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In a way, it’s a funny twist of fate that Frédérique Gilain-Huneeus discovered Céline at nearly the exact same moment that she relocated to Hong Kong to join Goldman Sachs. The year was 2010 and Phoebe Philo was calling the attention of women far and wide with her debut collection’s ultra-sleek, streamlined silhouettes, a number of which happened to suit the corporate work space. But as Philo’s oeuvre expanded, so did Gilain-Huneeus’s sartorial tendencies.
“I was always breaking the dress code,” the finance lawyer recalls, laughing. Philo had opened up Gilain-Huneeus’s wardrobe, and, soon, Gilain-Huneeus’s monochromatic minimalism was giving way to something more playful, something more personal (as one can now see on @lefredtouch, where she documents her Old Céline-clad outings). “That’s what I like about the Phoebe pieces,” adds Gilain-Huneeus, whose own collection has grown to over 300 pieces (and counting) since Philo’s departure, “the freedom you have to make each your own.”
Below, Gilain-Huneeus discusses her archival collection — and why Phoebe Philo’s legacy lives on.
How did you become passionate about fashion?
I used to work for investment banks, like Goldman Sachs, for many, many years, and I was always breaking the dress code. People would say, ‘You can get away with it because you're French,’ and I was like, No, I’m getting away with it because it’s me. I’ve always been extremely conscious about what I was wearing. It was not necessarily about the brands; it was more about the fabrics, the look, and the comfort.
After I was diagnosed with breast cancer and began having treatments, the way that I present myself became even more important. I’ve played with my appearance a lot, both in order to be comfortable and happy myself and also for the people around me to be comfortable and to see that I was sick but I was not diseased. I had cancer, but I was not cancer. We could still have a good time and look good. I got a lot of traction on Instagram around that time. I think I started being a bit more bold, a little less corporate…
Now, I work in a hedge fund, and the dress code is not that important anymore, so sometimes I go to the office wearing an evening coat with sneakers, which is the kind of thing I like to do. I like to go to a black tie event wearing something — a tux with gold shoes, for example — that you wouldn’t see in a place like Hong Kong, where black tie is something very English in a way.
When did you begin collecting Phoebe Philo’s Céline?
I was already 43-years old when I discovered Céline in 2010. At the time, I was still in London, about to move to Hong Kong, and I was looking for a few good pieces to wear to work. I was starting to be a bit bored of my Prada and Marni pieces. I saw Céline and thought of Michael Kors, but I tried on a pair of pants and a shirt, and I was like, Oh my god, this is exactly what I want to wear. The pants were fantastic, and the arms of the shirt were perfectly cut, so I was like, What else do you have? I got a few more pieces, but they were very much pieces I could wear to work — they felt cool and edgy, but they still followed the mold. And then I got more interested and began to buy a lot and pre-order from each collection.
I soon realized I could mix the collections — I could pair an early piece with a more recent piece, and it made sense. I think the Spring 2014 collection was the first time I wore color because there was this very artsy red black… And I started making some funny combinations that I would never have done before, like stripes with florals. It was really not my kind of style, but the collection gave me the opportunity to play. I think that’s what I like about the Phoebe pieces: the freedom you have to make each your own. After 2017, when she announced she was leaving, I began buying some more pieces secondhand.
Why are you drawn to Phoebe Philo’s Céline?
To me, Phoebe’s proposal of apparent simplicity and impeccable tailoring was very new and modern. The collections were made of real clothes for real life, which said something about the woman wearing them. If I was to define Céline, I would have to use contradictory but somewhat complementary adjectives: it is fashion but not fashionable, structured and relaxed, cerebral and sensual, subtle and provocative, architectural and comfortable, fearless and desirable, avant-garde and refined… You would wear Céline by Phoebe Philo for yourself — not for anyone else — from early morning to very late at night, almost as a lifestyle.
Each collection, in its own way, challenged conventions and expectations; they were so different from one another but somewhat still connected in that they always ended up mixing and matching so well; the new pieces enhanced and echoed older ones, telling the story of this so-called “Céline woman.” It was as if Phoebe knew what we wanted to wear way before we did. I do miss the depth, strength, complexity, and uniqueness that Phoebe brought to Céline. She really took us on a journey — we grew with her prints, her color palette, her language, her constructions and her use of fur, metal, and technical fabrics… If you look closely, you will see that Old Céline is not quite as “minimalist” as people tend to qualify it.
