Get To Know Phillip Salem, Founder of OWEN
I sit down with long time friend and fellow Clevelandite to chat about the story that took him out of FIT and into OWEN.
Phillip wearing Philip Lim
FashionIndie: Tell me a story.
Phillip: My story begins..I think I first got involved with fashion when I was about 15. Actually no. I first got involved with fashion when I was playing with barbies with my sisters when I was really young. Secretively in the basement, and my sister is “like let’s play barbies and play dress up with them” but I didn’t know then that this is where I would be now. I think I first got into it when I was 15 and a half and I took a sick day from school. My mom took me to the mall because that’s what you do on sick days, you go to the mall. We were walking around I was like “I want to work at the Gap, or Abercrombie or American Eagle.” I said “This is my dream to work here.” My mom was like “why don’t you go apply for a job?” I started applying and they all kept saying
“you have to be 16 to work here, you have to be 16.” I was so passionate. “We would hire you now but it’s against the law.” So I was like “please let me know. I’m gonna apply right now.” I sat there with my mom and filled out the application.
On my 16th birthday American Eagle called me and I thought it was the best birthday present ever. I told all of my friends American Eagle hired me on my 16th birthday and I’m going to be working at the mall in little Akron, Ohio. I thought that was amazing but it’s helped me. Even that job at American Eagle helped me to work with clients and work with people. I was promoted within six months at 16 to a denim expert. So I had my little badge and I thought it was so cool ‘cause I got to be that. Just working at the mall was an experience but I said, you know, I wanna do something different, so I tapped
into a little bit more contemporary. There was a boutique in Cleveland called Indigo Nation that sold 7 Jeans, Citizen of Humanity, James Perse, Splendid tops, Lacoste. That to me was Louis Vuitton back then for me when I was 17. I get to work for this high-end retailer. I applied there and I was offered a key holder position at 17 years old. I think right then and there I was like you know what? If you have dedication and persistence, one day I will be able to have my own store. Just being there at Indigo Nation, being a key holder at 17..I thought it was a big deal. Looking back it’s not the biggest of deals.
I played dress up, ended up buying the shirt.
FI: I remember Indigo Nation.
PS: It’s a cute store. It was a cute store. They sold it to a national jean company. But it was a cute store and I had responsibilities there that I loved to do– merchandising and styling for local newspapers. When I was there I said I wanted to go to school for this. It was my senior year of high school and I was like what do I do? I applied for FIT and got accepted. When I moved here, the opportunities were endless in fashion and I was kind of overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do. So I went to where I know I’m good at. So I walked into Barney’s my second week I moved here, and I walked in and they were like “we’re not hiring.” I said “oh, you’re not? Well can I have an application?” They said “We don’t have anymore.” I said “well, can I speak to a manager?” The manager comes out and gives me an application. She says, “we’re not hiring.” It’s so funny because that person who told me we’re not hiring and wouldn’t give me an application is now my boyfriend.
FI: What?! That’s awesome!
PS: 6 or 7 years later, I think that was 2006.
FI: That’s hilarious!
PS: Yeah, we’ve been dating for almost a year and nine months. So he was giving me shade when I walked in and he saw competition and they don’t want competition at Barney’s because it’s commissioned based. But anyway, I loved working at Barney’s and I think when I was in that store, I loved this boutique setting because I was at the Co-Op on the Upper West Side which is mens and womens advanced contemporary. It’s more of an intimate and one-on-one clientele and it’s not the Barney’s department store. I don’t like to call Barney’s a department store. Excuse me, it’s a specialty store on 60th and Madison. I think Barney’s is very specialty. I loved working with the clients. I loved working with the advanced contemporary designers and just that feeling. It goes beyond the clothes. For me it was really making people feel good and what they’re buying and how they feel and what they’re wearing. It’s funny because people who would come into Barney’s when I was working would be like “I cannot afford this but I will work so hard to buy this because I feel so good, like a million bucks, and you helping me. I have a story to go along with it.” That’s what made my day. If it was a 20 dollar cheapie bracelet or 900 dollar Phillip Lim dress, that’s what made me feel good in it. That’s when I had that feeling that I want to do this and have one that’s my own.. have my name on a store.
