In movies, it's Natalie Portman. In music, it's Norah Jones. And in fashion it's Phoebe Philo. "It," in this case, refers to a woman who, without much hype or hoopla, emerges as the leader of the pack in her field, the swan the others paddle behind like cygnets. All three women are young and down to earth. And everybody wants a piece of them, or in Philo's case, as many pieces--bags, skirts, dresses--as they can afford. But unlike Portman or Jones, Philo is not yet a household name. She is the 31-year-old creative director of the so-venerable-it's-fresh-again French label Chloé. And since 2001, when she took the line over from her former boss, Stella McCartney, her breezy, romantic look has become the uniform of fashion-obsessed celebrities and front-row types. "For two solid years I've sold out of the stuff the minute it hits the floor," says Tracey Ross, owner of the namesake West Hollywood boutique. "She is definitely driving the whole contemporary market. They're all looking to her."
Indeed, at Paris runway shows and Hollywood premieres, stars from Portman to Jennifer Connelly are turning up in Chloé's soft-flowing dresses, peasant skirts and chunky heeled boots. Her influence is spreading even to women who have to pay for their clothes. Not since Helmut Lang introduced superskinny stovepipe pants in the early 1990s has fashion seen such a radical shift in shape. And Philo is widely credited with loosening up the silhouette. "She has absolute precision in terms of being able to seize the fashion moment," says Claudine Barnabé, owner of Espionne, a trendy fashion boutique in Paris. "She knows exactly what women are going to want tomorrow."
From whence comes this sixth sense for style? Philo doesn't stop to analyze it--or think it's a big deal. "A massive part of it is being a woman who loves clothes and bags and shoes," she says. "I'm quite simplistic and spontaneous. I can't really analyze it and intellectualize it." Whether it's intuition or a great eye, her ability to connect with her buyer--generally a fashion cognoscente with a taste for understated glamour--appears to be unerring. She is known for her ability to pick up on even the most extreme street trends and effortlessly blend them into the Chloé signature look of casual chic.
Crucially, Philo's smart sensibility extends to handbags, the heavy artillery in many labels' arsenals. The clothes are lovely, but accessories make money. This season's Paddington bag by Chloé, which retails for $1,280, has generated multipage waiting lists at several boutiques around the world. In London, the police were called into Chloé's Sloane Street boutique to discuss security surrounding the arrival of a shipment of bags.