a real life
interview by TIM BLANKS
portrait and unplublished pictures of recent CÉLINE campaigns by JUERGEN TELLER
For years we’ve wanted to interview Phoebe Philo for Purple, and we are extremely happy that the British designer is finally ready to tell us more about her current state of mind. Formerly Creative Director at Chloé, she decided to take a two-year hiatus from fashion to devote time to her family. Once back at work, she took over and entirely reinvented the French fashion house Céline, creating lines of clothing that are fresh, unconventional, totally modern, elegantly sexy, visually surprising, and perfectly classic in an understated Parisian way that we like and admire. This is not only the result of her personal talent: Phoebe Philo has a strong work ethic and an uncompromising attitude that comes from the ’90s, when she got her rigueur and an obession for what she calls “real women.” Tim Blanks met her in her London studio, right after she showed her first collection following the birth of her third child. “I’m happy to be part of the conversation, but I do believe it’s all in the clothes, that stuff,” says Philo just as we start talking. “What we’re doing now is not necessary,” she continues, then she goes to the bathroom, to the point that I wonder if she’ll even come back. Which isn’t to say that she isn’t great company — droll as hell, quick to laugh, and hopelessly addicted to Chapstick. Her office, at Céline’s in London, in a stately Georgian house on Cavendish Square, hints at other worlds. Against one wall, a tired-glam tiger-print couch bought off the street for £10. Against another, a very smart piece by Mexican artist José Dávila featuring Marcel Duchamp precisely excised from a photograph, leaving just his silhouette. (The there/not there thing is very Phoebe.) And on the facing wall: a diamond-dust portrait of Joseph Beuys by Andy Warhol.
PHOEBE PHILO — The glitter. I tried to make a fabric like it, but it’s real diamond dust, so I couldn’t.
TIM BLANKS — How do you do fabric research?
PHOEBE PHILO — At the moment, we’re in the process of archiving fabrics that I always return to: wools, felts, wool silks, cottons, classic fabrics that have been used over a long time in fashion. Parallel to that we develop technical fabrics, polyesters, nylons, lycras, horsehair, glitter, whatever it needs to be. I am into the idea of protecting a sense of the core, a Céline hand based in classicism.
TIM BLANKS — What kind of classicism?
PHOEBE PHILO — I find it reassuring to use fabrics that perform in a very honest, straightforward way. I like fabrics that are what they are. I find that comforting and inspiring.
TIM BLANKS — How much of that is to do with insecurity?
PHOEBE PHILO — As a person I have insecurities and as I get older, what I’m explaining re: fabric is relevant in lots of areas of my life. When I feel insecure I try and build safety around it. I’m not very good at being insecure and not knowing where it’s going to lead.
TIM BLANKS — You’re very careful about revealing too much about yourself, and yet surely that happens every time you do a show. Isn’t it masochistic to do something that is simultaneously so pleasurable for you and yet so painful in a way?
PHOEBE PHILO — There is a level of that. I push myself to go to places I don’t always want to go to and naturally in that process I expose myself. When I show my clothes I’m not among my 10 best friends so there is a baring of souls. Fashion never stops. Whatever happens, literally the show must go on, the date is set and whether we’re ready or not we have to do a show on that day. It is a love-hate relationship. It’s challenging sometimes and not that easy, but it’s also what makes it so intense and thrilling.
TIM BLANKS — Is it easier sometimes more than others?
PHOEBE PHILO — Every show has its own story. I’ve never had two shows the same.
TIM BLANKS — How was this one for you?
PHOEBE PHILO — It was one of the tougher ones, coming back after having my third child and having had some time off with him. I’d been giving life in a big way at home, then coming back and giving life to a collection, that put more pressure.
TIM BLANKS — You talked about it being a collection about love and friends.
PHOEBE PHILO — I came to a conclusion at the end of that show that there was a lot of humility in the process of making it. There were real limitations with my time that I had due to having another child.
TIM BLANKS — Maybe when you say that about being home a lot, that was why the show felt a little bit domestic to me, kind of fluffy-slippers cosy.
PHOEBE PHILO — If that existed it was completely subconscious [laughs]. It came very much from being at home and being in a particular place of nurturing a small baby.
TIM BLANKS — So now you have three children. Weren’t you one of three, too?
PHOEBE PHILO — Yes I am the eldest.
TIM BLANKS — How do you balance family and work?
