What's the difference between Phoebe Philo and Hedi Slimane?

READ| 15 September 2018

Text: Martin Hufnagel
Title Photo: Dongo Ndimba

As fast as the designer carousel turned during the last summer season, I concluded that 'All things remain the same, everyone is still here even if they work for another fashion house' – this was nearly true with one important difference. After 10 years, Phoebe Philo quit her job as the head of design at Céline. At first, it was thought that she would take over Christopher Bailey’s job as Burberry’s designer, but when it was announced that Ricardo Tisci was joining the traditional British company, it became clear that this was it (at least for the time being). To me, it sounded final and hit me way more than, for example, the announcement of Colette’s closure a few weeks before this.

Just shortly after this, the announcement that no other than Hedi Slimane would be her successor kicked off another reaction of mixed emotions. Change is part of the fashion DNA, but the speed of change with designers going from house to house increased appreciably. Here’s a small overview of the past 2 years: Raf Simons went from Dior to Calvin Klein; Alexander Wang left Balenciaga and made way for Demna Gvasalia; Dior hired Maria Grazia Chiuri, their first female creative director throughout its 70-year-old history; Haider Ackermann left Berluti, and his successor is Kris Van Assche who relinquished his position at Dior Homme; Kim Jones switched from Louis Vuitton to Dior Homme, and the name of the French House was displayed in every headline when they appointed Vigil Abloh from Off White as their new designer.

By changing their designer, a brand is likely to hit the headlines and gain the attention of customers. There’s the exciting question: how will the particular designer interpret the brand? All eyes are set on the first collection, in which the designer has to solve the field of tension between his own aesthetic and the previous aesthetic of the fashion house, preferably in such an impressive way that the pictures from the first campaign or the runway show stand out from the rest of the content on social media.

There’s not a lot of time to develop and build a sustainable and diverse aura for a brand, but that’s not important. That’s how during the past seasons a new stylistic device was applied by new designers, by changing the lettering of the brand into something new or by falling back on one found in the label’s archive. The new branding is a good way to attract potential buyers of the new logo t-shirt, at least for the current season. Certainly, it takes an original aesthetic to build a loyal customer and fan base. It’s the highest art in a time where the main focus is to know at which house a designer operates, and to agree with a popular opinion that tells you whether what he does is relevant or already over. 

Hedi Slimane
Credit: Getty Images

Phoebe Philo
Credit: Andrea Spotorno

During her 10 year stint at Céline, Phoebe Philo was able to create exactly such loyalty. The brand, which was founded in 1946 and started with making kids shoes, hired her in 2008 to breathe life into the company and make it relevant again. If you followed her work at Chloé, where she designed between 2006 and 2008, you could already get a taste of talent. 

Since her first collection at Céline, she hasn’t left any room for doubt: She has delivered timeless yet contemporary fashion for women. On its own, the choice of colours that she used or combined was able to raise the wearer’s self-esteem and the observer’s desire, while other brands capitalised more obviously on 'sex sells'. This way, you were able not only to recognize Céline’s key pieces, like the bags, the suits or the dresses, but also by examining closely the language of Philo.

Her creations build a bridge between the fashion runway and everyday life. In October 2012, she paved the way for Birkenstocks to be worn outside of the apartment and doctor’s practice onto the feet of fashion-conscious people. She decorated the classic black Arizona sandal with fur lining and sent them down the runway.

Her own outfits, eagerly awaited and viewable only shortly after she received the applause at the end of a show, also inspired a lot of women. Her appearance in white Stan Smith sneakers not only brought a lot of women down from high heels into more comfortable shoes, but also kicked off an omnipresence of sneakers due to their new social acceptance. Of course it should also be noted that by choosing Joan Didion as her model for the Spring/Summer 2015 campaign, she repealed the age limit and made clear: Céline is a feeling and it’s not addressed to a certain group. 

That’s why so many were left stunned when her departure was announced.

Céline, Fall 2011
Credit: Courtesy of Céline

Céline, Fall 2016
Credit: Courtesy of Céline

Phoebe Philo wearing Stan Smiths
Credit: Courtesy of Céline

Her successor Hedi Slimane is not in the slightest less talented, but is known for a different approach. Already at Dior, and more obviously years later at Yves Saint Laurent, he produced the image of a young, new, brand – not only by eliminating the 'Yves' in the brand’s name. Skinny and ripped jeans, leopard prints, perfecto leather jackets and his interpretation of Vans slip-ons dominated the public perception of his fashion shows at Saint Laurent. Quickly, he was accused of leading the brand in a direction that spoke only to a younger audience by using references to the grunge or rock ‘n roll eras. Nevertheless, he followed the path undisturbed and did what he does best as a designer and gifted photographer: He creates an image. 

In the right context, every fashion garment can become an iconic piece. The known fast-fashion brands were able to quickly copy these garments, and the image of the Saint Laurent look circulated even faster. Sales increased rapidly, and Kering, the company behind Saint Laurent, was appeased and moved over to make another of its brands great again by hiring a hyped designer (Balenciaga).

Saint Laurent Campaign
Credit: Courtesy of Saint Laurent

With Hedi Slimane as the head of design and the previous image of Céline, characterised by Phoebe Philo, 2 different worlds meet. Not only because he narrowed his models, while she gave them more space through wide sleeves. Not because it wasn’t possible to buy Celine online and the brand counted on covetousness through scarcity, while Saint Laurent was available at every relevant e-commerce platform. She conveyed a feeling with Celine, he portrayed an image with Saint Laurent.

Already before the first show, factors like the extension of Celine’s product range with a men and cosmetics line, or Slimane’s switch from Kering over to the rival concern LVHM increased the excitement. It won’t be until the 28th of September, the day of the show in Paris, that we’ll get an impression of whether Hedi Slimane will keep his key to success or has another ace up his sleeve that we don’t know about yet.