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Just seven months ago, 25-year-old Phillip Salem opened Owen: a large, high-end boutique located right across the street from Interimix in the Meatpacking District. Though his store may be new, he's certainly no stranger to the wide world of retail: His past jobs include working the sales floor at Barneys and National Jean Company, and he recently went back to school to complete a business program at FIT.
Now, he spends his time doing everything from visiting showrooms to traveling to Paris to setting up fixtures in the store, which hang prominent brands such as Opening Ceremony, A.L.C., L'Agence, Ohne Titel, and more. Here, he tells us what it was like starting a business at such a young age, and how he went about filling his Washington Street store with all of his favorite brands.
On the Owen website, it says you that you've always wanted to open a store. When did that turn into a feasible possibility for you?
Phillip: It sounds cheesy, but right after I graduated I was in a coffee shop with my dad and he asked me, "Phillip, what's the next step in your career?" For every college student, when they get asked that by their parents, it's freak out time. And I said, "I don't know. My dream was to always open a store but that just seems like a dream that will never really happen."
And he said, "Phillip, I'm willing to help you out if you go back to school, write a business plan, take accounting classes, and do it all on your own. I'm going to treat you like any other person that comes to me with an idea."
So I went back to school, and I started contacting all of the showrooms that I wanted to go to, the best architects in the industry, and began trying to find the best spaces. I hired a broker, I hired a great inventory manager. I didn't cut corners anywhere.
Did you always want to open in Meatpacking?
Phillip: I did. I knew I wanted to do downtown, and when I was thinking about neighborhoods, I thought about Soho, but there's so much going on down there. The East Village was a little too urban and vintage for me, and I just thought, "I want to do something forward and progressive. Where is that customer?" And instantly it was Meatpacking. I thought of all these great stores that are here, all of these great stores that compliment Owen so well. I don't call anybody competition, I call everybody my complement. Whether it be Jeffrey, Intermix, Scoop, Nicholas Kirkwood, Christian Louboutin—all of these amazing neighbors that are on the same street as Owen.
There was a space open on Washington Street, and it encompassed everything that was in my vision. I wanted an industrial space with high vaulted ceilings, great window frontage, industrial piping. When I saw this space, I had already looked at around 98 other spaces—I counted and it was just under 100—in the span of 11 months. And then once we found this store and negotiated the deal, it just kind of happened.
Did you know that this was the store when you saw it?
Phillip: People kept telling me, "You will not get that space." Even some of my friends were like, "It seems like a little bit of a stretch." And I just said, "No. If I'm going to do this, I'm going big or I'm going home. I'm not settling for an off-street. I'm not going to be a destination store. I want it to be across the street from Christian Louboutin, I want to be across the street from the High Line, next to Nicholas Kirkwood."
I know that I'm a newcomer, and I say this with the utmost humbleness that I'm very blessed to be on this street and have these great neighbors. When we started negotiating the deal, everyone kept saying, "They're not going to get down to what you want." And I just said, "I'm going to push and push and push until they say yes." And that's my motto: making a way out of no way. I never take no for an answer, ever. And when you do say no, you best believe I will be knocking on your door, emailing you, calling you until you say yes.
Some of the bigger designer names that I have in the store, like Marc by Marc Jacobs and Rag & Bone and A.L.C., they were like, "We don't know, with new stores its a bit tricky." And I just kept pursing them. I would send them my vision for the next season and my mood boards and my color stories. And they were like, "Wow, he's serious."
Was it difficult to get all of the brands you wanted to carry in your first season?
Phillip: It was extremely difficult, to be completely honest. My whole concept is to showcase emerging designers grounded in a selective roster of established brands. I love having the Ohne Titel and Suno, which is a great emerging brand but it's still really prominent in the industry, and you can't find it anywhere in the Meatpacking District but Owen. And then I throw in those prominent names like 3.1 Phillip Lim, A.L.C., L'Agence.
But going into those showrooms, when I was asking L'Agence, they were just like, "I don't know. We just can't. You're a new store and it's always tricky." And I was just like, "No, watch me. Here are my pictures, here's my mood, here's my press." This is a store and I'm making a name for myself in this industry. And now I'm going to some of the best showrooms, traveling to Paris, going to London. My friends are always like, "How was Paris?" And I'm just like, "Oh, it was fun. I woke up at 7am and searched for taxis for an hour and then I went to showrooms until 11pm and then I went to bed. The glamorous life of Phillip Salem." But I like it. It's what I want to do. And it's a process.
How have you seen your business change from when you first opened? You haven't even been open a full year, have you?