So I graduated from FIT. I went home to Akron, Ohio…Cleaveland area. My dad and I were sitting in a coffee shop and tried to have that talk with me like “what are you gonna do now, Phillip?—Now that you’re done will college. You’re done! What’s the next step? You need to make some money and be big boy.” That’s the one conversation I feel all my friends, who just graduated college a week ago, they hate to have with their parents. I was like “I don’t
know. I always had the dream about having my own store.” And he’s like “why don’t you do it?” I said “what do you mean?” “Why don’t you make a business plan, get contacts, be persistent, don’t take no for an answer.” I know this is really cheesy, but I was in a TV broadcast program called WFIT at FIT and our slogan was “make a way out of no way.” Nobody says no to you. You make it a yes, always. Its funny, people always would be like “Phillip, you’re gonna cover New York Fashion Week? Theres no way in hell you’re gonna cover NYFW.” I said, “why do you say that?” “You’re too young and don’t have any experience.” I said ”watch me.” I went to the tents and said “I’m with FIT, I want to cover your shows.” They said show me what you do.” We had a camera crew, me and sound. There were three of us rolling up to fashion week and the next thing you know, I was covering four fashion weeks in a row.
FI: I remember that. You told me about that. We had lunch in the West Village…
PS: We did! That’s when you got engaged and got your engagement ring!
FI: Yeah, that’s when I got engaged. You were like “ I wanna cover fashion week doing this broadcast thing.”
PS: Even that experience going to fashion week.. I got in front of some of these designers asking “what are some trends?” This is what buyers do, they go to fashion shows and the next step is to go to the showroom. So every experience from American Eagle to graduating college and working with WFIT and working at Barney’s..Every single one of those experiences helped me to be where I am now. Going back to that conversation with my dad in the coffee shop, I’m like “I have no idea where to start”. He’s like “no, you’ll find it. You’ll know where to start. Im gonna assist you but im not gonna hold your hand. I’m gonna be the person behind you that’s pushing you and I’m not gonna give you all the answers.”
To give you a little background about my dad, he’s a business entrepreneur and he has a few businesses of on his own… some that he started
from the ground up. So he has a very, very strong business mind. He’s very business savvy when it comes to business and he knows a lot of answers. He doesn’t know a lot of answers, but he’s like “I’m willing to help you but I want you to do this yourself.” So I said “what if I go back to school?” He said “that’s a good start.” I said “I just graduated a few weeks ago.” He said “go back to school and write a business plan and I’ll see if the business plan makes sense and if your idea makes sense. If you feel a niche in the market, then I’ll be willing to invest in you. I’m treating you like any other person that comes to me and ask for an investment. I’m not treating you like my son. Every time we are in meetings together, don’t hug me, don’t say dad. This is professional.” Very strong. He put his foot down and said this is what you have to do.
So I took it seriously, I went back to school. I went back to FIT. Some of the teachers were like didn’t you just graduate? and I said “ Yeah, but I want to write a business plan and I want to start my own store.” They were like “no, you don’t wanna start your own store.” I’m like “but wait, what are you talking about? I went to school for this. This is my dream.” They said “9 out of 10 businesses fail in the first year.” “I don’t have that mentality, I’m here to start.” They’re like how are you gonna get started? How are you going to find a space? Even my friends in New York real estate were like what designers are you gonna get? How are you gonna make this store successful? How are you gonna get pr?”
All these questions and here I am questioning myself. Omg, everything! Racks, hangers, staff, clothes, presentations, real estate, rent, payroll..My mind started going but with everything. I started to doubt myself. Even when I was in there writing that business plan, I was like how am I gonna do this? But I kept telling myself there’s no option. This is option A, no option B, and no option C. OWEN is the first and only option you have right now so I kept persevering. I wrote the business plan.
Even when I was in school I hired a real estate agent and was interviewing architects. This real estate agent, we were walking around Manhattan and she was like “what are we looking for?” I said,”it’s a store. “Whats the store called?” “I don’t know.” She’s like “well, is it a mens or womens store?” “I think it might be just women or it just might be mens.” “What am I doing?” She seemed frustrated. I feel like these New York real estates have to see it to believe it. I just started with this idea. It is going to come about and eventually, I ended up not working with her because she didn’t believe in me. I just turned 23 at the time, so like a 22 year old kid going on real estate in the Meatpacking District to create a store. I felt like so many people were doubting me but I couldn’t doubt myself, but I was. I called my dad was like “she didn’t believe me, my teacher doesn’t believe in me.” And he’s like “Phillip, keep going. Stop being a puss. Get up and finish it.”
FI: That’s what your dad said?
