In the last four years, I have looked at this photo of Phoebe Philo — taken by David Sims for Vogue in 2013 — hundreds of times. Philo gazes directly at the camera, but also through it and straight into my heart. The thick white neck of her cashmere sweater supports her pale face like a neck brace; her hair is unbrushed; the arch of her eyebrow is the only betrayal of emotion in her otherwise tight-lipped composure. She wears leather pants and Nikes. Nothing about it makes any sense. And yet, if ever I had a platonic ideal of what “chic” looks like, this photo would be it. At times I worry that I may aspire toward what I see here — not just the clothes or the styling, but the deeper feelings I project onto the image — for the rest of my life.
Fashion that keeps us intrigued tends to trade in contrasts, contradictions and subtle brain scrambles. This image, in keeping with Philo’s approach to design, has all of those elements. Her stiff navy overcoat stays draped over one shoulder, worn indoors, as if to say, “I am coming and going, but you will never keep up with me.” Her oxblood-leather tote lies like a faithful pet at her feet. The almost-tackiness of the couch is mitigated by the molding on the doors behind her. She seems serious. Smart but unpretentious. This is a woman who pays close attention to the details, but isn’t precious. This is a woman who values design, but is so busy making it that she demands comfortable footwear.
Over the ten years Philo spent at Céline, she made me want everything about this photo, and over time, I have modeled my own style on it — not directly, but as a beacon. I did, in fact, purchase the navy overcoat. I am wearing running sneakers and a large cashmere sweater as I type this. My hair is tucked, like a mistake, into my turtleneck. I feel okay about this artful lack of perfection, because she made me feel okay about it. She made me want so many things I didn’t even know I wanted: fur-lined Birkenstocks, starched cotton shirts with Nehru collars, Stan Smiths. She made me want espadrilles, wide-legged pants, and royal-blue python clutches I could never afford. She made me try things I might have thought were ugly if someone else had tried to make me try them. She gave me clothes that would help me be seen on my own terms.
Cathy Horyn, who has written about every one of Philo’s Céline collections, once described Philo’s approach to a design as “working off a ragged bunch of feelings that are connected to women’s daily lives, which of course include how they feel about their attractiveness. As a result, a Céline show is likely to have styles that are pretty, eccentrically elegant, and even downright naff.”
One of my favorite things about this photo is the way she appears weary, but resolved. At the time this image was snapped, Philo had long ago secured her dominance in the fashion food chain. She was at the height of critical acclaim for her work at Céline — although more would follow — and her collections felt crucially, indisputably current. She looks like she carries that burden.
I like to think that the styles introduced by Philo (the ones in this photo especially) will become “classics” like a Burberry trench, Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, or Chanel’s Little Black Jacket. Who knows, only time will tell. It’s possible that this image will not stand the test of time for me or anyone. It’s possible that it already feels like a bygone idea of chicness. It’s likely that women years from now will think I’m crazy for liking it as much as I do, that it will feel as retro as liking a photo of Edie Sedgwick from the ’60s or Diana Ross in the ’70s. But a person cannot escape her era, and for better or worse, it’s this image that dominated the style of my 30s — a decade when a woman typically begins to define what she will look like as an adult. I feel grateful that my formative fashion years coincided with Phoebe Philo’s reign at Céline.