Phoebe Philo, the once notorious party girl who took over from Stella McCartney at Chloé, has grown up - as have her seriously sexy designs. By Sarah Mower
The first sight I had of Phoebe Philo was a disconcerting apparition clattering on impossible heels down the stairs behind Stella McCartney in a rickety townhouse in Notting Hill in 1996.
She had, as far as I remember, a shock of bleached hair and - as no one who saw her at the time ever forgets - a gold tooth flashing in the front of her mouth, and six-inch fake nails. What? A white girl playing black? I'd never seen the like before, or since, come to that.
'Pheebs' was all puppy-like friendliness, but this creature buzzing about in McCartney's shadow as what appeared to be an all-purpose phone-answerer-cum-milk-fetcher didn't exactly scatter an impression of serious-mindedness in her busy wake.
Fast-forward six years to October 2002. The girl who is taking a modest bow at the end of the latest Chloé show in Paris might be from another planet. She is wearing a baggy sage-coloured jumper, grey mannish trousers, flat shoes, not a scrap of make-up, and looks as if she's raked her hair up in a drastic rush.
It's not exactly a glamourpuss look, nor what the general public might perceive as a suitable image for a girl who is now head designer of one of the hottest fashion houses in Paris.
On the other hand, the applause raining down on her says that, to fashion insiders, Philo's up-all-night-working appearance doesn't matter a jot. The important point is that Philo, after three strong seasons in the Chloé hot seat, aged only 29, is accepted. She has proved herself at least equal in talent to her former boss, doubters have been silenced and even I have radically reformed my first impression of her as one of London's foremost flibbertigibbets.
A month later, I'm in the Chloé press office as Philo trawls through some just-in paparazzi pictures from the show. Oh, bless! There's Kylie, proudly showing off her Chloé shoulder-bag, the one that has become the house signature (laden with swishy beads).
There's proud dad Richard, and mum Celia, looking all Hepburn-esque in an upswept-hairdo, dark glasses and her crewel-work Chloé coat from the Keith Richards-at-Altamont winter collection. And there's Philo receiving hugs and kisses from her fans in the press, tired but happy in her 'careless' look.
Flat shoes, Phoebe? I tease. That's a first. What happened? She laughs. 'D'you know why I did that? Just so there's no confusion. I'm just always scared that people won't know when the show's ended - and you know, there's this ugly blonde model straggling out last.'
This self-effacing comment is revealing of some of the complexities that make Philo a thoughtful, sympathetic character who is struggling to make sense of what is still an extraordinarily unusual position for a young woman. For one thing, she isn't bursting with any of the obnoxious egotism that is the usual given among her male counterparts.
Of course it doesn't hurt that she's also skinny, blonde, with blue eyes and high cheekbones, but then, for a smart girl who wants to be taken seriously, that can be a liability too.
'It's been a bit tricky trying to establish a "designer" profile, and not a designer-cum-girl-around-town,' she says. 'Because I'm a woman and I'm petite and blonde, you wouldn't believe how often I'm asked to model the clothes. Of course it's flattering, but on the other hand, I don't want to look like this little blonde thing that breezes in, because it's really not like that, I give it all I've got. I'm sure people think I'm schmoozing all over Paris, having a great time. I am having a great time, but I'm getting up, going to work, staying there until night, and then going home. That's it.'
When Philo took over at Chloé , one of the surprises she had up her batwing sleeve was turning out to be a real grafter. This, in spite of the fact that, up until 18 months or so ago, her picture - dancing, smoking, drinking at London clubs - was pretty much a fixture of every magazine party page. 'I think now I'm feeling so fulfilled in what I'm doing, the social thing becomes the least important part of my job,' she says. 'I don't need to promote myself by being the party girl, the good-fun girl. I just can't have a hangover any more, when it knocks three days out of five. If I've got a heavy week, I just can't go there. Because once I go there, I'm really naughty. So it's better not to go there at all.'
In the past few months, she has rationalised her private life even further, shedding her longstanding boyfriend, the Brit-Art man about town Max Wigram, and moving into a light, airy Paris apartment - a complete change from the dark, cluttered space she had been sharing since she arrived in the city.
Equally key to her critical acclaim is the unexpected way Philo has turned the house style in the direction of a pretty, European kind of sophistication. As soon as she took over at Chloé, she took a decision to clean the house.
'I changed direction,' she says firmly. 'Chloé is feminine and sexy, and I'm trying to make it a bit more refined and less gimmicky. The older I get and the more collections I do, the more I'm driven by real style and beauty. My aim is to reveal and not to display women.'
Her summer collection, for instance, is full of little blouses and egg-shaped dresses which somehow fall open at the front or have a device for allowing a camisole strap to slip off the shoulder. Not what you would call whorish, but at the same time, exactly the type of nonchalant little tricks calculated to make men want to tear the clothes off women.
One way and another, this is an art Philo has been refining since the age of 12 or 13, when she was at what she calls 'a very average' comprehensive in Harrow-on-the-Hill. 'I'd customise my uniform big time,' she laughs. 'Sometimes I'd go to school with just the jumper and tie on and no blouse. I'd hitch my skirt up so it just covered my knickers. Or go to school in a wig. I was always in all kinds of trouble.'
Her mother, Celia, an artist who worked on David Bowie's Aladdin Sane album cover in the Seventies, says her little girl's clothes obsession goes back even earlier than that. 'We've got these pictures of her wearing a knitted skirt, a patterned top and Mickey Mouse long socks at about the age of five. Things you'd never, ever take a child out in. But she always had these very strong feelings about what she wanted to wear.' When her parents gave her a cheap sewing machine for her 14th birthday she put it to use running up whatever her whim of the weekend might be: pvc chaps, boob tubes, sequinned hotpants. 'God! When I look back, I had no inhibition,' she laughs. 'It was pretty hardcore.'
