“By all means, move at a glacial pace,” Miranda Priestly tells her hardworking assistant in the often-referenced-among-fashion-people film, The Devil Wears Prada. It’s a sentiment undoubtedly shared among the throngs of Phoebe Philo fanatics who, since she announced her comeback two years ago, have been awaiting the fashion designer’s return to the runway.
Philo is a rarity among designers having twice reinvented the way we wear clothes all while making a handful of European billionaires a bit richer in the process. She’s credited with ushering in the early 2000s boho baby doll look during her stewardship of the brand, Chloé. But it was at the LVMH (LVMHF)-owned label Céline (from 2008 to 2017) that she amassed a cult-like following of intellectually-minded, luxury-oriented women.
Lauded season after season for her minimalist collections infused with artful and cerebral references, it’s easy to say that Philo’s work at Céline revolutionized womenswear—and is still copied by designers today.
“Fashion-obsessed women of a certain generation didn’t just grow up with Phoebe, we see her as a designer who changed the way we dressed, not once but twice,” Nicole Phelps, the global director of Vogue Business and Vogue Runway, told Observer.
After years away from the spotlight, it was announced in 2021 that she’d be returning to the industry with a new eponymous brand. And then we waited and waited longer. Many questioned whether lightning could really strike three times. Rumors flew that Philo was cycling through teams in her new London studio, backed by her old bosses at LVMH. Finally, after two years with little more than a website with a logo and an email capture field, the brand will launch on October 30.
“Clearly, it is not orthodox for a brand to announce they’re launching and then to not launch for over two years,” said Lauren Sherman, fashion correspondent for digital news start-up, Puck. “There’s clearly business reasons why that happened, there’s clearly other reasons why that happened, but the truth is, the whole thing that Phoebe Philo has always had is ultimate control over her brand image and brand communication.”
Mid-autumn is an unremarkable season for the fashion industry. Starting in the muggy days immediately after Labor Day, the global fashion circuit hits the road, beginning in New York and culminating with Paris Fashion Week in early October, after which everyone gets down to business and the circus quiets. So it says a lot that the British designer launched what amounts to the most anticipated new luxury brand in decades on the heels of London Art Week, rather than in a splashy runway show in Paris.
“It makes a lot of sense on a lot of levels for her. If she is doing it her way this time, of course launching at Frieze would be a priority and not fashion week,” added Sherman.
Fashion and art are interconnected for Philo. She is married to the gallerist, Max Wigram, and is well known amongst art collectors and dealers. It’s an organic quality that her clients have latched onto and is evident in the clothing and branding she produces.
Frieze London is the marquee art fair during the city’s art week, which culminated on October 11. Simultaneously, there are numerous fairs, such as PAD London and 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, as well as countless exhibitions at leading global galleries like Hauser & Wirth and Pace and auction houses including Christie’s and Sotheby’s. All that week, the art world and its wealthy followers descend on the U.K. capital and serious money is exchanged.
“There are so many aspects to what an art fair includes and it’s smart of her to look to that special moment and in such an important city. London, in the arts space, has such great heritage,” said Bonnie Brennan, president of Christie’s Americas.
Of course, it’s hardly new for the worlds of fashion and art to merge. LVMH alone has a long history of leveraging art to create marketing momentum—starting with Marc Jacobs’ early collaborations with Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton. These and other partnerships more often than not used artists to create newness in a brand’s product portfolio.
Philo’s launch has the potential to have a more direct commercial tie to major art world deals. It’s a strategic move to position her wares in the context of art, with all the associated perceived investment value and intellectual propositions.
The market for soft luxury goods (meaning fashion, handbags and fragrance) is cooling. Earlier this month, LVMH posted earnings that reflect a post-pandemic softening of demand across their businesses. Meanwhile, rival Kering saw its net profits slide by 10 percent in the first half of 2023 versus the same time last year.
Interestingly, at the end of August, it was announced that Kering, which is owned and operated by Francois Henri Pinault (whose Artemis Holdings also owns Christie’s), would acquire Creative Artists Agency, or CAA, the talent agency behemoth. Meanwhile, Frieze is owned by Endeavor, whose portfolio also includes the fashion week management juggernaut, IMG, and the celebrity talent agency, WME.
Sherman thinks it amounts to the furthering of consolidation we’re seeing across industries. “Everything is consolidating, and the enmeshment of Hollywood and entertainment and fashion is undeniable,” she said. Everyone involved seems to see the strategic benefit of blurring these lines in the hopes of harnessing the purchasing power of the rich, wherever they may be.
According to Brennan, the auction landscape sees luxury goods as an entry point for long-term client relationships. Last year, Christie’s offered The Collection of André Leon Talley, from the estate of the legendary fashion editor. It included several high-ticket soft luxury lots from brands including Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci, as well as artworks by Andy Warhol and Helmut Newton. Brennan said that the auction had 2,000 registrants from 25 countries and half of them were new to Christie’s. Many of those bidders have returned to participate in auctions since.
It’s certainly a gamble for LVMH to rewrite the luxury fashion playbook. Perhaps it’s needed with the challenging macroeconomic and sociopolitical landscape. Chairman and chief executive, Bernard Arnault, is certainly known for his renegade choices, and Philo could very well be in a place to call the shots. What is certain, however, is that Philo fans have something new to obsess over this season.