26-year-old Claire Distenfeld may be garnering most of the PR buzz with Fivestory, but downtown 25-year-old Phillip Salem is giving her Upper East Side boutique a serious run for its money with OWEN (and shoppers are noticing). I fell upon the boutique on a recent Meatpacking District shopping trip and was immediately blown away by the store design. Conceived by Philip Lim’s store architect, Jeremy Barbour, it includes 25,000 brown paper bags that arch from floor to ceiling. The boutique is impeccably merchandised and the expansive space makes it easy to shop. Better yet, Salem goes out of his way to stock up-and-coming brands (obsessed!), many of which are exclusive to his store.
We spoke to the young entrepreneur about his background, the challenges of luring brands to his boutique, designers to watch for, and more.
The Fashion Spot: You have an interesting background, none of it seems to involve retail work. Was that a challenge in opening your store?
Phillip Salem: I think what people don't know is that my retail experience started when I was 16 years old working at American Eagle in my hometown mall in Akron, Ohio. From there, it really began my first retail experience, eventually moving to New York to pursue my education at The Fashion Institute of Technology and working at Barneys New York. After my experience with Barneys, I knew it was my dream to have my own store. I think the biggest challenge for me was going with my instinct and not being afraid to keep going. I don't stop for anything and my personal motto is "making a way out of no way!"
tFS: Interesting. So aside from Barneys, what are some things that you can point to in your background that you think were instrumental in giving you the tools to open your own store?
PS: I would say my experience at FIT was a huge impact on where I am with opening my store. I was heavily involved with on-campus organizations and took full advantage of what FIT offered, especially the TV station on campus, WFIT, where we worked day and night to execute projects. Opening OWEN has been a test of patience as well as a test of perseverance. I think if you have a dream that you want fulfilled, you have to go and get it.
tFS: What's one thing you know now that you wish you knew at the start of the process?
PS: Extremely good question. I would have to say better negotiation skills and to not listen to what other people say. It's important to go with your instinct rather than the opinion of everyone around you.
tFS: How did you settle on your MPD location?
PS: Well the MPD is one of the most renowned shopping districts in New York, if not the U.S. and I thought, heck, I gotta go big or go home! I really wanted to make a mark and be taken seriously with my first store. I have plans to expand to at least two or three more stores in five or six years. The area was also missing that boutique feel which I really strive for with OWEN. I wanted to create a brand matrix that was relatable with some cult favorites, but also showcase some of the best emerging talent in the designer market. Personal one-on-one service is key as well, which makes OWEN quite different for the MPD neighborhood.
tFS: Speaking of the designers you carry, what are some of the things you're looking for when choosing a brand?
PS: Quality and progression. My clothes project confidence and a sense of self awareness. I feel the OWEN client is coming to OWEN to find pieces and staples that make a statement whether it be a timeless print, a silhouette in an unexpected colorway, or a classic dress made of gorgeous fabric, so I try to give them that with the brands that we stock.
tFS: Was it hard as an unknown to convince some of the bigger labels you carry to be stocked in your store?
PS: Yes, it was quite hard! I was 23 years old and right out of college, telling designers about a store that didn't yet exist! It was quite hard convincing them to schedule an appointment. However, I would write, call, and email until they said yes. Now that we are open, its much, MUCH easier.
tFS: How do you go about finding the up-and-comers?
PS: I am the most curious person in the world so I research until I can't see any more!
tFS: Who are some up-and-comers we should have our eye on?
PS: My favorites are Ostwald Helgason, Antipodium, Josh Goot, and Ellery. They are all stunning newcomers to OWEN.
tFS: What are some of your favorite items currently in your boutique?
PS: The Ostwald Helgason Chiffon Shirt with Floral Lace, the Ostwald Helgason Panel Dress, Antipodium Plastic Collar Shirt Dress, the Patrik Ervell Deep Purple Pocket Sweater for men, the list is endless!
tFS: Have you been surprised at some of the things that have and have not been selling?
PS: Funny question. Some things I look at and I am like, "What was I thinking!?" But then leave the store for a meeting or appointment only to find it was sold. Every person likes different things and styles pieces in different ways.
tFS: Your boutique design is AMAZING. Can you tell us about it?
PS: Yes, my architect Jeremy Barbour of Tacklebox Architecture is the mastermind behind the design. I worked with him for six months before finalizing a concept for the store. I presented him with a brand book which illustrated what was in my mind and he basically vacuumed out my ideas and made them come to life. I wanted to really preserve the industrial history of the building with a more organic, warm feeling and I think the arch of the 25,000 bags which creates this floral natural effect reflects what was in my mind perfectly.
tFS: Finding good salespeople is key and you mentioned it being a priority. How do you go about making sure that your customer service delivers?
PS: Yes, customer service is KEY at OWEN! Making sure everyone that walks in is treated like Beyonce is a must! My sales associates are more than sales floor people. I make sure they are relatable, caring, open, and easy to communicate with on a personal level.
tFS: Can you tell us about some of the items you expect to be stocking in the coming weeks/months?
PS: Great fall hues of purples and greens, gorgeous winter whites, great architectural designs from Jen Kao and Sally Lapointe, some gorgeous dresses from newcomer TOME, gorgeous pleated skirts fro Ohne Titel, and more.