PHOEBE PHILO — My family is my priority. My role is making sure my children and my home are well. I’m in love with my work, so I carve out a lot of time for it. It’s a privilege to be involved in something that I feel so passionately about.
TIM BLANKS — Can you turn it off when you get home?
PHOEBE PHILO — I’ve got a very natural cut-off at holidays and weekends. Having kids helps that.
TIM BLANKS — What’s your own earliest memory?
PHOEBE PHILO — Receiving a plastic molded farm-set for my third birthday. There was a pond in the middle and the fact it held water was amazing to me. Actually, pond life is one of my favorite things; newts, frogs. I love watching a tadpole turn into a miniature little frog then it grows big and moves on.
TIM BLANKS — Funny, you always seemed so West-London urban.
PHOEBE PHILO — Nature and the countryside are in me, partly to do with growing up in suburbia, which was almost the best and worst of all worlds. What suburbia gives you is space. We lived in a house with a big garden that backed on to a wild wasteland, before you got to the railway tracks. The backland, we called it, and I spent a huge amount of time there with a friend when I was about 11, in a fantasy world, making cigarettes out of leaves and card, trying desperately to keep them lit, lugging on them hard.
TIM BLANKS — Sophisticated…
PHOEBE PHILO — … and bad. We tried stealing cigarettes, but there wasn’t a steady supply so we reverted to making our own.
TIM BLANKS — And the fantasy?
PHOEBE PHILO — There was a lot of me and my pretend pony. What was good about that period was there was a lot of boredom. I was obsessed with horses and I didn’t have one, so I’d pretend I was on my horse, cantering around the field in my imagination, smoking my cigarette in full-on riding gear. That idea of solitude, being in my own space, having to entertain myself, not needing people…
TIM BLANKS — Did you get bothered by boys?
PHOEBE PHILO — No.
TIM BLANKS — Were you pretty?
PHOEBE PHILO — Pretty average. A bit odd looking.
TIM BLANKS — Deliberately?
PHOEBE PHILO — No, just naturally [laughs]. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that weird. I just always felt average. Longing to discover something new and leave suburbia.
TIM BLANKS — So that was the Culture Club era, 1981
PHOEBE PHILO — Yes, I must have been 8 or 9 when I first saw Boy George. I was fascinated that she was a he and that that was possible. I remember seeing him on Top of the Pops and being amazed that that was a man and loving that possibility.
TIM BLANKS — How else did your appetite for badness manifest itself at that age?
PHOEBE PHILO — I used to bleach my hair and give myself haircuts. I pierced my nose and my friend’s ears myself. It was all very innocent, very in the moment. ‘I like this, I want to look like this.’ Buy a packet of hair dye and do it immediately.
TIM BLANKS — Were your parents scared?
PHOEBE PHILO — Never. My parents allowed me in a wonderful way to go through all the motions of growing up, make all the mistakes. I don’t remember much intervention.
TIM BLANKS — I’m asking these questions because I have a strong sense of those experiences distilled into the stuff now. There is that wonderful taint of badness, anti-purity. Now that you’ve laid the ground rules for Céline, do you think there’s a natural urge to fuck it up a little bit?
PHOEBE PHILO — That sort of destroy-what-you’ve-just-done-in-order-to-move-on is part of how I do move forward. There’s definitely an element of that in me. After a show, I generally go into a feeling of not even wanting to look at it, and then I start to go back and we shoot the campaign and I get reconnected to it. Then I try to take what I like and carry it forward, pushing it further.
TIM BLANKS — What would you say the consistent threads are?
PHOEBE PHILO — One of the main ones is fabric but there is silhouette, how we construct things and a constant learning that gets carried forward.
TIM BLANKS — That seems kind of limiting to me. Cloth is so solid, so finite. Do you find limitations inspiring?
PHOEBE PHILO — I do, I find uniforms one of the most inspiring ways of wearing clothes and it’s something I revisit. I love the fact that there’s a limitation with a real template and structure. It is what it is. I naturally gravitate toward the discipline of limits.
TIM BLANKS — Is that a life lesson, something you’ve learned because you’ve been in situations where there were no limits?
PHOEBE PHILO — I think so. I’ve figured out a lot of it along the way. Some of it is a result of the speed at which fashion works.
TIM BLANKS — No, I mean personally, when you’ve lived quite a wild life and you realize the sanity, the self-preservation of restraint.
PHOEBE PHILO — Well, let’s just say it’s through experience of life that I’ve got to working the way I do.
TIM BLANKS — Because you know what your dark side is capable of?
