Breaking off a conversation with her two young daughters, who look like their mother, Phoebe Philo turned to face the first wave of reporters coming backstage after her Céline show. Wearing a black midi-dress over flowing white trousers, she looked thin and pale and almost fragile. Asked about the collection, she murmured something about thinking through “the impossibilities.” I didn’t grasp her meaning. She tried again. “There is an angst in it,” she said, nodding. “There is an angst, and it can create awkwardness.”
As Philo was trying to explain herself, she seemed to catch the eye of Céline’s PR woman, who was signaling her. There was a throng of people waiting to greet Philo, and maybe we journalists were causing a bottleneck. But then Philo did something extraordinary. Instead of brushing us off with a sound bite or asking us to wait, she drew us a little deeper into the room, away from the throng.
“I like this idea of stillness in clothes,” she said. “I find it very fulfilling — it’s groundedness.”
For me, the gesture conveyed more than her actual words. A woman who lately has been the subject of rumors that she wants to quit Céline and maybe the fashion business was attempting to create a little space for us — some breathing room in a harried situation. She was also admitting, I think, that you can’t always create clear and definitive statements with clothes. There are times when you’re ambivalent or bored, when not taking a position — stillness — seems the only sane choice. And isn’t that approach more honest than bullshitting your way through it?
This is the blessing and burden of being Phoebe Philo, the most intuitive women’s designer in the business — and one of the very few with a sense of taste that I respect. She works off her feelings, and those feelings have produced some of the strongest, most copied fashion of the past six or seven years. Last season, she built a collection around the idea — the dream, really — of traveling for a year. What would you take with you? An easy cotton shirtdress, a shapely wool coat, a tube of red lipstick. She and the Danish artist Thomas Poulsen, who goes by the name FOS and who works with Philo on store designs, created an intimate series of “rooms” using yellow and orange sailcloth. This time, though, the audience sat on bleachers — in short, at a distance from the clothes. This time there was no red lipstick: The models’ faces looked scrubbed. The first outfit was a cocooning black top worn over a white turtleneck (a Philo classic) and a flowing pair of pants with sandals. The second look was a long white shirt untucked over pants. Looks Nos. 6, 10, and 12 were basically a repeat of the second outfit.
There are gems throughout the collection, like well-proportioned khaki macintoshes, dresses in white or black washed satin with beaded trompe l'oeil chain belts, and a slim black wool coat with a rounded collar that spilled down the back. But, in a way, it was the show’s repetitions and muted cocoons that spoke the loudest. If you’re Philo, isn’t it better to leave things a little undone than push stuff you don’t believe in out to the world?
That was exactly the sense I had of last night’s Givenchy show — a slick parade of military-inspired tailoring, animal-print coats, and silk pieces in ancient Egyptian patterns that had little reason for existing. After last season’s dramatic riverside show in New York, Riccardo Tisci resorted to luxury clichés. Nothing about the show seemed straightforward or honest: Indeed, it was staged inside a wooden maze. The models, whose hair was weirdly matted on their crowns — do people actually wear their hair this way? — kept losing their way, and some looked like their feet were killing them. With designers like Philo and Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga and Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton proposing new attitudes about luxury, Tisci might want to get some fresh air.