Philip: No, just seven months.
Do you see a lot of repeat customers?
Phillip: Definitely. We have a core customer base—people who, from the first time they've stopped into the store, have just loved the whole aesthetic of it. They love the feeling and the ambiance. My staff is trained to know every designer and know every fit, and how to style amazing outfits. It's that personal one-on-one attention that goes beyond the clothes in the store. Every customer that walks in the door is treated like Beyoncé. I say that in every interview.
Has Beyoncé ever been in here?
Phillip: No, but her stylist has.
And does her stylist know that every customer in here gets treated like Beyoncé?
Phillip: She does. I showed her my website, and a lot of my articles include that part. But obviously Beyoncé's a busy woman: baby, tours, CDs...
I'm sure she'll be in here someday.
Phillip: She will. And the place will be spotless!
Alright, let's switch gears. What do you find sells the best? What are some of your best designers?
Phillip: For men's, I'd have to say Patrik Ervell is one of my best brands. For women's, A.L.C. is a classic. It does unbelievable. My Current/Elliott denim, in the core styles we only have about two left. Ostwald Helgason also does amazing. You can't find it anywhere, and when the brand blew up, people were coming here to buy it. Antipodium is another brand that's doing awesome. There are really great piece at great prices, and the quality is impeccable. In accessories, the Sophia Hulme bags are made of great leather, they're classic, there aren't any no logos, and the gold plating is exquisite.
Is there any kind of Holy Grail item that you want to carry but haven't been able to yet?
Phillip: You know, I go back and forth with this idea. I love Stella McCartney, and now that her store moved from Meatpacking to Soho, we have people coming in and asking if we carry her. I know that she has high price points, but she also has an advanced contemporary price point. Some of those color block dresses that she did this season are unbelievable. I would die to have those in the store.
As far as expansion goes, would you ever want to turn Owen into something larger than just one store?
Phillip: Of course. My business partner is coming in this weekend to talk about that, and to scope out other spaces. I definitely want to build my name in the industry and solidify my roots in the Meatpacking District, but I definitely also want to expand throughout the city and to other cities.
We've toyed with the idea of doing a men's store and a women's store. Or doing a two-level store with beginner designer on the top and advance contemporary on the bottom, similar to when you go into Barneys. You have the Co-op and then you have the designer floor. We've toyed with a lot of ideas, but the one thing that I always say is that when it happens, it happens.
Now that you're settled in this neighborhood, is there another neighborhood that particularly piques your interest for a second store?
Phillip: This might come as a surprise, but I'm thinking about the Upper West Side. They do have that younger, more forward-driven mom or dad that can't come downtown as much. They might work downtown, but their families are uptown, and they want those great pieces but it's hard for them to come downtown with kids.
In seven months, I'm still learning about the customer: who's going to shop, what they're going to buy. I'm learning about the trends and about the designers. I'm constantly researching—I'm always online or store searching or traveling. When I travel, I spend most of my time in stores. This probably sounds nuts, but if I see a savvy shopper, I just follow them around the store and see what designers they're going to and what they like. I know that's not a huge research analysis, but it's kind of just for myself.
If you had to offer any advice to someone who wanted to open their own store, what might that be?
Phillip: I had a friend who I worked with at Stylecaster who went back to school and said that her dream was to open her own women's boutique. And she asked, "What advice can you give me? I just need one sentence." And I was like, "To be honest, I can give it to you in one word: Patience. You have to be patient."
You can't expect things too quick, and you can't expect things to happen overnight. Also, just go with your gut. I'm not saying that I'm perfect—I've made so many mistakes it's not even funny. But I've also done so many great things. You have to remember when you start to have that feeling, whether you're opening your own boutique or a cupcake store or interning or anything that you're doing, if you make a mistake, learn from it, move on, and don't harp on the past.
We always end the interview with a lightening round. Aesthetically, which do you prefer: the '60s, '70s, or '80s?
Phillip: I'm thinking about Whitney Houston in I Want to Dance With Somebody and that's the '80s. So the 1980s. I want to wear the headband and the tight pants and the cut-off tee and dance with Whitney Houston.
Beach or mountains?
Phillip: Beach, for sure.
Jay-Z or Kanye West?
Phillip: Jay-Z, of course. Beyoncé's husband!
30 Rock or Parks and Rec?
Phillip: Parks and Rec is my favorite TV show. One of the best gifts I've ever received was a plush Li'l Sebastian.
· Owen [Official Site]
· Take a Tour of Dramatic New Meatpacking District Shop Owen [Racked NY]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]