Phoebe Philo: The magic touch

Phoebe Philo has always had an unerring sense of what women really want to wear. Now she's casting her spell at Céline, says Susannah Frankel

The search for the next big thing has long been fashion's driving force. Sometimes that takes the form of the discovery of a bright, young talent who shouts his or her brilliant, raw credentials from the roof tops.

Examples of this include both John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, whose Central Saint Martins MA collections, shown in 1984 and 1992 respectively, sent shock waves throughout the industry, and with good reason.

More recently, and not least because emergent talent of this magnitude is an extreme rarity, the focus has been on the regeneration of dusty status labels – principally Parisian – in the hands of a more developed name. Over the past 15 years these have included Balenciaga – brilliantly re-conceived by the designer Nicolas Ghesquière after years, even decades in fashion obscurity – and Yves Saint Laurent, now presided over by Stefano Pilati, former right hand to Tom Ford. He, in turn, gave the world a new and improved Gucci in the mid-Nineties.

Then there's Lanvin, presided over by the supremely gifted Alber Elbaz and Givenchy which, having passed through the hands of both Galliano and McQueen, is currently enjoying an extended moment in the sun under the creative directorship of Italian-born Riccardo Tisci. The list goes on.

For five years – between 2001 and 2006 – Phoebe Philo, taking over from best friend Stella McCartney as creative director of Chloé, was perhaps more influential than any other designer as far as dressing the savvy young woman who liked her clothes witty, pretty and with just the right amount of urban edge was concerned. It wasn't simply that her pale-and-interesting babydoll tunic dresses, best worn with the type of vertiginous, heavy-heeled wedges that undercut any girlishness, were selling out as quickly as they could be produced. Or even that the padlocked Paddington had a waiting list that meant it was impossible to walk into a store and get hold of one. Chloé was also the most copied of all labels on the high street. Philo's own designs were amongst the most covetable pieces season after season. The quintessentially London-girl, vintage-inspired aesthetic she gave the world resonated way beyond her own catwalk.

And then, at the height of her power, Ms Philo, still only in her early thirties, disappeared from the face of fashion entirely. With the cool self-possession of a politician, as opposed to the flamboyance of a fashion diva, the determinedly private designer stated that her reason for stepping down from Chloé was "to spend more time with my family". Married to art dealer Max Wigram, and with a young daughter and soon-to-be-born son on the way, Philo was not prepared to travel to Paris and back on a weekly basis – and this despite the fact that the powers that be had cut her working hours down to a mere eight days a month.

Philo, who went to Chloé in 1997 to assist McCartney before taking over, had worked constantly and in a hugely pressurised environment since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 1996. She wanted a complete break, she has said since, entirely reasonably, and the fact that that the label she had so adeptly transformed struggled to make anything like the impact it had done following her retirement only added to the allure around her name.

And then Ms Philo, who was born in Paris and educated in England, returned. In 2008, she entered into talks with LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) France's most powerful luxury goods conglomerate, initially with a view to setting up her own label. After months of discussions she came away instead with the creative directorship of Céline. Bought for an estimated 2.7bn francs in 1996 by visionary LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, Céline had been originally launched in 1945 as purveyor of children's made-to-measure shoes. It expanded during the Sixties with adult footwear, handbags and a women's collection of designer sportswear branded "fashion for everyone". The brand had been helmed for more than 40 years by Madame Céline Vipiana; following his acquisition Arnault swiftly installed all-American designer Michael Kors as the front man. Kors' hard-edged, understated but hugely luxurious designs were favoured by women of discreet good taste the world over. In 2004, however, Kors parted company with Céline and the label floundered, first under the design direction of former Burberry designer Roberto Menichetti and then under Ivana Omazic.

"By giving her Céline, we're providing her with a platform to express her vision," Pierre-Yves Roussel, CEO of LVMH's fashion division said when Philo's appointment was announced. "For Céline, which is a bit more grown-up as a brand [than Chloé], the fit is very good in terms of her style, her personality and where she is in terms of her own development."

For her part, Philo told Women's Wear Daily: "In the current climate customers are looking for something that will get them interested and excited about buying again. I want to create clothes, shoes, bags and accessories that are relevant right now – modern, exciting designs that women will desire and appreciate."

Even before her first runway show – for spring/summer 2010 and in store now – the buzz surrounding Philo's return was considerable. A refreshingly pared-down pre-collection of carefully thought-out wardrobe basics – to use the term loosely – heralded the return of a new minimalism to fashion. In October 2009, meanwhile, and following her debut for Céline on the catwalk, this buzz became pure fashion frenzy. Moulded leather tunics, neat A-line skirts worn with masculine white shirts peeping from beneath their sharply cut hems, blush-coloured bodies and pale leather clogs – yes, clogs – were like a breath of fresh air so simple, chic and unashamedly functional were they as compared to the frills, furbelows and more obviously status-driven clothing that surrounded them. Philo was a woman designing clothes for other women like herself was the over-riding message in any reviews

that were, unanimously, favourable. As well as clothing and footwear came bags – free of hardware and in neutral colours and fabrics that might almost be described as worthy were they not treated to such deft cutting and finishing techniques. And lo! Philo has done it again, presenting an entirely convincing, more adult and sophisticated view of femininity that is perfectly in line for today's yearning for a subtle and indeed female friendly style.

In a rare interview in October last year, Philo, a willowy figure with the type of refined features and innate sense of style that makes her the ultimate poster girl for her own label, told American Vogue: "Women talk about getting older as if it's a disease, something to be terrified of. But it's not my experience. It feels really good to be 35. As I get older, I get a nice sense of knowing more what I want." And that is? "Pieces that – as Chanel did for the first time – women can just wear and get on with their life and feel comfortable in."

If this might seem like the most obvious thing in the world, such consideration is a rarity, and the good news is that Philo has followed this current collection with one that is equally pragmatic for the forthcoming autumn/winter.

While not boasting quite the freshness of spring/summer – the pale-and-interesting colour palette that has proved so influential has been replaced by suitably seasonal darker shades, predominantly navy – when it was shown in Paris in March it still had fashion editors sitting up in their seats noting not just what they will be photographing for next season's editorials but also, and perhaps more significantly, what they themselves want to wear.

Perfectly executed coat dresses, tunics, riding boots with polished brass heels and strict lace separates with more than a nod to the narrow silhouette beloved of the Seventies were all entirely desirable and had the feel of investment pieces – an over-used phrase but an apposite one in this case – over and above something that will last for six months before seeming dated. Nodding to mid-Nineties giants Helmut Lang and Jil Sander and, perhaps more controversially, even to MaxMara, the collection will doubtless prove the type of commercial success that in the current climate LVMH executives might hitherto only have dreamed of.

This, then, is a quiet revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. In Philo's own words: "It was just about something that was not disposable. And I think to offer women something that feels more about investing in something, and less about being disposable, is a complete corrective to the world we're in."