@MusingMutley: In conversation with Kate Phelan, global creative director of Topshop
Fast fashion first-hand
Karlie Kloss has just walked into the Topshop head office in London. It's drizzling outside (quelle surprise!), so she's sauntered in with damp limp hair dripping onto a dark trench coat. There are no airs about her. Very much the girl next door. In fact, I almost didn't recognise her, save for the giant floor-to-ceiling campaign poster of Kloss (towering over guests in the reception area) serving as a point of reference. Instinctively, I whip out my phone to Snapchat. "Karen is going to die," I mutter to myself, as I send the video to a friend in Singapore. And seconds later, my phone buzzes with confirmation: "OMG! OMG! OMG!" says the first message. "My mouth is wide open in shock! I wish I was there!!!" says another. Then a tirade of requests: "Can you get an autograph for me?!", "Take a selfie with her!", "Or a Snapchat video or something?!"
The power of Klossy never ceases to amaze. Compound this with the 24/7 nature of social media, and the leggy supermodel is your morning Instagram fix, afternoon Twitter break, and evening YouTube entertainment. My hyperventilating friend is just one of Karlie's 5.25 million followers across her multiple platforms; watching every single move of this girl from Chicago with the all-American good looks and down-to-earth gregarious charm.
Because of Klossy, my interview with Kate Phelan is running late. It's the day before the Topshop Unique runway show at London Fashion Week — the more directional collection presented by the fast fashion retailer — and the global creative director of Topshop is personally fitting Kloss to attend the show, not as a catwalk model, but as a front-row attendee alongside the likes of Jourdan Dunn and Lara Stone.
It's taking some time, but I'm not fussed. They've seated me outside the casting room where I have an uninterrupted view (albeit, through a glass partition) of the new collection: A fur gilet draped over a bralet and sequinned full-skirt, an oversized bomber contrasted with tights, and the sashay of a wide-legged trouser slathered in a traditional houndstooth print. There's a louche sexiness to the ensembles. And when I finally meet Phelan, the design direction makes total sense — she oozes with an easy and unaffected confidence. In a room surrounded by, yet again, large campaign posters of Karlie, we discuss the influence of fast fashion on the luxury industry, the appeal of Klossy, and the three must-have pieces for the upcoming fall/winter 2016 season.
How would you define the Topshop Unique girl? How is she different from the Topshop girl or are they much the same?
I think there's quite a close relationship between them to be honest. Although the Topshop Unique collection is sort of, you know, developed and presented like a catwalk collection, I think it just shows how Topshop can house everything. That's the interesting world we play in — within this high-low world of fashion. The catwalk collection represents the sort of high level part of us, and then the core Toshop — that fast, furious fashion — is really the immediate part of our story. In other words, the catwalk collection gives us an opportunity to crystallise an idea, to really focus on something we really want to try and explain a little bit more.
What is at the heart of Topshop?
The real culture of Topshop, the real sort of characteristic of Topshop, is style. And really, our challenge every season with the Unique show is to show our girl's effortless style. And we feel really strongly that the individual, the personality, is key to empowering that Topshop identity. So whether it's the catwalk show, whether it's through our advertising campaign, or through our imagery in-store, we really want to try and capture that. The customer is the personality: You're the star, and we're your playground in a way. No two girls look the same in the clothes; everybody brings their own sort of individuality to it.
How does this focus on individuality and personality affect your casting for the Topshop Unique show?
We're really playing against the shows where the girls all look identical. So we're embracing all their individuality — whether it's the girl's curly hair or unique features. It's a really important time to allow the personality to sing.
You've just had a fitting with Karlie Kloss, who also stars in your current campaign. Is that the kind of girl who typifies Topshop?
Yeah, I mean, she's one of the many Topshop girls and I think that's always been our struggle — to find one girl that really can be all of those things. Karlie is an incredible supermodel, she's fantastic in front of the camera, and she looks amazing in everything you put her in. But apart from that, I love the fact that she's smart. She's embraced the opportunity to do other things, you know. She's educated herself, she stayed close to her family, she...
She's quite well-rounded.
Yes, exactly. And I think she's just a very fresh, bright spark in that very crowded space. So few girls now really get the opportunity to become, you know, that big name, that big model. And I think she really embraces, not just models and fashion, but being a great example for young women in general.
You mentioned before that the benefit of Topshop Unique is being able to focus on one key message through the catwalk. What's the core take-home message for fall/winter 2016?