PHOEBE PHILO — Sometimes. Not always. It can still appear, surprising me. I guess it’s growing up.
TIM BLANKS — It’s always there. If you have a dark side, you can never totally put it in the closet.
PHOEBE PHILO — I am what I am. I have my complexities, I don’t claim to be simple or straightforward. I can’t change some of those things, but I can certainly manage them.
TIM BLANKS — I’ve always wondered how much work is a safety valve for designers. You can release all your willful waywardness in your clothes.
PHOEBE PHILO — It’s those parameters we were talking about: the base of fabrics, the clear sense of work we’ve done so far that I want to carry forward. I like to make a clear structure where I can lose myself in whatever it needs to be that season.
TIM BLANKS — And yet you project this incredible innocence, which is discombobulating when the clothes, especially in the last collection, had that strange, worldly, louche, slightly careless quality. I know I said ‘cozy’ but they were a bit promiscuous and wayward too. And here you are looking younger and more innocent than ever…
PHOEBE PHILO — That will be my excellent plastic surgeon [laughs].
TIM BLANKS — Yeah, acquiring the trappings of a big life — big job, big family — but never growing old or getting jaded. I wonder if that’s what you’re offering to women, the sense that they could be that too.
PHOEBE PHILO — I’m looking forward to being an older woman. I’m 39 now, and I’m intrigued by much older women. I don’t know if you get wiser but I was brought up to show respect to older people, which I like and which I think is important. I respect life, and people who have suffered but survived. I find that totally inspiring. It gives you hope, and a way to go.
TIM BLANKS — Strength is one way your clothes are characterized, and people have responded to them as a new sort of tribe for women, but I find it interesting that there’s also a kind of solitary spirit in there too.
PHOEBE PHILO — I definitely have to force myself to be with people, it’s not a natural thing.
TIM BLANKS — It’s in the way Juergen shoots them too. How did the collaboration begin?
PHOEBE PHILO — I’ve known Juergen for quite a while; he and his wife are family friends. We also shared the same agent, Katy Baggott, who was a great friend and collaborator, which meant there were some shared values and ways of working between us all. After my first pre-collection Juergen called me, we had a coffee together and talked through some ideas he had about shooting the campaign. He lives two minutes away from me in London, which means there are no weird time zones or added complexities for us to be able to meet or talk. Knowing him and the ease at which the conversation started felt like the right way to go. It is a real collaboration, meaning we find a middle ground that works for us both. I admire Juergen, his journey, his work and his opinions. We talk, meet, bounce back and forth on ideas about the woman — where she is, what she is doing, what she stands for. I think we have some shared interests which we talk about: art, family, holidays, food and basically a load of fuckery. I think we both know what we like and in some ways are very uncompromising in what we believe in.
TIM BLANKS — Do you think you’ve created a new kind of elegance with the campaigns?
PHOEBE PHILO — I think we show a woman that we know, understand, who is real to us. At the end of the day, Juergen is the one taking the picture and the proximity he is able to get, his eye and where it leads him add elements that I cannot predict and are unique to him.
TIM BLANKS — He certainly understands what I was calling the solitary spirit.
PHOEBE PHILO — I know what you mean, but I never would have given it that label. Solitude is choice. When I’m with people, I’m thoroughly engaged, but I do have a sense of not needing them sometimes. Ironically I have very little time to myself these days.
TIM BLANKS — What would you do if you had that time?
PHOEBE PHILO — I would do what I did before, spend a lot of it in my home hanging out, be spontaneous, go out and see what happens.
TIM BLANKS — I remember we had a conversation when you’d been off for a while and you were wondering what to do, and I said you should open your own shop and have an on-line business. [laughter]
PHOEBE PHILO — Thank god you’re not my business manager.
TIM BLANKS — You were scared that people would forget you.
PHOEBE PHILO — There you go on insecurity! Did I say that? I don’t remember feeling that. It was a risk to leave a job and to go to nothing. I must have seen you on one of my fuck-what-am-I doing days! Taking a break was a very good thing though. I had a huge amount of pleasure in taking it. I always knew I wanted, maybe even needed, to work. My life is full and I wouldn’t want to change it, but unquestionably, there are some tensions sometimes in fitting it all in. Because of my life outside work and because I am disciplined about leaving work on time, I sometimes feel frustration that I can’t give more to work and see ideas realized more.
TIM BLANKS — How would that have affected the last collection, for instance?
