THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
Inside the World of Phillip Salem’s Boutique: Owen
By Eden Herbstman
If Phillip Salem isn’t already on your radar, then we suggest you run–don’t walk–to the 25-year-old’s high-end contemporary boutique, Owen. Located on Washington Street, in the ever-trendy Meatpacking district, Owen is in good company, with stores such as Intermix, Jeffrey, Scoop, and Christian Louboutin just inches away. Philip’s originality, professionalism, and creative vision resonate throughout his store, which showcases some of today’s hottest go-to designers, such as Patrick Ervell, Wayne, Jen Kao, and Sally Lapointe, in a one-of-a-kind setting. After graduating from FIT with a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Merchandising and Management, Phillip returned to school to study and learn the business end of running a successful store. Years later, and never taking no for an answer, Owen has made a name for itself as a leading outlet that caters to the upper-contemporary designer market.
Eden Herbstman: When did you first realize you wanted to have a future in the fashion industry?
Phillip Salem: When I was 16 years old. I was at the mall in my hometown, Akron, Ohio, and I applied to American Eagle and Abercrombie. American Eagle hired me on my 16th birthday. Even though it was just American Eagle, I really liked the experience of working with people and clothes, and I ended up becoming a denim expert. I realized then that this was something I wanted to do on my own. I applied to FIT, and I worked at Barney’s CoOp. That was a platform for the upper-contemporary, advanced design field I wanted to go work with. I went from American Eagle to Barneys, and I loved it. Rather than reading about fashion and business in textbooks at FIT, I wanted to actually do it and fulfill my dreams.
EH: What was the inspiration behind the name “Owen”?
PS: Owen is my middle name. I think it’s so chic and simple, and that it translates well to both men and women. Owen was my mother’s maiden name as well, and she loved designing her own clothes. My mother passed away, so it’s also a way of honoring her. It keeps her spirit, myself, and fashion alive.
EH: Owen is located in a prime downtown fashion environment. Do you feel any pressure being in the company of the surrounding high-end stores, or do you feel at home?
PS: I feel extremely welcome. We have Intermix, Christian Louboutin, Scoop, and Jeffrey, but they are not my competition, they are my complements. We all tell different stories. I love all those stores, but we each have something different to offer. It might be for the same or for different customers. In fashion, one day you might want to be edgy, but the next day you might want to be sophisticated. There is love for everyone down here. I never thought my first store would be across from Christian Louboutin, Nichoklars Kirkwood, and Intermix.
PS: I started planning the store when I was 23 years old. In late 2010, I was starting to buy for a store that was opening in 2012. I was contacting designers before the store was even being built. I wanted to go to the showrooms and see the new designs, and people would ask me, “What’s your store like?” and I would just tell them that it’s coming soon. Their response was, “Why do you want to come? You don’t even have a store yet.” So I told them the store would arise in the future: not might arise, but would arise. I never questioned myself. I always had the attitude that this would happen no matter what.
EH: How did you not get discouraged when the high-caliber designers you were in touch with were questioning your business?
PS: When my friend and I were trying to get access to fashion week, and people were saying that two students could never get fashion week access, we said to ourselves, “We will make a way out of no way.” We refused to take “no” for an answer. I decided to call and email until they said yes. And they said yes, so here we are today. I know the fashion industry has an uninviting aura, but I’ve run into a lot of very helpful and nice people.
EH: As the buyer for the store, what styles do you gravitate towards, and what has the buying experience been like?
PS: I do all the buying, and I hand-pick every piece. Before anything comes into the store, I touch it and feel it. Fabrication is huge to me. I look at the seams and the details. I pride Owen on having quality service, quality product, and an overall quality experience. If I’m going to spend $500 on a shirt, I absolutely want it to be the best quality. Buying in March, when it was just starting to become spring, I was buying for fall. It was really different. I have to stay true to my values. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what is going to sell, but I stick to my core beliefs and translate that into an overall experience. Hopefully the customer will react well, which they have been doing so far.
EH: You worked with Jeremy Barbour, the architect behind Phillip Lim’s store, to create the world of Owen. What was the design process like in creating the store? And are those really paper bags stapled to the walls? [laughs]
PS: I have an Owen brand book with pictures of the northern lights, flowers, and other images that inspired how I wanted the store to look. I presented them to Jeremy, and we looked at this space, which is very industrial. We looked across the street to the Highline Park, which juxtaposes industrial brick with blossoming flowers and grass. It is very unique. I wanted to do something original that resembled what was in my brand book, while also preserving the history of the neighborhood. Jeremy told me that when paper bags first open they have the effect of a blossoming flower. I told him there was no way I was having paper bags next to a $2,000 Sally Lapointe dress! But we went with it. We stapled each bag individually, one-hundred thousand staples and twenty-five thousand paper bags, all strategically planned on a grid. It took 4 1/2 weeks. When the bags first opened it was a magical blossoming moment. From a distance you don’t know that they are paper bags, the same way that from a distance you wouldn’t know whether or not this sweater is Mohair, or whether something has a leather button or collar. The whole space is very concise.
EH: Your business partner is actually your father. What is the relationship like when you’re working with family?
PS: When I brought the idea to my dad, he said he wasn’t going to do any of the work for me. He told me to go back to business school and show him a business plan, a break-even analysis, and an inventory plan. There I was, four years after graduating FIT with a bachelor’s degree, and I was like, where do I even start with this? I took the initiative to prove to both him and myself that I would do this. I went back to school, hired a great accountant, met with an inventory manager, and planned everything out precisely. He wasn’t going to invest any money if I didn’t have everything planned. Any investor, my father or not, would have been the same. He invests in me not because I’m his son, but because I am a hard worker. He doesn’t just help me, but I help him. My father says the best thing about creating a business with someone is seeing something come to life from a piece of paper. We had a meeting right after I graduated about this idea, and we were writing on scraps of paper what we wanted for the store. When he walked into the store in May and saw the space he was like, “Wow, it happened.”
PS: Our plan is to open a second location in the next few years, then a third, and then go online. After that we want to do a private label and some designer collaborations, and then just keep building from there. We’re discussing a private women’s label called “Eva Owen.” I’m not going to steer away from my core of showcasing emerging designers though. It’s been four months already, so we’re just going with the flow right now.
Phillip Salem is the owner of OWEN.
Written by Eden Herbstman
Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography by Hadar Pitchon
Design by Jillian Mercado
Phillip Salem at Owen Boutique in New York City, August 2012, Photography by Hadar Pitchon