If there’s one woman in Topshop who knows how to dress for London Fashion Week, it’s our Creative Director Kate Phelan. Having worked on the glossy pages of British Vogue for over 20 years, Kate has planned and packed ensembles for every front row worth sitting on, in New York, London, Paris and Milan. As one of the industry’s leading stylists, she’s perfected the art of dressing and is sharing her secrets to effortless style for SS12.
Be sure to take a look at her survival kit and enjoy catching up with Kate in our interview. We could have sat and listened to her talk for hours!
I first became interested in fashion when… I was living at home with my parents. My mum was a subscriber to Vogue so it was always in the house. It was something we were never allowed to put our mugs on, something we weren’t allowed to sort of touch in a way. Growing up outside of London in Devon, my access to fashion was very limited so when I saw a magazine like Vogue, it made me go and scour vintage shops and jumble sales for anything that resembled a piece I’d seen being worn.
My earliest fashion memory is… seeing a Bruce Weber shoot that Grace Coddington styled in 1983. I became obsessed with it. I begged my mum to let me have the pictures from her Vogue to stick on my wall. I even took them into the hairdressers and said I wanted my hair cut like that. At the time no one had clue what I was doing or why I was doing it.
I wanted to do History of Art at university… but I had such a good time at college that I failed my A-levels. During the year I was supposed to retake those A-levels I made clothes. I would take my dole money, buy fabric, tie-dye it and then take a trip up to London to sell in Camden Market. Eventually my mum said I should go and do a fashion course so I ended up at Somerset College of Arts and Technology on a really average course with girls who just wanted to make car cushions for their boyfriends. When it came to me leaving and I told the tutors I wanted to go to Central Saint Martins they burst out laughing and told me not to be ridiculous. But I thought, I’m not going to put up with this and off I trotted to my interview and I managed to get in which I was as surprised about as they were.
I realised I wanted to be a stylist when… in my first year of my Fashion Communication and Promotion course, it became apparent that I was much more interested in the finished product than the creation of the product. I ended up doing a placement at Vogue and within a week, I realised that this was it. I never knew that there was such a thing as a Fashion Editor and this was brilliant to me. I was supposed to be there for three months but I managed to stay there for a bit longer and then a bit longer. Eventually a new Fashion Editor started working there who needed an assistant and they said she could have me. It was Sarah Jane Hoare who had come from the Observer and when it came to the point where she needed a full time assistant, they offered me a full time job.
When I joined Vogue I still had no idea about the industry… I remember one of the Editors asking me to ring Manolo and ask for some pumps – at that time I didn’t even know who or what Manolo was. I remember thinking that everything was so grand and brilliantly polished. They were all so well informed and so chic and stylish!
Being offered the job at Vogue made me realise… that in the fashion industry, so much of it is about timing and being in the right place at the right time. I didn’t finish my degree at Central Saint Martins but I’ve never ever regretted it. I absolutely believe that if I hadn’t have made that decision, everything would be so different for me now. I knew that when I finished college and came out with a degree, the job I would want was the job I was just about to be offered.
I ended up working at Vogue for over 20 years… because where else would you want to work on a magazine in England? When I first started there, I stayed for three years and then went to Marie Claire to be their Fashion Editor. By the time I’d got to that stage in my career there, Alexandra Shulman had become the Editor of British Vogue and she was putting together a new team. She put Lucinda Chambers in as Fashion Director and then she approached me about nine months later and asked me to go and join them. I was actually in two minds about what to do as I always thought that Vogue was where you wanted to end your career so at the beginning I turned it down and said I didn’t want to do it (laughs). I was in such a mess about it because I was terrified about what I’d do once I’d gone to Vogue. I always knew it was really the ultimate for me.
When the role at Topshop came along… the more I thought about it, the more I thought how interesting it would be to see whether anything I had that amazing experience I had would be of any value outside of Vogue. Ultimately, I felt that it was now, or never – that if I was ever going to do something different in my life I should do it now while I’m just about still young enough to have the energy and enthusiasm and the ambition to do it. Topshop’s always been around my world in fashion and I think the last 10 years have just been so incredible for the brand. It’s such an important part of British Fashion and for me, it ticked all the boxes.
My role at Topshop is… sprinkling fairy dust! Ultimately, I look at Topshop like I’m editing a magazine. I look at all of it and think do I love all of it? Do I love how all of it looks? I guess it’s helping to create that handwriting, making us grow as a brand, but making sure that we retain our unique personality.
For me, Topshop is… the place I’d do my trolley dash before the shows. I’d go to Selfridges and blow my entire budget on one Celine handbag and then I’d go and hit Topshop and pad out my wardrobe with everything I needed. In the end, the things that I always relied on were from Topshop. It has this unique position of being able to be a brand that can sit so comfortably next to your designer labels.
The thing that most excites me about fashion right now is… individuality! Rather than being a slave to fashion trends, it’s all about the way we dress. If we look at what’s thrilling us, what’s exciting us, it is seeing what girls are wearing on the street – that’s how to find that real, individual approach to fashion. As Topshop, we want to give that girl that complete selection of everything to play with.
My Topshop essentials to pep up your wardrobe for SS12 are… bright knits, a smart baseball jacket, our embellished jeans. But really it should be a summer of dresses, being able to do that one-piece dressing.
I’ve never been a complete slave to fashion… I know what I like and what I need. I always invest in a nice handbag, shoes and a jacket. My ten wardrobe essentials are quite basic in a way and what I do is make them look refreshed each season. I use fashion as a way of enhancing that familiarity – I’ll move into new colours, or new prints but silhouette and shape tend to be something I stick with. I like to invest more into tailored pieces as I totally see the relevance of a good tailored jacket and I really like the idea of mixing it with your jeans and your ballet pumps. I also use jewellery quite a lot to turn things from day into evening.
My favourite city for Fashion Week is… if I’m really honest, London is my favourite because I’m so passionate about the success of the British designers. I think that British fashion design is instrumental in shaping the whole face of fashion – I think we’re huge influencers and I think we’re incredibly modest about it. We are looked at for inspiration, for newness, as a style nation and I think people are incredibly curious at how we’ve done that without having the heritage. I don’t think there is anywhere like it in the world to be honest. There’s no other city in the world that you go to where every single day you see something amazing.
This London Fashion Week I’m excited about… the Unique show. It’s got a different feeling to it, a more real take, less fantasy. And then I can’t wait to get my hands on Mary Katrantzou’s printed trousers – some of those pieces are going to be so hugely successful and I now wish it was bigger.
The tips I’d offer for girls looking to start a career in fashion are… empower yourself with the knowledge of fashion. Look at reference books, look at magazines, study the names, look at what’s new. Always have one eye on the future and one eye on the past. Put your sights on where you see yourself being and don’t ever give up on that.
Take a look at Kate’s London Fashion Week survival edit and be sure to let us know what you love!
Kate Phelan will also be taking part in Teen Vogue’s Fashion University on October 20th. We’ll be running a Fashion University Challenge via Twitter so keep an eye out for our style-centered pop quiz!