Last July, London’s beau monde congregated at a garden party in a 17th-century manor house in the heart of Oxfordshire’s decadent Chipping Norton area. The guest list included a potent mix of designers, entrepreneurs, musicians, politicians, filmmakers, models, writers, and aristocrats. But it was the unexpected presence of fashion designer Phoebe Philo that captured the attention of all 400 of them.

After suddenly resigning as the creative director of LVMH-owned Celine in 2018, Philo left entire populations of stylish women wondering what on earth they were supposed to wear. She had mastered a look that was both ascetic and directional, knowing and intellectual.

Backstage with the models at a Chloé fashion show in Paris.

Alongside the just-so slouchy pants and asymmetrically seamed knits was a bit of insouciance from her signature glasses, neon florals, and picnicky plaids. “You’d feel ‘clever’ just by putting it on, which is very clever in itself,” says Jo Ellison, the editor of the Financial Times’s HTSI sections. “I have bought far fewer clothes since she left.”

Celine rebounded quickly, thanks to the success of Philo’s successor, Hedi Slimane, who specializes in the kind of beautiful, highly covetable clothes that have skyrocketed Celine’s annual sales to more than $1 billion.

But the fashion-world obsession with Philo has continued. At the Oxfordshire party, she wore an unadorned and high-necked long black satin sheath. It was the sort of thing that is now selling for thousands on one of the many “old Céline”–themed resale sites that have emerged in the wake of her abdication. And what of those rumors of her return to fashion with her own LVMH-backed brand? Was it finally happening? But after that party, Philo disappeared yet again. Nothing for months.

And then, on February 9, @phoebephilo finally appeared on Instragram with a post announcing that her first collection would go on sale in September at That was all: no hints, no P.R. blurb, just the fact and the date.

“Ah, yes,” says Lisa Armstrong, The Daily Telegraph’s head of fashion. “The person we are all trying to get hold of. We don’t even know who her P.R. is.”

Dropping Hints

Although Philo was gone, she had not been forgotten. In fact, the rumor mill had been fed a steady diet of gossip about why she had disappeared at the height of her powers. Was it true she was suffering from postpartum depression and overwhelmed by the stress of working on such a prominent global brand? Anyone who has seen the four-part fashion documentary Kingdom of Dreams, a brutal exposé on the demands that luxury conglomerates place on their creative directors, would certainly sympathize.

Eagle-eyed Notting Hill residents have known since 2019 that something was cooking after spotting Philo going in and out of a modern warehouse-style office building just off Ladbroke Grove. “Is she designing again? Is it true she’s going to Chanel?” the fashion-curious would murmur at parties at Casa Cruz or over lunches at Gold. But kernels of information were maddeningly elusive.

The cult of Phoebe Philo dates back to 1997, when, fresh out of Central Saint Martins, she joined Stella McCartney’s team at Chloé as first design assistant. I remember hearing about how this young ingénue was already making her mark.

When, in 2001, McCartney left Chloé to launch her eponymous label, Philo was made its creative director. It was the perfect fit, as she embodied the spirit of the brand, a carefree but sophisticated French girl with a renegade British edge. In a sense, Philo shared the vision of Karl Lagerfeld, who had held the same position at Chloé before joining Chanel.

Phoebe Philo with Stella McCartney and photographer Patrick Demarchelier.

Philo remained at Chloé for five years, briefly toying with the idea of launching a brand under her own name. But the timing didn’t seem to be right—in 2004, she and her husband, the art dealer Max Wigram, had their first child. And then, in 2007, Celine came calling.

“Phoebe was on fire at Chloé,” says Lucinda Chambers, formerly the longtime fashion director at British Vogue and now the co-founder of fashion-and-interiors site Collagerie. “But then, overnight, she became the Celine woman.”

But Philo remained uneasy in the public eye. She and Wigram went on to have two more children. They spend weekends and holidays under the radar at their home in Somerset. Among those in her social set, there is a sense that there are two Phoebes—the down-to-earth mother and wife, and then Fashion Phoebe, who has always struggled with the strictures of her role.

“I remember, years ago, I bumped into her at the local Starbucks,” says a friend who also works in the fashion industry. “She came over to me and said, ‘Oh my God, how do you cope with the children, going to Paris every week? It’s so tricky.’”

“She’s Like a Racehorse”

But Philo’s tenure at Celine was wildly successful, earning annual sales of around $500 million. In 2015, when fashion brands were utterly infatuated with teenage spokesmodels, she convinced Joan Didion (then 80 years old) to appear in her advertising campaign. A couple of years later, Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne interviewed Philo for a documentary on his aunt. “I immediately knew this was not a person who does interviews,” he recalls. “I knew what a rare event that was.”

“Phoebe is such an interesting designer—she’s very modern, very sophisticated, and avant-garde,” says Chambers. “She and Jean Paul Gaultier are not dissimilar. If you get something out from his 80s collections, you can still wear it now. The same goes for her work at Celine. Initially, people thought she was designing beautiful classics, but she pushed it and pushed it. She’s like a racehorse.”

Joan Didion in Phoebe Philo’s Céline.

Amanda Harlech, a longtime friend and collaborator of Karl Lagerfeld’s, agrees. “I’m so thrilled she’s back. It’s been long overdue,” she says. “I wore Phoebe’s Celine recently at Vivienne Westwood’s memorial service. It’s got the same magic as couture; it’s not destroyed by trends.”

She compares Philo’s near-mythical status with that of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. “[Coco] became the brand. She was who girls wanted to be. The same thing happened with Phoebe,” says Harlech. “I hope she’s going to be much more protected this time round. We are all wide-eyed with expectation.”

So what can we expect from her first collection? “I imagine from the tiny smatterings I’ve heard that it’s going to be a variation on a capsule wardrobe, season-less and digital,” says Ellison. Chambers has also heard the rumors that Philo has been poaching talent from luxury houses such as Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, and JW Anderson.

Philo’s off-kilter aesthetic, as seen in some pumps from 2012 that are reminiscent of a baby chick, made her a star.

But most of Philo’s big plans remain shrouded in secrecy. “It’s like there’s a firewall,” says Ellison. “She’s never wanted to make herself part of the story. Now with her own name on the label, she will have to take some of that responsibility on. There’s an element of fragility to her, and she’s notoriously a perfectionist. Part of her appeal is she’s Greta Garbo—like a sphinx.”

The wait is now nearly over, and the fashion industry is betting big on her success. “A lot of designers must be nervous,” says Chambers. “Many have tried to step into her shoes. But no one has filled the void.”

Vassi Chamberlain is a Writer at Large for Air Mail