PHOEBE PHILO — I have a feeling with every show, if I just had three more days… The whole process — edit, grow, edit, grow — that’s the nature of always wanting to go forward. Thank God there is a cut-off and you have to start something new; otherwise I drive myself and everyone else mad, but I have a sense I could have taken it further if I had just a bit more time.
TIM BLANKS — How much do you reject?
PHOEBE PHILO — 70 percent.
TIM BLANKS — Has there ever been a time when you’ve said “This is as good as it’s going to get?”
PHOEBE PHILO — Yes, when I was heavily pregnant. I was more in touch with my physical limitations. I’m not saying I was happiest with it, but I was the most able to say “This it the best I can do. I have to leave the office now. I need to stop standing up.”
TIM BLANKS — What guides you in designing?
PHOEBE PHILO — [long pause]. A real life. What I think Céline is to me. It’s instinct, but at a certain point I connect with my brain to pull it all together.
TIM BLANKS — What do you mean you think about what Céline is?
PHOEBE PHILO — I think about what we’ve created in our time here and what that stands for and how to nurture and grow it.
TIM BLANKS — Knowing the emotional intricacies of some designers’ life can help to appreciate their work. Maybe that same point will apply to you one day, the way you meshed your family, your work, resuscitated a heritage business, and whatever you do next.
PHOEBE PHILO — I feel aware at the moment that our time on this planet is very short and I don’t have a sense of wanting to leave a legacy because it all evaporates into thin air eventually, and that’s fine.
TIM BLANKS — So isn’t it funny when people attach cultural significance to a fashion designer? You’ve become emblematic of a state of mind.
PHOEBE PHILO — Which is?
TIM BLANKS — You tell me. You must have a sense of why women love your clothes.
PHOEBE PHILO — I hope they identify with me, because I identify with them. I’m a woman living in a very real world. I have responsibilities at work and at home, dealing every day with trying to get everybody’s needs met.
TIM BLANKS — And how do clothes work in that context?
PHOEBE PHILO — For me personally, there’s a structure with them. Again, it’s like a uniform. I wear pretty much the same types of clothes day-in, day-out. I know what works for me practically. I have to literally be able to move around; what I really don’t like is being restricted.
TIM BLANKS — But I think about Céline as offering women this very chic, pulled-together, structured reassurance, and I always see you like this, looking much more sloppy and beatnik-y. Is this Céline? PHOEBE PHILO — Yes. I have a natural ability of making everything look quite fucked [laughs]. I do get what you mean, but I find that strength in what we offer. A wardrobe and within that people find where they want to be. I hope there is some freedom within that. I don’t like clothes imposing themselves on women. They are to be used in a real life. There is nothing else in life that we keep as close to us, literally wearing it on our bodies as we do clothes, so the relationship by definition is incredibly close.
TIM BLANKS — I felt the last collection was probably the closest to the way you would wear the clothes.
PHOEBE PHILO — Maybe that goes back to that domestic thing.
TIM BLANKS — Maybe being at home gave you the confidence to totally impress your own needs on the collection. See, it’s all autobiographical.
PHOEBE PHILO — But that’s exactly what good fashion design is. It’s about a vision, real life, a person. I think we’ve gone through a period where designers were quite removed from what they did. I feel like we’re back in a period where they’re very connected. A lot of bullshit has gone down over the years as well as some amazing, inspiring stuff. I only have time for doing this from the heart and gut and getting a job done well. I want Céline to have an independent agenda. [Editor’s note: Phoebe is making a coat for James White, an artist and friend. That’s her first foray into menswear, something that intrigues her because she insists she knows nothing about it. And yet menswear is all about limits, and we know how she loves limits.] It’s about getting back to base, this sense of clear parameters. Whatever creativity and ideas I have to come can then be more chaotic and spontaneous if they need to be.
TIM BLANKS — Do you think it’s going to get more chaotic from now on?
PHOEBE PHILO — I have no idea, I don’t have such a long-term sense of where my creativity is going. I have a feeling of next season and that’s it. Each season is taking a step, one after the other…
TIM BLANKS — But if you say you’re still wild…
PHOEBE PHILO — You said I was wild. I would never describe myself in that way, but there have been wild times. I’m building collections where I’m able to be spontaneous and yes, there’s some disruption, corruption, distortion and organized chaos … a bit of a fight going on.
TIM BLANKS — Even an unfinished hem can do that.
PHOEBE PHILO — Yes, a feeling of it being built up, then a slight ripping apart.
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