How the Battle of Celine vs. Céline Is Playing Out in Retail and Social Media

In the three weeks since Hedi Slimane debuted his new collection for Celine during Paris Fashion Week, the Instagram account @oldceline has racked up nearly 100k followers. Founded by Toronto-based fashion student Gabrielle Boucinha, the page is dedicated to Phoebe Philo’s designs for Céline — accent definitively on — from 2008 to spring ’18 (the last collection before the British designer announced her retirement in December of last year). Boucinha posts images of old campaigns, like those featuring Philo’s doppelgänger model Daria Werbowy or the brand’s famous fur-lined Birkenstock-esque sandals from the spring ’13 collection

The account has become a beacon of nostalgia for outspoken Philophiles around the world, and its acolytes do not mince words in expressing their disdain for Slimane’s new brand ethos. “You mean, the Céline funeral?” was one anonymous buyer’s response to the spring ’19 show — before it was even shown. 

As retailers continue to solidify their buys for the spring ’19 season, the digital microcosm of nostalgia is ensuring that the past Céline will prevail even as the future Celine takes its shape in stores come spring.

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The opening look of the Celine spring ’19 show at Paris Fashion Week.
CREDIT: WWD/Rex/Shutterstock

“Everyone loved what Phoebe did. It was always editorially beautiful, but ultimately, it was a business built on handbags,” said Ken Downing, fashion director and SVP of Neiman Marcus, the week after the show (and before the retailer’s showroom appointment with the brand). He also noted that selling its ready-to-wear was more complicated at retail than its cult status with editors indicated.

Downing admitted that he was “hoping for a little bit more vocabulary that would link to Céline,” and pointed to the styling of the show as a possible cause for such a strong reaction. “Looking back to the first season [Slimane was] at YSL, it was super disruptive. He was looking to do that,” said Downing.

Not everyone is giving Slimane the benefit of the doubt in the retail landscape, though. “The feedback I’ve received to date from existing Celine shoppers has not been overwhelmingly positive,” said Jing Leng, fashion director of digital curation platform ModeSens.com. “In the past, Céline lovers were very drawn to the brand due to it’s subtle and understated designs, but the new collection is much more standout than ever before,” Leng added. “(It) feels similar to Saint Laurent, thus it may be that Saint Laurent customers will now consider Celine in a more positive light.”

Most of the collection’s criticism was divided into two key points: the drastic departure of Philo’s aesthetic and Slimane’s replication of his Saint Laurent designs. For the latter, Instagram account Diet Prada (helmed by Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler) showed side-by-side runway shots of the designer’s debut with those from his last collection for Saint Laurent, for fall ’16. “Hedi Slimane picks right back up where he left off at @ysl,” the duo wrote in their post. “LVMH is banking on the $limane (sic) dollars, but apparently not the creativity.”

A look from Hedi Slimane’s new Celine for the spring ’19 collection. Instagram critics Diet Prada called out the designer’s replication of looks from his ultimate collection for Saint Laurent for fall ’16.
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A look from Saint Laurent fall ’16, the last collection Slimane created for the brand before his departure.
CREDIT: WWD/Rex/Shutterstock

But retailers will attest to the adage that critical and commercial success don’t always go hand in hand. Downing said he’s been inundated with messages from customers on social media telling him that they are excited about Slimane’s direction. “A runway presentation is only one portion of what happens [with a new collection],” Downing said. “You put the pedal to the metal in the showroom, and that’s where things really happen.”

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A black leather moto boot at Celine’s spring ’19 show. The brand’s showroom for the season was full of commercially viable styles in a variety of colors, prints and silhouettes.
CREDIT: WWD/Rex/Shutterstock

A visit to the brand’s temporary showroom after the show revealed that observation to be true: Alongside the runway pieces was a sprawling offering of commercial ready-to-wear that was lighter on the initial rock ’n’ roll vibe. There was a strong selection of well-made boots (biker, Western and classic ankles with miniature studding), plus pumps in Barbie pink, leopard print on unisex styles and a new sneaker done in myriad colors and prints (including those done by artist Christian Marclay, who claimed the prize of Slimane’s first collaborator for the brand).

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The Editorialist founder Kate Davidson Hudson in a Philo-era Céline look in October during Paris Fashion Week.
CREDIT: WWD/Rex/Shutterstock

The social nostalgia has also given new life to “old Céline” in retail, and consignment trends have indicated that the brand is ripe for collecting. The weekend after the spring ’19 show, resale site The Real Real’s homepage featured a curation of Céline’s Philo era, which gave it an initial 73 percent revenue spike and a 52 percent increase in search for the brand (in following weeks, growth search was at 29 percent), according to Sasha Skoda, category director of women’s at The Real Real. Overall, the resale value has risen by seven percent, and prices have increased by up to 30 percent (Philo’s famous fur-lined sandals are selling out for approximately $550 and its leather pumps with an elastic round toe, for $575).

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A pair of Céline leather round-toe pumps from the Philo era available for $575 on The Real Real.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Real Real

Vestiaire Collective has seen a similar bump: Visits to its Céline pages increased by 275 percent from September 27 to October 2, according to Ceanne Fernandes Wong, the site’s VP EMEA and CMO.  Overall, the number of Céline product sold on the site in September 2018 increased by 28 percent (compared to the same month in 2017), and the Classic bag has been the most popular product sold over the past month.

Handbags may ultimately be the only thread linking Celine’s future with its past, and the brand’s spring ’19 Paris showroom was full of old hits, like the Luggage, Cabas and Classic styles, in addition to the new, uncharacteristically conservative bag that Slimane introduced this summer. (A recent walk through Bergdorf Goodman’s handbag floor confirmed the same carryover styles for the current season). “I believe that it is important to always keep a piece of the classic style that represents the brand,” said Leng. “It’s equally important to innovate and move a brand forward over time as consumers need to continue to be inspired, but creative directors can make their mark while keeping the original spirit alive.” In the end, it’s the Luggage bag that is likely to outlive the legacies of both Slimane and even its designer, Philo — both in dollars and sensibility.

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