FROM A FAMILY BUSINESS PRODUCING MADE-TO-MEASURE CHILDREN'S SHOES TO COUTURE SPORTSWEAR AND, EVENTUALLY, A LEADING DESIGNER LABEL – THE FRENCH FASHION HOUSE CÉLINE HAS BEEN EVOLVING SINCE THE MOMENT IT WAS FOUNDED. TODAY’S HYPE SURROUNDING DESIGNER PHOEBE PHILO HAS HELPED IT ACHIEVE ITS BEST INCARNATION YET.
The creative team is based in London. The head designer skipped one season before she presented her début collection at Céline. The company's logo, packaging and every single shop have been overhauled and given the Phoebe factor. LVMH, the group to which Céline belongs, has made the impossible possible for this exceptionally talented British designer. Despite all the changes the essence of the company remains the same. Céline still stands for quality, timeless elegance and French chic.
TINY, BUT EXQUISITE
Céline and Richard Vipiana opened the first Céline boutique in 1945, in the Rue de Malte in Paris. Instinct told them that the post-war years would see the emergence of a renewed desire for luxury goods. And they were right. Their business successfully sold high-end children's shoes. Later they added exclusive women's shoes and handbags to their range. Towards the end of the 1960s, the company started to expand worldwide and, after 24 years in business, it launched its first fashion line. Céline became an advertisement for French Couture Sportswear. The designer believed that what women needed was not a bizarre and eccentric wardrobe, but elegant and functional clothing. When describing a typical Céline customer, Vipiana once said, "She is dynamic, she works, she travels a lot and she doesn't rely on extravagant and overly eccentric clothing to convey her personality to others." Based on these principles, the brand made the simple combination of skirt and blouse fashionable. Its high-end collection consisted of skirts, trousers, blouses, t-shirts, knitwear and soft natural leather accessories. All of the finest quality, elegant and understated - extravagance was not part of the plan. As they approached retirement age, the Vipianas wanted to take a step back and sold two-thirds of Céline to the luxury specialist Bernard Arnault, because their son was not interested in inheriting their fashion legacy. Just two months later, the founders were forced out of the company and Arnault acquired all the shares. Under his direction, Céline was incorporated into the powerful LVMH group in the early 1990s. But major success remained elusive. It was not until 1997 that, thanks to the American designer Michael Kors, Céline gained some glamour. Kors developed a relaxed, French chic look and made Céline into a favourite label of Hollywood stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Angelina Jolie. After seven years of frustrating experiences with LVMH, Kors left Céline - he felt that the board of directors was only interested in the flagship labels Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. So he turned all his attention to his own label. After his departure, Roberto Menichetti and Ivana Omazić both had a go at putting their mark on the label, but neither succeeded. Céline was slowly forgotten.
This changed suddenly thanks to the media hype surrounding Phoebe Philo, who took over as creative director at Céline in 2008 and led the label to unprecedented heights. The top brass at LVMH initially considered giving Phoebe Philo her own signature label, but ultimately decided that uniting the reserved Briton with the classic Parisian brand could create a perfect partnership and a much better solution. By retaining Céline's values – bourgeois elegance meets Parisian chic – and combining it with her avant-garde approach to design, Phoebe Philo has been able to take the substance of the label and turn it into something relevant to modern women. Her collections are full of subtle contrasts and clever ideas. So a piece of Nappa leather becomes a blouse cut like a t-shirt, and jute is transformed into an exclusive pair of trousers. The androgynous and clean garments are pleasingly severe, without being prim. Philo is fashion for adult women who work and have a family. As the designer herself is a mother of three, the brand's success is boosted by her authenticity. The brand's new approach has been accompanied by higher prices. A pair of high heels costs just under 700 euros, a dress is around 1000 euros and a coat is around 2000 euros. Céline is exclusive. Aside from the brand's own boutiques, only selected department stores and concept stores, like Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and Colette distribute the brand. In this age of Superstars and It-Girls, Céline's advertising campaigns, which sometimes feature headless models, are highly innovative and represent a significant exception to the rule. They are the product of close collaboration with the photographer Juergen Teller – a family friend. By not adhering too closely to the label's traditions, Phoebe Philo manages to achieve a balance between the heritage of this design house and a chic, innovative and trendy style. Today, and in keeping with the spirit of its founders, Céline typifies the minimalist, functional fashion of timeless French elegance.
Céline is characterised by subtle tailoring with a particular focus on high-quality materials and functionality. The label's exceptional basics have a timeless elegance that exemplifies the modernity that has catapulted this label to the forefront of avant-garde design. Céline's flagship is its bag collection with best sellers like the Luggage Tote and Trapeze Bag.
As an exclusive luxury label, the French fashion house does not allow its products to be sold online. Céline does not have its own e-commerce store and even Colette and Barneys are not permitted to sell Céline through their online shops.