Mel Aboun, a close friend who is now a New-York-based film producer, attests to the lasting influence of their teenage clubbing years. 'She likes urban culture,' she says. 'We're part of that generation that can infiltrate any subculture, whoever you are and wherever you're from. We went to all these subterranean clubs in north and south London together. Phoebe would be the only white girl in the club, dancing away with these huge Jamaican women looking at her, and going, "All right, love!" '
Still, Philo, even then, was impossible to stereotype: wild clubber by night, she was grounded, family-centred and pony-crazy by day. Somehow, her liberal, middle-class parents managed to pull off the feat of allowing their three children complete freedom, while also motivating them to be functioning self-starters. 'How do we do it?' laughs Celia Philo. 'I don't know. Sometimes I look round the dinner table and think we're just like the Osbournes, but without the effing!'
When Philo went to Central St Martins School of Art and Design in 1993, all her energy and sexiness almost seemed a rebellious stance among her arty-intellectual peers. As she once drolly told Vogue, 'I wanted to make a pair of trousers that made my arse look good, rather than a pair that represented the Holocaust or something.'
Her leaving collection was, she says, 'Quite tailored and elegant, but the styling was quite the opposite - sort of about Puerto Rican gang bitches. There was hip-hop music, all the girls were black or Asian, and had their hair scraped back, looking quite hard. It came from me wanting to be a gangster's moll, that fantasy of having wonderful clothes, lots of diamonds and shopping all day.'
As it transpired, Philo was ahead of her time. By 2000 the 'ghetto fabulous' trend had hit the international collections in a massive way, bringing an explosion of gold logos, flashy shades, furs and diamonds on to the runways.
Chloé, where Philo was then working as Stella McCartney's design assistant, was part of it, fielding collections that featured festoonings of gold chain, necklines slashed to below the navel, and all sorts of rudely placed prints and slogans on T-shirts and bikinis. Those were the shows that made McCartney's name as a great chick-designer.
Then came agonising months of rumour in 2001, when McCartney's move to the Gucci Group remained unconfirmed. Industry speculation was rife, but just about nobody guessed the backroom baby, Philo, was in line for succession. Why did Chloé's CEO, Ralph Toledano, take the risk? 'It was quite clear there had been a lot of good teamwork,' he says. 'I had seen Phoebe was very talented, and more than that, in this industry, chemistry is vital. It was a decision based on intuition. I told her she would have to work very hard, and she said she wanted to.'
More than that, like any canny luxury goods manager, Toledano understood the potential equity in Philo's attractiveness. 'She's really very beautiful, and I think the woman who buys Chloé is very easily identified. The collection represents her, and she represents the clothes,' he told US Vogue before her debut.
So it was time for Philo to get serious. Trouble was, by the time McCartney left, ghetto fabulousness had fizzled out. I was really gutted that it came and went,' Philo sighs. 'So then I did think, right, it's not relevant any more and you're going to look pretty sad if you do it.'
Wisely, instead of calling on her London sub-cultural roots, Philo's three collections have drawn on inspirations intelligible to an audience spanning from California to the south of France: Bardot broderie anglaise; dresses designed with a St Tropez tan in mind; and, always, expert attention to bottom-flattering trousers.
But is this a complete about-turn from the girl she used to be? Philo laughs. 'Not at all. I do think the essence of what I was when I was 14 is still there. Which is to dress up and have fun with clothes and make yourself feel more confident and sexy.'
After McCartney left, Philo admits it was an unexpectedly steep step up for her. 'When you're at St Martins, you think it's all Ab Fab, and you go in there and say, "Ooh, we'll have a bit of pink!" and then it all comes together.
Even as an assistant, you still don't realise all the pressure the head of house is under to keep everybody happy, while at the same time being a strong person. I realised I had really poor management skills - that English Hugh Grant thing of piddling round the point. I've had to curb it. I'm only beginning to feel at ease saying, "That's not right, do it again." '
She's hired an almost entirely female staff, except for her PA, Martin, who came to her (she giggles at the absurdity of her luck) from Donatella Versace. 'I really find it helpful working with other women and doing fittings together, because you really look at each other and say, "Would you wear it like that? Do you want that to fall on that part of your hip or a little lower?" We all try on the clothes. Sometimes late at night we're running around like mad freaks wearing the samples.'
The measure of her success is that sales have grown in the 18 months since Stella McCartney left to set up her own label. That's not to say that she's outdone McCartney, but that Philo's been able to keep the trajectory on the upward continuum that began when they both moved into the house in 1996. There is still plenty to worry about, says Philo, because, for all the attention the two noisy St Martins London girls generated, Chloé is a small house, operating on a tiny team, and in need of growth and development.
When McCartney arrived, for instance, Chloé didn't even sell bags or shoes (on which most fashion houses base their entire businesses), and it's telling that when the new Chloé shop opens in Sloane Street, London, next month, it will be only the company's fifth, after Paris, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong, though the collection sells in department stores the world over. The work is relentlessly exhausting, but worth it. 'I'm proud that it's selling,' Philo says. 'There's a lot of optimism in the air at Chloé.'
So, deservedly, Phoebe Philo, Chloé poster-girl, is set to be the star of the opening party, of course. But has London's homecoming queen really turned all sophisticated Parisian now she's reached the age of 29? It might look like that from a distance, but just ask her close friends. 'Since she's left college, I've seen Phoebe grow up and her clothes become more elegant,' observes Mel Aboun. 'But if people think she's calmed down completely, I think she's got them all fooled.'