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Since Susan Dell formed Phi in 2003, the fashion label has been quietly fine-tuning its DNA as a distinctly modernist, urban collection with innovative structural details.
After a rocky start, which had Andreas Melbostad replace Tim Gardner at the creative helm at launch time in 2004, and several seasons in which the brand has been largely under the fashion radar, at least Stateside, Phi executives now feel the time is right to bring their message to a wider audience. This fall, the brand will unveil its first print ad campaign, shot by Steven Meisel. The company also is adding pre-collections with the first resort line unveiled this week (for more on the collection, see page 16), and has plans to open a freestanding boutique in Los Angeles.
Phi launched in 2004 with a freestanding retail store on Greene Street in New York and a few specialty store wholesale accounts, including Colette in Paris. In four years, distribution of the line, which is designed by creative director Melbostad, has grown to about 35 stores worldwide.
Where some would have expected the Dell fortune (as in Dell computers) to bankroll a megamarketing and retail push following the opening of the store, chief executive officer Julia Hansen said the measured growth was a deliberate move. “We felt it was very important that integrity on the creative and strategic side lead the way, as opposed to just throwing money at it,” she said. “It was important to grow this brand by creating great product.
“We now got to a point where the three of us [Dell, Hansen and Melbostad] are absolutely aligned,” she continued. “We see the company and the brand vision as one, and that is now driving some of the success on the retail and wholesale side.”
While Hansen declined to disclose sales volume, she said that Eastern Europe accounts for 30 percent of revenues, Western Europe for 20 percent, Asia for 30 percent (mainly from Japan), Canada 10 percent and the U.S. 10 percent. The surprisingly small American business has triggered the decision to add pre-collections, which would open the distribution to larger department stores that typically require multiple deliveries.
“Over the next three years, we will be very focused on addressing the U.S. market,” Hansen said. “It’s a big business and brand opportunity for us.”
To that end, Phi tapped Christine Talevski as vice president of sales, a new post. Talevski was formerly vice president of women’s and men’s sales at Calvin Klein Collection.
Melbostad said resort allowed him a different approach to runway, where he and his team try to push more boundaries. The resort collection serves to solidify the DNA of the brand, Melbostad explained. “With this collection, it’s more about tapping into the vocabulary we built over the seasons, and show the consistency within that,” Melbostad said. “This is really a time we step it up a notch and communicate that to a bigger audience.”
Meisel photographed the ads, which were styled by Marie-Amelie Sauve and art-directed by Ronnie Cooke Newhouse. The campaign features six images of Karen Elson and Coco Rocha posing as modern-day Vargas girls against a crisp white background. Considering Phi’s urban edge, the images have a surprisingly humorous bent — a deliberate move, Melbostad said, to show the collection also has a light touch.
“The creative brief was to push the brand image of the ad campaign to the limit, to be arresting,” Hansen said.
The campaign breaks in Vogue this August, with additional placements following in W; the fashion issue of T: The New York Times Magazine; Vanity Fair; French, Russian, Japanese and British Vogues; ID and Pop magazines, and a possible placement in the International Herald Tribune during the collections season.
“When you put together the runway imagery, the image set forth by the store and the ads, it rounds out the thoughts we put into the collection,” Melbostad said.
With the new growth agenda and raised profile through the campaign, the company is also working on finding its first retail location in Los Angeles.
“When we first opened the SoHo store, it went through a couple of rough years,” Hansen conceded, adding that over the past two years, the traffic has picked up, with a repeat customer rate of over 60 percent this spring.
“With the success of the store, it makes sense to open a second store,” she said, adding the new location has not been determined yet. “It has to be the right place at the right time to open our doors in Los Angeles,” she said.