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NEW YORK — “Today is like race day for me,” Susan Dell said. “They’re coming down the runway, so to speak.”
Actually, a model wearing Dell’s black stretch tulle skirt and a silk jersey top has taken two steps forward on a roll of white paper, then two steps back, two forward, two back over and over again, more often than not stepping right out of her sandal pumps in an unassuming midtown Manhattan studio where the Texan designer is digitally photographing her spring collection. It might be light-years from the runways of Paris and Milan, even from nearby Bryant Park, but for Dell, the wife of one of America’s richest computer entrepreneurs and a novice fashion designer herself, those steps are the equivalent of giant leaps when considered within the framework of her three-year-old collection.
Dell broke onto the fashion scene during a disturbing period of the late Nineties when it seemed that virtually anyone with some sort of notoriety — Monica Lewinsky, Jocelyn Wildenstein, et al — could become a designer if they wanted. But unlike other novelty acts, Dell has outpaced the competition and has evolved her collection into another classification, that of a serious business now estimated to reach $2 million in annual sales, entirely generated through trunk shows, a Web site — susandell.com — and Dell’s own store in Austin, Tex.
The look of Dell’s design has evolved as well, moving beyond a collection of smart, but simple, cashmere dresses into an array of separates of an ilk that would mingle well within a fashionable wardrobe of Christian Dior and Michael Kors, much as they do in Dell’s own closet.
While her business model might be unorthodox compared to other luxury brands, Dell has put in place a structure that is beginning to have a meaningful impact on sales and design, since Donna Karan veteran Linda Beauchamp joined as president of the company two years ago and Steven Slowik, who worked for one season at Bill Blass, was hired to work on the collection three seasons ago.
Dell’s profile as a designer has continued to rise as well, following her creation of inauguration festivity dresses for presidential daughters Barbara and Jenna Bush. Her philanthropic work with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has also thrust her into the public spotlight. A Fortune magazine conference brought her to New York last week, where she participated on a panel discussion on how to become involved with philanthropy. She was also featured on CNBC discussing the same topic, as well as her fashion business.
One of the strongest aspects of Dell’s collection is her focus on a category that is underrepresented by a strong designer perspective, that of career apparel appropriate for day-to-evening dressing. For spring, Dell has expanded her vision from dresses to a full offering of related separates, following the same line of reasoning that drives pretty much everything in her life — the laws of efficiency.
“What’s changed for me is that the collection is a lot more item driven,” Dell said. “Even with a dress or a suit, you can move items around with different things, like a tulle top that can be worn with jeans, a cashmere suit or leather pants. You can even put them with something from your own closet.”
Dell has also begun to incorporate stretch fabrics in items like a black cotton skirt with leather lacing around the hips and a layer of tulle that peaks out at the hem, as well as a laser-cut perforated leather skirtsuit that breathes more easily for comfort. The clothes are far from glitzy, but as the designer said, that’s the point. They are partly inspired by Dell’s athleticism — she runs up to 14 miles on a typical weekend outing or bikes for 70 miles as part of her training for an Iron Man competition in Kona, Hawaii, in May.
“When I dress to work out, I want clothes that work with my body and I want my daytime clothes to have that same ability,” she said. “I want to wear things that never feel like, ‘God, I want to get out of these clothes.’”
Dell rarely sits still. She typically starts her day at 5:30 a.m., taking a meeting while she’s on a StairMaster. During her visit to New York, her workouts are cut short, but wearing black Michael Kors laceup heels that match the delicate severity of a pleated leather skirt and her John Sehag haircut, she maintains a fast clip back and forth across the photography studio.
“I like being in heels because I can move faster,” she said. “I’m definitely an on-my-toes kind of girl.”
Her business and design decisions are made quickly, as well. Lots of people have suggested she stage her collection in a runway presentation, but Dell has resisted. “It would be fun to do, but I don’t know if it’s effective for the money,” she said. “It’s very inefficient. It’s very expensive and labor intensive to the point that I don’t feel it’s necessary for my business at this time.”
She has also been approached by retailers looking to carry the collection, but Dell has refrained from opening her business to wholesale, although she has not ruled out that option. She’s also interested in creating men’s wear, but that is less likely to happen.
“My biggest frustration in life is there is only so much time, but I have to remain reasonable,” Dell said. “I can’t say ‘I touched 20 things today.’ It’s not about that. I can say ‘I touched three things and did them exceptionally well.’ I don’t think I’ll ever get to men’s.”
Not even for her husband?
“If you ask me, I think he’s beautiful,” Dell said. “He has great taste.”