Phoebe Philo’s innovative and illustrious decade at the creative helm of Céline, and her subsequent departure, was a perfect example of the ‘key (wo)man risk’ that faces fashion houses and their parent companies.
LVMH recognised that Philo did the work of a lifetime in turning Céline from a relatively unknown, uncommercial house – initially founded to make children’s footwear in 1945 – into a brand that was iconic, chic, and coveted, yet still functional. It even spawned one of the first ever Instagram ‘it’ bags, the Luggage Tote (we’ve all seen it).
Although a financial success, Philo’s Céline meant more to the designer’s cult of ‘Philophiles’ than it ever could have to LVMH: she made clothes after her own desires for workable, classic womenswear that didn’t need to be feminine or defined by the male gaze in order to sell. It was trench coats and casual suiting to die for, which impeccably balanced masculine tailoring and luxurious creamy palettes, along with quietly cool accessories and campaigns featuring the 81-year-old Joan Didion and a make-up free Daria Werbowy. It was, ultimately, refreshing to simply see clothes made for women by a woman.
But is that really so revolutionary? After all, fashion is a woman’s domain, isn’t it? It’s trivial, unintellectual, image-obsessed, stupidly overpriced. Okay, I’m being deliberately facetious here, but whilst we might discuss the relative merits and social goods of fashion somewhere else and can certainly pull up figures on the profitability of womenswear vs. menswear for behemoths like LVMH and Kering, I would argue that fashion is markedly not a woman’s domain.
Yes, womenswear is responsible for just over 75% of revenues from the $1.7 trillion apparel and footwear market (Euromonitor 2017), so perhaps it is the female consumer’s domain, but who controls the image, brand, and authorship of womenswear? Who profits? These are questions I found myself asking when I saw images from the SS19 debut of Céline’s new artistic director, Hedi Slimane.
Given the industry’s collective slump following Philo’s departure, this was an inevitably much-hyped and much-awaited show. Not least because Slimane’s appointment was quite a volte-face for the ethos of Céline: his entire sartorial mission up to this point has seemed to rest on click-baiting followers with logo revamps and being obsessed with black.
At YSL – stripped of the ‘Yves’ and rebranded under his tenure as ‘Saint Laurent’ – he presented seasons and seasons of modish, retro-noir ideations of Parisian club youth, with plenty of black suiting and tiny sequinned dresses. Waiting apprehensively for the opening of the show (on Instagram live, obviously, not in flesh) I found that Slimane, ever the dynamist, had entered Céline to rip up its rule book and present us with a season of modish, retro-noir ideations of Parisian club youth, with plenty of black suiting and tiny sequinned dresses.
Yes, it was boring; it was hackneyed, arrogant, and just seemed to bite its thumb at everything that Philo and her team had laboured for ten years to build up. Not to mention that the models were all rail-thin and nearly all white: only nine out of 96 looks were worn by models of colour (paltry representation when we consider that NYFW shows featured an average of 45% models of colour on the runway). Unsurprisingly, it sparked a lot of outcry from fashion commentators and ‘Philophile’ consumers alike.
Slimane’s palimpsestic revision of the Céline ethos is not unprecedented, nor will it remain all that controversial. Sadly, as Tim Blanks of Business of Fashion deftly put it, “the modern world’s short memory doesn’t give a rat’s ass for heritage”; that is, what is outcry now may soon turn to controversy cash for LVMH, and people will forget that Slimane slathered his unending obsession with ‘La Jeunesse Parisienne’ all over Céline.
They will become unbothered just as they became unbothered about the guillotining of ‘Yves’ from Saint Laurent, forgetting in time that Slimane similarly cut off the accent aigu from the brand name ‘Céline’, making it just ‘Celine’. They will even forget that Slimane, with echoes of Stalin, deleted the entire Instagram history of Philo-era Céline, an act which went beyond all notions of a ‘fresh start’ and over into digital megalomania of the highest degree.
In a rare interview following his debut, Slimane himself commented: “We don’t enter a fashion house to imitate our predecessor, much less to take over the essence of their work, their codes and elements of language” (Vogue Sep 2018). It’s true, as he notes, that the history and cultural capital of Céline is not as established as Dior’s or Saint Laurent’s. But his takeover and ego-brandishing is symbolic of more than just people’s discomfort with the unabashedly ‘new’ in the face of the widely-loved old. It was a ‘f**k you’ to the framework and message that Céline embodied, of women designing for women, under a label founded by a woman.
Beyond the collection itself (mostly super-tight and super-short glittery evening dresses, ridiculous headpieces that prevented the suiting ‘androgyny’ Slimane purported to be going for, and little biker girl jackets), this felt and so frustrating to me because it recalled the systemic gender inequality that pumps itself round the fashion industry.
We have seen some major breakthroughs in the last year or so, with Maria Grazia Chiuri now at Dior, and the inimitable Claire Waight Keller heading up Givenchy; however, of all the fashion brands currently operating, only 14% are headed by a woman executive and even fewer are led by women of colour (see here). When you put this figure in the context of a student body in fashion education that is overwhelmingly made up of women (New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology reported 85% female enrolment this year), it’s all the more disappointing.
I probably don’t need to go into the ways in which the annals of power have always disregarded women’s creativity, even in a domain historically associated with feminine concerns. But I do want to stress how much of a lasting shame it is that LVMH felt that Céline’s decidedly feminist ethos, from a brand that was already a cash cow for the conglomerate, needed to be cast aside in the name of – well, what?
It is important to note that fashion has historically been a safe space for queer-identifying men and that for all the industry’s other gripping issues of racism, elitism, and general distortions of power, this aspect has been a victory for the visibility and celebration of gay men. Thus, when Slimane himself suggested that the response so far to his debut at Céline is the result of “latent homophobia”, we must listen and understand why he feels this way.
Reading some of the Anglo-American criticism of his show, this is certainly a detectable “subtext” (article here), one that is utterly disappointing and serves only to highlight the authors’ prejudices. A discussion, explicit or not, of Slimane’s sexual orientation is entirely irrelevant to an objective critique of this show: we need to be intersectional in our understandings of privilege and power in industries such as fashion, recognising that the systemic disadvantages and attitudes Slimane faces as an openly queer man do not also negate his opportunity to be anti-feminist.
I do not want to speak for queer men, but in my investigation into the reception of Slimane’s show I came across an insightful video by Youtuber HauteLeMode (also very entertaining, link here). His own comments were that “as a gay man the idea of creating a fantasy for a woman is my favourite thing about fashion… but I’ve realised that this collection is so misogynistic because this gay man has pushed aside the female consumer of Céline so he can play dress up with girls”. He even suggests that LVMH and Slimane may have used the show as a proxy to get back, somehow, at Kering, the parent company of Saint Laurent and Slimane’s former employer. If so, he argues, a brand that stood for so much to women around the world would have become a pawn in the petty squabbles of powerful men.
From proxy wars down to the highly symbolic refashioning of the Céline logo, which itself was the work of a man re-writing a woman’s name, Slimane has defaced Philo’s legacy. Perhaps many in the industry sphere will get over this, glued to the on-screen image of the next trend. However, the crying gap in the market will remain open for the sort of womenswear that allows its wearer to get on with the job whilst looking ever-chic, as Philo, herself a consummate professional and mother of two, always did. Until then, savour the pictures, save up for the vintage (the work of a lifetime, I know), and don’t forget the accent on Céline.