Phoebe Philo, Celine’s creative force, gives buttoned-up D.C. a Parisian update

October 7, 2011

Paris was burning.

The city of light seemed ablaze, at least, with temperatures approaching 90 degrees. The threat of unsavory sweat rings forced the fashion industry to amend its season-strict wardrobes at Paris Fashion Week. Attendees abandoned fur flourishes intended for front-row displays, replacing them with (gasp!) resort collections.

L‘été indien!” — Indian summer, they fumed, fanning themselves with embossed invitations.

But front row at Christian Dior, Glenda Bailey, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, glowed in a color-blocked dress from Céline’s fall collection. The garment hung loose off her shoulders and body, accomplishing what Phoebe Philo, Céline’s creative director, intended it to do. Unlike others baking in the tent outside the Rodin Museum, Bailey looked professional and surprisingly comfortable in the long-sleeved shift, despite tropical temperatures.

“It is very hot, but this is an easy shape for the day,” Bailey said. “Phoebe really understands lines and proportions. It’s that understated aesthetic. It sums up where she is now as a woman.”

Philo is now in a place that any designer would envy: at the helm of a house she transformed. After just five seasons at Céline, she reinvigorated a struggling, second-tier French label through minimalist, androgynous separates that resonate with a legion of professional women who adore her no-fuss approach.

While the Céline label is relatively hard to find in the United States, with only one boutique in Bal Harbour in Miami Beach and a New York flagship on the way, Hu’s Wear in Georgetown and Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase carry Céline apparel and accessories. They’re finding that the collections blend well with Washington’s buttoned-up brand of power dressing.

Philo designs understated separates best described using the terminology of bespoke (custom British-style) tailoring. Her almost spartan style fits both front rows and congressional hearings equally. That’s because where the industry sees Philo’s signature, others see simplicity and discretion. She designs clothes for the Christine Lagardes and Huma Abedins of Washington: women who work, travel and lead with poise. Even presidential candidate Michele Bachmann could don a $2,700 Céline dress without the risk of alienating voters. Few could identify the pricy purchase without peeking at the label.

Philo, the 37-year-old Brit and former creative director of Chloé, has devotees who cross cultures and genders. (She counts Anna Wintour and Kanye West as fans.) The notoriously private designer rarely does interviews and declined to speak with The Washington Post for this article. But her reclusive personality boils over into her designs, with her own desire for anonymity influencing the subtlety of her work.

Paris, meet Washington

In a back corner of Hu’s Wear in Georgetown, Dwayne Brice holds a plain sleeveless black dress. The darts are invisible to those who lack 20-20 vision, and yet, that’s why this $1,800 Céline sheath has sold well in Washington.

“I’ve seen so many different women try this dress on,” said Brice, an assistant buyer at the boutique. “It looks exactly the same on every woman, no matter her shape. It’s almost as though [Philo] is forcing women to take the shape she wants them to have.”

That concept is novel in women’s wear. It’s universally assumed that a suit makes the man. A sharp tailor can make any man’s build appear commanding. In women’s wear, the opposite tends true. Countless books are dedicated to dressing to one’s shape. Pear. Athletic. Curvy. Top-heavy. The idea that women can have one silhouette, as men do, is innovative. Philo’s ready-to-wear designs provide women with the masculine solution just by offering tailored, architectural pieces that stray from traditional hourglass proportions.

“Céline seemed like a natural fit for the Washingtonian aesthetic,” said Marlene Hu Aldaba, owner of Hu’s Wear. “There are always clever details that enhance the fit of the pieces, whether it be a carefully placed dart or seam. Her silhouette is modern but designed with women in mind.”

Unlike in New York, Miami or Los Angeles, Washington has always frowned upon ostentation. While the oversized Gucci belt or bag is prevalent among college students and international transplants, these types tend to leave quietly, taking their label-conscious looks with them.

Brice pinpoints why Washingtonians are attracted to Philo’s designs: “In D.C., there’s money, but people are interested in luxury without labels,” Brice said. “Céline embodies that style: amazing fabrics, great tailoring, but you don’t know who it’s designed by. That style goes hand-in-hand with Washington. People don’t want to be identified by brand.”

Hu’s Wear is tight-lipped about the clients who’ve bought pieces from them, but they say the clientele spans the spectrum of Washington elites — business women, socialites and working mothers who like the easy elegance of the collection.

“Céline is appropriate for women in many different industries. There’s nothing flashy about it,” said Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, which carries Céline ready-to-wear and accessories at their Chevy Chase location. “Women who work in creative industries like the arts can wear [Philo’s] designs, but conservative industries — lawyers, politicians, doctors — can wear Céline, too. There’s a range in what she does, which makes her clothes appeal to women on very different levels.”

From menswear to everywhere

Over recent seasons, Philo altered the female silhouette, emphasizing structure for the womanly build. Cinched waists are largely absent from Céline designs, although for spring, Philo mixed in thick belts reminiscent of ’50s couture. For fall, Philo ignored the hourglass, taking inspiration from the straight, geometric shapes of cars.

Céline’s Spring 2012 collection is an extension of Philo’s streamlined approach, and once again, she emphasized a distinct shape. At last Sunday’s show, she continued her silent revolution in shape focusing largely on new proportions in the shoulders. With sharp pleated skirts, square-cut blouses that allow stomachs to exhale, billowy wide-legged pants and rounded sleeves in neutral hues, she provided separates that seem tailored specifically for the Washington woman.

“Every fashion-forward D.C. gal will be drooling over the shirtdresses and jackets,” said Glamour editor in chief Cindi Leive after attending Céline’s show. “(Philo designed] power shoulders, but not of the ’80s variety. These have a modern look. Men in the office will simply see you as professionally, conservatively dressed. But the women will know you’re working a fashion look.”

Many designers championed architectural shapes this season.

At Lanvin, models wore loose cream deconstructed tuxedos, pencil skirts adorned with hard metal accents and double-breasted blazers cut with angular, sleeveless shoulders that revealed thick padding. Linear jackets with tails meshed well with a soundtrack that, at one point, played, “Here I stand, I’m your man.”

Haider Ackermann designed a collection of vibrant-hued separates worn with backless loafers and loose fabrics. The 18th-century poet Lord Byron served as inspiration, showing that jaunty charm fits modern girls and boys.

Jean Paul Gaultier’s over-the-top collection of reimagined trenches and open, wide-legged pants revealed pantaloons that poked fun at the conservatism of menswear. A French narrator playfully announced the show, revealing anecdotes about the models’ masculine counterparts: “If she were a man, she’d be Alfred Hitchcock,” she teased as one waif took stride.

It is slightly ironic that structured, ready-to-work styles from tuxedos to accessories have dominated the past few seasons in Paris. Throughout the global recession, designers pushed menswear separates for women in management, just as employment became more and more elusive. The trend is slowly morphing into a definitive aesthetic that could become the hallmark of the recession era.

It’s not surprising, as French fashion has always played to women’s deepest longings. Designers once translated fantasy into flouncy floral dresses or silk shorts suited for yachting the Cote d’Azur. Paris did not forget leisure this season, with Christian Dior and Nina Ricci showcasing collections of revealing, sheer negligee gowns fit for the traditional luxury consumer.

But with employment becoming a global aspiration, idleness and sex appeal — once embedded in French design — seem less pronounced in collections. Perhaps because, for many modern, recession-weary women, these attributes are less fantastical than occupying the corner office.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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