What are some highlights of your collection?
I think my favorite piece is a navy cashmere and black fringe dress from Pre-Fall 2015 (look 30). It’s not one of Phoebe’s most iconic pieces or the most collectible piece I own, but it is very special to me — I love the combination of simplicity and eccentricity, of day and night, of serious and fun. I feel happy every single time I wear it.
And, of course, the Yves Klein Anthropometry sheer dress from Spring 2017 — it’s art meets fashion, or wearable art in an understated way; it will never go out of style. Another piece that combines fashion and art in a somewhat subdued way is Peter Miles blanket belted coat from Pre-Fall 2018 (look 29), which was Phoebe’s last collection. This coat could look like your nan’s robe, but it does not. I kind of see it as an heirloom of Old Céline — it may sound pretentious but it is a “those who know, know” kind of piece.
I’m more of a clothes person than a bag person, but I do love accessories, particularly earrings because I have short hair. I like the simple but bold shapes that Phoebe made, like Pre-Fall 2015’s giant crushed earrings (looks 16 and 17).
The common denominator of all these pieces — and most Old Céline pieces — is the fact that there is no fuss about them. They’re at once strong and soft, timeless but never boring or expected.There is always a casual and comfortable yet feminine and natural way of wearing them, with the woman wearing the clothes and not the clothes wearing the woman.
At what point did you begin to see yourself as a collector?
Everything I wear is mostly Old Céline. I have a lot — probably 300 pieces and perhaps even more with accessories — but I don’t consider myself a collector. The reality is that my collection is very alive; my collection is very me. I’m not collecting for the sake of collecting, but rather I’m collecting pieces that I want to wear. For that reason, I’ve sold quite a lot of the pieces that no longer feel like me, including some very collectible ones, like the pink cape from Spring 2017 (look 42) and the sleeveless oversized jacket from Spring 2017 (look 8). I still like them on other people, but I did not enjoy wearing them or did not feel that good in them.
How do you wear your collection?
Usually, I decide in the shower in the morning what I’m going to wear. It really depends on my mood — what I want to communicate and who I want to be that day. I don’t have any rules — I can wear head-to-toe Céline, or I can mix it with a new designer or vintage from the 70s. I feel that it’s very easy to mix Old Céline with anything.
What’s on your wishlist?
Aside from the fact that I already have a lot, I am a pretty opportunistic buyer. When I see something, I know immediately if I want it or not — and what price I am prepared to pay for it. I regularly replace the “basics” — mainly collarless white shirts, sweaters, and pants — and I’m also still looking for a few specific pieces — very simple things, like a maxi striped shirt dress with a little bit of red embroidery on the pockets from Pre-Fall 2015. I’ve been searching for it since 2017. I still am not sure why I did not buy it at the time! Again, it’s not a very iconic piece; it’s just a dress that I want and don’t have. It was on Resee a long time ago, but I missed it. Now, I have alerts set here and there. I wait for an email to give me the good news.
A pair of foulard-print pants from Spring 2011 (look 23). I can just jump into them — they’re a bit baggy and you can wear them with sneakers or heels and a T-shirt or tank top, and you’re dressed. You look cool. They’re iconic for sure and a joy to wear. I’d been on the hunt for those and got them when a seller contacted me. Sometimes the price is ridiculous and I have to be careful to make sure that the pieces are authentic and the condition is as good as I want it to be, but I wanted them so badly. The price was okay — though of course it was expensive — so I just prayed for the best.
Most recent purchase?
I bought a pair of white silk pants with frontal zips from Spring 2011. They were in the season’s ad campaign on Daria Werbowy. I also got a linen poncho cape from Resort 2011 (look 26). It was very hard to find; it was on my list for a long time.
The piece that got away?
It has to be the Mackintosh trench coats from Fall 2016 (looks 9 and 17). I tried each of them on but never bought either. Same with the foulard-print shirts from Spring 2011 (looks 23 and 24), which match my pants. I tried them on when they came out and almost bought one, but I thought it was a bit loud for my minimalist style at the time, so I passed and quickly regretted it. When I went back to the store to finally get one, they were sold out. Now, the second-hand price for this item is ridiculous — but I am very happy with my pants!