Céline is founded by husband and wife Richard and Céline Vipiana in Paris. For 15 years, they design and sell luxury children's shoes, with Céline taking responsibility for design and Richard managing the finances. From the outset, they have their own boutique in the Rue de Malte.
The established artist Raymond Peynet is hired to design the first logo. The result is a small red elephant and, from then on, a toy version is given away with every purchase as a gift. This marketing idea makes the children's shoes bestsellers and the couple opens three more boutiques in Paris.
The range is extended to include women's shoes. The company's elegant moccasins are particularly sought-after and help increase awareness of Céline. Exclusive handbags and leather accessories follow later. From the outset, the owners consider a high quality finish and exquisite materials to be extremely important.
Vent Fou – meaning 'crazy wind' – went on sale. It is Céline's first women's fragrance. It is now no longer available.
After nearly 25 years in the leather business, the Vipianas decide to bring out their first fashion line. At the time, designers are all selling expensive clothes. In order to carve out a niche for the brand, a conscious decision is made to launch the Céline collection as Couture Sportswear. Céline Vipiana is one of the first designers to team blouses, waistcoats and feminine t-shirts with trousers and skirts. Rather than appearing flamboyant, her clothes are simultaneously casual and chic. Over several decades, Céline establishes itself as a 'slightly more affordable Chanel'.
In its marketing campaigns, the brand describes itself as "a touch of Paris that is ever-present throughout the world and instantly recognizable because Céline personifies the ultimate in French elegance." More stores open in Monte Carlo, Rome, Geneva and Hong Kong. The label also develops many fans in the United States.
At the beginning of the seventies, Richard Vipiana designs a new logo for the house. It is a stylised two-wheeled, horse-drawn cart – the iconic Céline Sulky.
The Vipianas are now in their 60s and want to take a step back. However, their son shows no interest in the family business. So the couple sells two-thirds of the company to the luxury goods mogul Bernard Arnault. The deal is made on the understanding that the Vipianas can remain in the company but, after only two months, they are forced out of the business. Disillusioned, they accept defeat and sell the remaining shares to Arnault. He appoints Peggy Huynh-Kinh, an interior designer, to the role of creative designer.
Over a period of two years, the brand is slowly integrated into the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Group – LVMH for short – which has been headed by Bernard Arnault since 1989. Nan Legai, appointed Chairwoman and CEO of Céline by Arnault, tells Women's Wear Daily: “The old image of Céline is dead, and we have a much younger-oriented fashion house now”.
September sees the launch of the new fragrance Magic and a menswear line called Céline Homme. The latter is dissolved in 1997 following a lack of success.
Michael Kors becomes the new head designer and, two years later, is appointed creative director. "My challenge was to turn Céline into a ready-to-wear business, where we’re really selling clothes and not just t-shirts.” The American lends the French label a considerable amount of Hollywood glamour. His mix of ‘sporty American simplicity’ and ‘youthful European sophistication’ goes down well among the stars. Soon, Charlize Theron, Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Angelina Jolie are wearing his elegant creations to photo shoots and film premieres. Michael Kors leaves Céline in 2004 to dedicate himself to his own label.
The Italian designer Roberto Menichetti succeeds to the post vacated by Michael Kors. He launches the secondary line Miss Céline. Unfortunately, it is not well-received and, after a disappointing year, Menichetti is replaced by Croatian Ivana Omazić. She had previously made a name for herself as a consultant for brands including Romeo Gigli, Prada Sport, Jil Sander and Miu Miu. Yet even she fails to develop an unmistakeable signature for Céline. Céline remains that bourgeois and conservative label from France, with a reputation for quality, but without artistic substance or financial returns.
After three mediocre years, the Croatian head designer is replaced by British designer Phoebe Philo. Initially, LVMH had wanted to offer Philo her own label, but discussions gradually turn to Céline, which, by that point, is gathering dust. Phoebe is a big name in the fashion business, thanks to her meteoric career at Chloé – first as design assistant to Stella McCartney and then as creative director herself. She has a strong vision for her designs, but prefers to keep herself out of the spotlight. The opportunity at Céline comes along as if on cue. The house has no real design history – like New Look for Dior or the Chanel suit. It stands for bourgeois elegance, the highest quality and Parisian chic. These three cornerstones provide Philo with enough creative freedom to find complete expression.
And LVMH makes everything possible for her. The French label's creative team moves to London and Philo has regular working hours, so that she is free to spent time with her children. There are lots of staff changes, old stock is destroyed and every Boutique is refurbished. It pays off. In very little time, Phoebe Philo succeeds in transforming Céline, which had become a dull fashion house, into an internationally-acclaimed collection of must-haves.
The icing on the cake comes with Phoebe Philo's Mini-Luggage bag and the Trapeze Bag. The two handbags quickly become some of the most sought-after items in any woman's collection – despite the economic crisis. All whilst remaining very unpretentious and without carrying a logo. Only the characteristic design and small gold lettering under the flap betray the exclusive origin.
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