Invisible. That is what Phoebe Philo’s clothes for Céline make you feel. Not romantic, like Valentino. Or dark and edgy, like Saint Laurent. Simply invisible. A woman in a perfectly cut shirt and a pair of pants. And, oh, what a relief! Because we are busy. We work. We wipe our children’s mouths with the backs of our hands as we rush out the door. We don’t have time to consider whether our prints match or our buttons align. To try on different outfits each morning, like so many different personalities. To fuss and preen. That seems silly, somehow weak. Despite Philo’s many best efforts, there is a Céline uniform: large, slouchy trousers; a collarless shirt; flats; a tuxedo jacket — preferably in navy, black or cream. The clothes are quiet and not meant to make a statement. And so you look invisible. Able to be viewed for more than your surface appearance. This is power dressing.
The idea that quiet fashion now conveys power is ironic, given that for years that spot has been defined by bright colors, broad shoulders, wide lapels, cinched waistlines — caricatures of exaggerated severity. Since Philo took over as creative director of Céline six years ago, she has consistently designed collections that have changed the course of fashion, steering women toward a more classic and practical way of dressing. There are many designers who make beautifully constructed clothes of the highest quality, Philo among them. But her specialness lies in synthesizing how women want to dress with how they actually live their lives. And how we want to see ourselves: sophisticated, knowledgeable, not victimized by fashion. Increasingly, comfort is the ultimate commodification of luxury. At Céline, this has translated into silk pants that puddle at the ankles, roomy coats that borrow from men’s wear, even fur-lined Birkenstocks.
More concerned with the subtraction of details than with their addition, Philo is often labeled a minimalist. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Open a wool coat, and the seams are lined in rubber. Notice how a cashmere sweater is knit so densely that it hangs away from the body. (The main criticism against Céline is that the clothes are too expensive. For that, we now have Zara.) Yet as subtle as the Céline code is, each season there are giveaways that are recognizable to those in the know, such as a longer sleeve or a topcoat without a closure. Things look accidental but are actually entirely purposeful.
Adding to the Céline mystique is the designer herself. For anyone who follows fashion, it’s impossible to think of the French house without first thinking of Philo. She’s the best advertisement for the brand. A mother of three who quit the top position at Chloé, in part to spend time with her new daughter, then famously refused to relocate her family from London to Paris when she got the Céline job, she has firmly prioritized what matters most. Her intentionally mousy hair and no makeup are the mark of a woman who relies on more than looks to get her way. And she rarely talks to the press, preferring that her collections speak for themselves — which, of course, is its own brilliant marketing tool. But, really, what would she say? That she’s a woman who thinks about women? That she was inspired by these modern times we live in? That’s already abundantly clear. Ultimately, for Philo, it’s about the work. And isn’t that what all of us ever hope to say?
Whitney Vargas is deputy editor of The New York Times fashion and lifestyle publication T Magazine.