The name Phoebe Philo dominated conversation at the Vogue Festival on Saturday, when the famously press-shy creative director of Céline gave Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman a rare interview live on stage.
Philo's influence was immediately apparent in the audience of fashion PRs, bloggers and fashion fans, many of whom wore mannish trousers, trainers and oversized white shirts – a look that echoes Philo's own androgynous style – or carried Céline trapeze bags. Though many in the audience had never heard their heroine speak before, their devotion was uncompromising. "I love Phoebe," said one fashion PR, a sentiment that was echoed in doodles and drawings on the comments boards in the foyer.
When Philo appeared – wearing snakeskin skater shoes, a blush silk shirt and blue tailored trousers – her voice wobbled with nerves at first. She said that, when she started at Céline five years ago, "what I found attractive was that it wasn't an iconic brand, it didn't have a very strong silhouette or a very famous historical designer, and I found that quite liberating – I didn't have the follow a path that had been trodden. But it did stand for quality – it had never licensed itself out, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, like so many other companies."
She spoke passionately about her mission at Céline. "I hope when women wear Céline they feel confident and strong," she said. "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."
She was frank about her uncompromising attitude to work, saying: "I find mediocrity hard. I find that whole area difficult as I care very much about what I do."
Philo joined Céline after a three-year break from fashion to raise her children, before which she was the creative director at Chloé. "I am very privileged," she said. "I know most people are not in a position to say 'I'm not working for 3 years' … that's why I would like to give a bit back." She later spoke of a desire to set up a Céline foundation, and to help people less fortunate than herself.
Philo was also keen to discuss the fashion industry's attitude to women's bodies. "I think it would be unrealistic to think that human beings are not going to have some kind of worshipping for beautiful people, because they always have. I think it's unrealistic to think that the fashion industry, the film industry, the sex industry are not going to have extreme ideas of beauty as a way of selling themselves. I don't really like it sometimes. I thought Rick Owens's show, a couple of seasons ago, when he used all large ladies – strong athletic, dancing – was one of the most exciting, energising things I have seen for a long time … It's got me thinking, I've never done anything like that before but maybe I will.
"What I really do believe is that anybody – and it really doesn't matter what shape your body is – can be seductive and sexy and gorgeous and beautiful. I use an extreme idea of beauty as a way of showing Céline but I don't believe it has to be like that outside of the fashion show."
Philo seemed nervous and wary, and conversation felt awkward at times. When asked by Shulman about the role of print magazines, for example, she tried to avoid the question, saying: "I'm not going to tell you how to do your job – what colours do you think I should do next season?" Despite her much-copied personal style, she would not be drawn on how she, as a person, exemplified the Céline brand. "I don't know, and I don't really think about it, Alex. I can't think about it. I don't find it helpful. When I am confronted with things like that or asked that question, I just do what I do." She continued: "I have an innate fear of fame. I don't know where it comes from, but I have never thought that being famous looked like a good place to be. I love being incognito. I very much value my freedom."
When Shulman asked her about the control she had over her own image, she said: "Of course. I have a strong opinion about that. I am a person, I have feelings, I have values, and if they're not respected, guess what? I don't like it."
On her reasons for leaving Chloé, she said: "it was very clear from the beginning that there was a Chloé aesthetic and my job was to continue doing that … That was one of the reasons I left Chloé. Going back, I was very clear that I wanted to do something that was absolutely something I believed in. It couldn't be to somebody else's brief." Later, she said: "I have complete creative control – that's why I work at Céline."
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