We've taken that sorta slouchy, sexy cool girl — who still has a hangover of punk going on — but then, mixed it up with the early days of rave, and then a little bit of vintage dressing. So it's really capturing all those very British elements and giving her a new platform to flash that style. We loved bringing back the idea of leggings with big bomber jackets and huge oversized military coats paired back with little bralets, so it's almost like a contrast of proportions; a conflict between the boy and the girl. You have the sexy bombshell girl, you have the tomboy, and you also have the androgynous girl. So you really see all these different characters playing out, by what they wear, and how they wear it.
If you had to pinpoint what you want girls to feel when wearing something from Unique, what would that be?
This collection, she's sexy, she's confident, she's empowered, she's... in control of her life. So, in short, it's a confident sexuality.
How important is marketing in driving Topshop forward?
I think that marketing works hand-in-hand with design. At the end of the day, you still need good things, no matter how strong your marketing tools are. And I think, if it's good it will sell, you know. We've always known that strong fashion imagery really helps sell clothes to women. So that relationship between you and the image of the girl, is very important.
In the last few weeks, brands such as Burberry and Tom Ford have stated their alignment towards the whole 'look now, buy now' movement, which is currently a hot topic in fashion. What are your thoughts on this move from the luxury houses?
I mean, I think it really is fascinating. They are almost looking at the model of fast fashion and really having to make the big shift, you know. It's much harder for them than it is for us, because we're already doing it.
I DON'T THINK PEOPLE REALISE THAT, ACTUALLY, IT'S LUXURY BRANDS THAT ARE BACK IN THE DARK AGES WHEN IT COMES TO DELIVERING CLOTHES TO THE CUSTOMER.
And I think you guys have pioneered that and forced these brands to kind of follow suit.
Yeah, absolutely, you're right. I mean, it's a question that I've been talking, and speaking a lot about, recently. I don't think people realise that, actually, it's luxury brands that are back in the dark ages when it comes to delivering clothes to the customer. And I think, you know, that the nice challenge for us now is: What do we do next? How can we take advantage of that situation and do something else ourselves that feels new and innovative and exciting? And I think there's lots of things that we can think about.
What are some of your thoughts?
For me, just sort of taking away the seasons. To think about fashion not as autumn/winter, spring/summer, resort or pre-fall, and just work on collection one, collection two, and so on. Fashion being something that we constantly want, we're constantly consuming, it doesn't need to be fashion for a season.
Which makes sense, given that a lot of consumers don't live in the traditional western seasons, like Singapore for example.
It's an endless summer in Singapore. Or in Australia, where the seasons are all backwards...
[Nodding in my direction] I bet that's the first time you've worn that coat in years.
Yes! And I'm loving it.
But you're absolutely right. So you know, for years that's been the case. And why are we suddenly now so surprised that the world looks different over there? It's time for everybody to really start behaving like a global business. Obviously the digital world allows us to have a global platform. But the brands have to catch up, because if you can't deliver your goods to capitalise on the digital opportunity, then you're failing, you know. It's not just about having a website. It's about building a community; it's a new idea of what a shop can be. To make it a portal that is more than an e-shop. To create a lifestyle digital experience through content and music; to become this sort of, you know, a broadcaster almost.
You've had a very strong editorial background having worked at British Vogue for many years. How much of that comes into play when you're designing a collection for Unique? Do you think 'Okay, I can see Vogue talking about this, so I'll present this on the runway'?
Not really, no. We talk much more about who we think our Topshop girl is and her DNA. Her roots are very much built on British style, so I think that's a very different starting point immediately. When I design, I picture the complete look and work backwards. It's not about looking at trends, it's more about answering the question: What do girls really want to wear right now?
On the topic of what women want to wear, what are three key pieces that every girl should own for the upcoming fall/winter 2016 season?
First, that slightly oversized masculine jacket — but not your boyfriend's jacket, it's something a little bit more structured. Big, roomy, double-breasted. I think that's essential cause you can wear it with a very short tight mini-skirt, and you can wear it with big jeans, so it's incredibly versatile. Second, I love clothes that have a slightly military reference, like an army bomber jacket. When I was growing up, in my sort of early fashion years, we would trawl through army surplus. So things that have become style classics for me are masculine tailoring on girls with that army military vibe. Lastly, I think the luxury of velvet and vintage, and girls wearing vintage as evening wear — I've always loved the idea of that.
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- Video: Reuters
- Image: Getty Images
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