazing.”
Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH, Céline's parent company, said: “What Phoebe has accomplished over the past 10 years represents a key chapter in the history of Céline. We are very grateful to Phoebe for having contributed to the great momentum of this maison. A new era of development for Céline will now start and I am extremely confident in the future success of this iconic maison.”
Philo, who first caught the eye of the industry at Chloé in the early 2000s, joined Céline in 2008 after a three-year hiatus spent focusing on her family. She turned the once-middling label into a fashion authority with her minimalist designs, known for their emphasis on tailoring, menswear-inspired staples and quietly dramatic silhouettes. Philo was behind many of Céline’s hit bags, including the Phantom, Trapeze and Trio.
The label’s inspired visual identity — from Juergen Teller-lensed campaigns and an updated Semplicità-font logo to the use of now-ubiquitous philodendrons (more casually referred to as a "cheese plant") — has influenced fashion, but also the greater advertising industry as well as home design.
Over the past decade, she helped lift Céline's annual sales from €200 million (about $236 million at current exchange) to more than €700 million ($828 million), according to analysts. (LVMH does not break out figures for the label.) The London-born designer won British Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in 2010 for the second time. In 2011, she received the International Award at the CFDA Fashion Awards.
But if Céline is one of LVMH’s most successful fashion brands, under Philo, one of fashion’s last techno-refuseniks, it has also been a digital laggard. The label only launched an Instagram account earlier this year, long after competitors. In November, it launched its first presence on WeChat.
And at a time when e-commerce is one of the most significant growth opportunities in a slow luxury market — over the next 10 years, McKinsey & Company expects the share of luxury sales occurring online to triple, making e-commerce the world’s third largest luxury market after China and the US — Céline only recently embraced online sales.
The brand finally launched e-commerce in France in December as part of a shift put in place by new chief executive Séverine Merle, who arrived in April, replacing Marco Gobbetti, who left to take the helm at British megabrand Burberry. Previously, Merle was the deputy of Berluti chief executive Antoine Arnault and, before that, general director of Louis Vuitton France. Céline’s digital growth is expected to accelerate in the wake of Philo's departure, as the label rolls out e-commerce sites in the rest of Europe and the US in 2018 and Japan in 2019.
Yet despite her reticence to embrace modern retail conventions — or perhaps, in part, because of it — Philo's influence on the industry dwarf's the scale of Céline's actual business. That influence reaches all the way back to the late 1990s, when Philo studied with Stella McCartney at Central Saint Martins, following the now-brand-name designer when she took the creative director job from Karl Lagerfeld at Chloé in 1997. When McCartney left Chloé to set up her own fashion label in a joint-venture with what was then called the Gucci Group, now part of the conglomerate Kering, Philo was left out of the project. Chloé's chief executive at the time, Ralph Toledano, exploited the rift to place Philo in the top job in 2001.
The designer's seminal years at Chloé, where she remained until 2006, were marked by commercial success. Philo introduced a whole new vocabulary to the style vernacular: high-waisted wide-leg trousers and jeans, gauzy bib-front blouses, chunky heels and wedge shoes, oblong leather bags with purposeful hardware and Grecian-style dresses with rustic accessories. Chloé's “Paddington" bag was one of the most successful “It” bags of the era — one of the 8,000 made in spring 2005 was spoken for before it reached the stores.
Philo's ability to simply make things women want was at the core of her success both at Chloé and later at Céline.
“I just wanted to make a pair of trousers that made my arse look good, rather than a pair that represented the Holocaust or something,” she told the Guardian in 2009, adding that her relationship with fashion is playful and expressive of what she’s feeling at the time. “For a while I thought, maybe this is some kind of lack of me knowing myself. But then I realised I was being true to myself, because I knew what I felt.”
Philo's knack for setting the aesthetic agenda is envied by designers and coveted by executives, making her one of the most sought-after talents in the industry. "I think she would be perfect for Chanel or Bottega Veneta," says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas. "Phoebe has proven to be exceptionally talented when it comes to creating blockbuster high-end handbag styles. With their icons seemingly tired, both Chanel and Bottega Veneta would need that capability."
But market sources say Philo has no plans to move immediately to another house and may simply take a break from fashion. Rumours that she could join her former chief executive Marco Gobbetti at Burberry when chief creative officer Christopher Bailey departs at the end of March 2018 appear unfounded.
As for LVMH's plans for Céline: the brand still has plenty of room to grow, and Philo's design team will continue to produce collections while the search for a replacement is completed. Names that have surfaced include Simon Porte Jacquemus and Proenza Schouler's Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, as well as former Stella McCartney design director Natasa Cagalj, who is now at Ports 1961, and Ilaria Icardi, the design director at Victoria Beckham. Whomever succeeds Philo will be challenged to contend with the designer's legacy, imprinted on the house of Céline for a decade, an admirably long tenure in an era of brisk designer turnover.