Women’s History Month: Phoebe Philo - Style and Standing Up for Women

It’s the last day of Women’s History Month and I’m so glad it’s fallen on a style post day. Because I can feature a woman in history who’s been highly influential in the fashion world and has done so on her own terms as a woman and a mother. Which cannot but help pave the way for other women to be successful in this, and other, high-paced, demanding industries.

Making History During Her Lifetime

To be fair, Phoebe Philo is the first of my women in history that is still alive. And definitely kicking. She’s the Creative Director of the major fashion house Céline, having begun her career as Stella McCartney’s design assistant at Chloé in 1997, becoming creative director just four years later. (There was a time in the not too distant past that I recall desperately wanting a Chloé bag and spent many pre-child hours searching the online second hand markets for one that was NOT a knock off. Needless to say, I still do not own a bag or any other item from a major design house – perhaps in my future? And then wouldn’t it have to be a Birkin anyway?)

Following Her Own Rules

She’s been lauded in the fashion industry for her design clarity, her unflinching adherence to her own esthetic, and for setting her own, previously unheard of, terms for work/life balance.

This is a woman who consistently puts out collections of loose, masculine trousers, topped with unadorned, yet strangely appealing jackets that somehow just work, particularly if you are a tall, confident woman. Collections that are highly copied and sold by the fast fashion industry. Clothes that allow a woman to look and feel good, without being sexualized. As she put it in a rare interview with Alexandra Shulman in 2014, "I guess there is a bit of a political statement behind Céline, which is that we should be teaching young girls to feel good ... I am not a big fan of women being sexualised through clothes, as you can probably tell from my work. I have no problem with a woman wearing anything as long as she has chosen to wear it for herself. But I do think there are too many images of women that are sexualised and too many examples of women dressing for other people and disempowering themselves in the process." Powerful stuff.

All Céline Summer 2017 collection
All Céline Summer 2017 collection

Work/Life Balance

But it’s how she’s managed her role as a wife and mother alongside her role as creative director at two of fashion’s biggest houses that intrigues me. She left Chloé in 2006, wanting to spend more time with her daughter, and adding a son during this three year career break. Which, if you’ve done it, you’ll know how difficult it can be to come back – especially in a competitive, fast-paced industry like fashion. It’s what happened next that is so wonderful to me. Wanting to get back to work, she doesn’t just begin again at the beginning as so many women end up doing, but comes back as the creative director of a historical fashion house, albeit one that had lost its way. Then she not only insists that she be allowed to work in London, where she lives, but also that she is able to take her now three children to school in the morning and still be home for bedtime. Now that’s a woman willing to stand by her principles. Notice how she didn’t apologize?

Phoebe Philo has blazed a trail that is all her own. And she’s done so without fanfare and bright, flashing lights. Indeed the opposite is true; she’s known for her reticence and she eschews the frivolity usually associated with fashion. Her clothes are unadorned, androgynous even. And yet. And yet she’s become a beacon to women who want to dress confidently, tastefully, and yes, for themselves. And she’s done it while maintaining her role as a mother. That’s a woman of history to me.