PS: I know he didn’t say puss but something along those lines. He’s very straight forward and he will put you in your place in a second with anything. Yes or no questions. If he asks you something just get straight to the point. Once I wrote the business plan I presented it to my dad and he said, “this makes sense but the numbers seem a bit off. What are the designers? What are you feeling?” I started saying the Meatpacking. You go to Soho and see all these wonderful boutiques..ones that I look up to like Curve and Karen Millen. There’s so many… Opening Ceremony, Odin. And then they’re surrounded by these huge, big box retailers and I was thinking, what neighborhood does not have a boutique? The Meatpacking does not have a boutique. You have Jeffery which is advanced designer and Scoop and Intermix which kind of balance off of each other but very specific customers, so what store can I create that will fill that void that’s missing in the boutique market in the Meatpacking?
When you think of the Meatpacking, you think of one of the most desirable neighborhoods to come shop in, to be in. They have the best restaurants, the best night life, the best stores. I never in a million years would have thought my next door neighborhood would be Nicholas Kirkwood, across the street from Christian Louboutin, who’s directly across the street from Intermix and the entrance to The High Line. Looking back, it’s just a dream that came true. All these people who were doubting me. When I go outside and look outside at my neighbors and at my store I just step back and say wow, I did this. Literally, fuck everybody who didn’t believe in me because here I am now. To rewind on that part, after that meeting with my dad and after I finished school, I started interviewing architects and I found an amazing architect that said we can make a space that resembles your vision which is mens and womens clothes, established designers grounded in a selected roster, emerging brands and very clean and focued but that person who likes to play and they have an energy behind them. You’re not gonna find something plain here and if you do it has some type of quirk to it. It’ll have a different type of button or leather inset or a different style silhouette. It’ll be a sickening piece. Even when I go to some of these designers who might come off plain, I buy those pieces like a Marc Jacobs silver bathing suit—like bright silver that the other stores are too scared to buy.
The architect was like “why don’t we come up with this really clean space, really clean racks, white tables and make the ceiling a little bit more interesting?” I asked where do we start? Six months we’re researching and coming up with ideas and I don’t know, I don’t like this, I’m so particular in everything. I will literally email and call him at two in the morning and go on these crazy rampages. “Jeremy, the store is suppose to open in three months, what are we gonna do? We need to figure out something.” He said “Phillip, enough. You’ve called me enough today.” I’m like “I don’t care, what are we gonna do? We need to keep researching, keep looking in books.” He asked “what is your vision?” “I want to merge this space which is very industrial and mix it with a very organic, down to earth field.”
When you walked into this space it felt very cold ‘cause you had the white wall and the brick. It was just too cold. I wanted to make it more warm. He said “Phillip, I have an idea. Give me 3 days, don’t call me.” I show up at his office and he’s stapling paper bags on this bendable ply wood sample. I said “Jeremy, what’s this for?” He said “this is for your store. I said “no, we’re not using paper bags.” He’s like “it’s for your whole ceiling. We’re gonna cover the whole wall in brown paper bags.” “Jeremy, I like beautiful dresses and shirts and jackets.” “Phillip, it’s going to be the most amazing effect.” Here, we are with 25,000 paper bags in the store. Even when we were opening it, we were stapling bags. I had seven contractors. I was opening them behind them. They were like “we don’t want Phillip here because he’s always nuts when he comes in like “why isn’t this done?” But I was here helping two days before we opened. Boxes of clothes everywhere, we had to get them all out and steam them up. Even then people were like you’re not gonna open on Saturday.
It’s all relative whether I’m not gonna open in a year or whether we open in two days or whether I’m not stay successful. Everyone always has something to say and I could care less what anyone says. Now that I’m open and I’m believing in myself, I have to keep that mentality. Even on that day when I was opening the bags, it’s all about making sure something comes from it. I’m gonna work hard until every paper bag is open. I’m gonna work hard until the store is open. I’m gonna work hard until I find a space. Then we opened and I couldn’t believe it when people were shopping in the store. I think that moment when people walked in and that first customer was ringing out and said to me “this is one of my favorite stores, how long have you guys been open? “We just opened today.” “You have? I live on the Upper East Side and I don’t come down here often. This is my favorite store.”
In that one day that we were open and I had one of my first customers, that just made me happy. Nine months later to still have that reaction that people are still coming into the store to shop and see what’s new is amazing!
FI: Congrats Phillip on all your success!