One of the most influential women in the fashion business, Kate Phelan is the Creative Director at TOPSHOP, a Contributing Editor to British Vogue and one of Britain’s most esteemed stylists.
Moving to London in 1984 to study fashion communications at Central St Martins, her university degree was interrupted by a three-month work placement at Vogue. Phelan was offered the position of full-time Fashion Assistant, and left university life behind to stay with Vogue for three years before leaving to become Junior Fashion Editor at Marie Claire. In 1993, Alexandra Shulman, the newly-appointed Editor of British Vogue asked Phelan to return to the magazine, so she accepted and went on to become Fashion Director. She has collaborated with some of the most esteemed photographers, models and personalities in the fashion world — including Nick Knight, Marcus Piggott and Kate Moss — and has produced some of Vogue’s most memorable and most recognised cover shots.
In 2012, she left to join TOPSHOP as Creative Director. Having already styled their campaigns for the previous six years, she was already creatively invested in the brand. As if being TOPSHOP’s creative director wasn’t enough, in 2013, it was announced that concurrent to her role at TOPSHOP, Phelan would return to British Vogue, as a part-time contributing editor. Three years on, with TOPSHOP collaborations from the likes of J.W. Anderson, Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Louise Gray and Kate Moss under her belt, the Phelan effect has only just begun.
“There’s nothing that defines a brand like TOPSHOP. So, in a way it’s like you can do anything here so the possibilities are endless, there are almost no boundaries”.
We ask the most effortlessly cool woman about her work ethic secrets, wardrobe fail-safes, and how she manages two huge job roles!
1. At what point did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in fashion?
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 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.
2. You were at Vogue for over 20 years, why did you decide publishing to retail, and why Topshop?
When the role at TOPSHOP came along the more I thought about it, the more I thought how interesting it would be. 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 whilst 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.
3. Describe a typical day in your life.
I’d say 99% of my day is looking at beautiful clothes, thinking about great ideas, researching ideas for campaign shoots, working on the aesthetic for the latest Boutique and UNIQUE collections. A photo-shoot for me is the highlight of my working life. Seeing those wonderful images come to life in front of you — it’s always the thrill for me.
4. What is your biggest source of inspiration?
Travel, beautiful photo-shoots, photography, art, interiors — the list is endless. In terms of magazines I like something that has a specialist point of view because that’s what really counts. I love The Gentle Woman magazine — I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m older but it really talks to a thinking woman.
5. Tell us three style tips you think should be an everyday mantra.
I don’t necessarily live by style tips. I know what I like and what I need. I always invest in a great handbag, shoes and a jacket. My ten wardrobe essentials are quite basic and refresh them 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 in tailored pieces as I see the relevance of a beautifully cut jacket and I like the idea of mixing it with a silk shirt, pair of TOPSHOP jeans and my Celine flats.
6. If you could live in piece of clothing for the rest of your life what would it be?
I’m a sucker for a trouser. I look in my wardrobe and think ‘Oh! Look there’s another black trouser’.
7. How would you describe TOPSHOP to a ZALORA customer in Asia who is not so familiar with the brand?
I think TOPSHOP is where you first fall in love with fashion. It is your first step into the world of fashion and then it takes you through your young experimental years of defining your style and finding out who you want to be. It really is there for you to decide what you want to look like and that’s what I love about it; for me it is a styling box. You could be androgynous, girly and pretty and glamorous. TOPSHOP is the most influential, dynamic fashion brand on the high street, a pioneer in both store experience and designer collaborations. The appetite for fashion is really important to us. That the TOPSHOP girl wants to consume all those new ideas and those new styles every week is really important and I think that’s what gives us our point of difference. The wheels are constantly turning.
8. What are your most favourite pieces from the TOPSHOP AW15 collection?
The botanical ribbon tie shirt is a classic piece and looks stylish teamed with an A line skirt or the Jamie flare jean. I love the tie-up block heel sandals in black and the monochromatic Victorian lace dress with a velvet trim, it feels dramatic yet understated.
9. Your advice to anyone who aspires to be Creative Director of one the world’s leading high street brands someday?
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.
10. What is your favourite holiday destination in Asia and why?
I have so many, though I recently went to Bhutan on a shoot with Tim Walker and it was magical. From snow-capped peaks, to blue glacial-rivers, to great mountains scattered with thousands of brightly coloured prayer flags and temples — Bhutan was a place like no other.
11. What is in your holiday wardrobe?
Everything I wear has a utilitarian, practical feel to it. I love simple pieces. When going on holiday I always pack an oversized white cotton shirt, my khaki army jacket and lightweight cashmere scarves for evening, simple gold jewellery, a straw Panama hat, a classic pair of shades and my sliders.