Byline: Holly Haber

DALLAS — It was practically a family reunion for Susan Dell here when she brought her spring collection to Stanley Korshak for a recent trunk show.
Her mom, brother, two sisters-in-law and friends from high school stopped by, and her dad, a cancer surgeon, called just before he was heading into the operating room.
“It’s nice to walk into Stanley Korshak and feel like there’s some money coming into the family instead of going out,” joked Steve Lieberman, her brother, whose instincts were right: Sales were well under way on the first day of a four-day presentation of Dell’s streamlined clothes. Several wealthy, fashionable women stepped into Korshak’s couture salon, greeting Dell like an old friend before they headed for the racks.
“I was sold on her designs about three years ago,” said Sarah Perot, the impeccably dressed wife of Ross Perot Jr. “I went to her store and was so surprised. Her clothing is traditional but progressive at the same time. She did the most beautiful gown I’ve every worn in my life — that was [custom] — but I mostly buy throw-on, day-to-evening clothes from her.”
As Brooke Aldridge sat down to fill out an entry card to win a black cashmere and suede Dell wrap, she said, “Her clothes are immensely wearable, and the tailoring is superbly executed.”
Cindy Rachofsky, who’s active in fund-raising for the arts and often wears Richard Tyler, picked out a black wool voile tucked skirt with a pleated asymmetric hem — one of Dell’s bestsellers.
“Her pants fit perfectly — and pants are the hardest thing for me to find,” Rachofsky said. “I think she has a great eye. It’s not contrived clothing. What I have mostly from her are simple, tailored clothes, like this pantsuit I’m wearing.
“She could turn this business over to anybody and she doesn’t, and I think that’s pretty cool.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Susan Dell has her options open. Computer guru Michael Dell, the designer’s husband, was ranked the 18th-richest person in the world in February by Forbes magazine, which estimated his net worth at $11.1 billion. Susan Dell tends to downplay her wealth, though it’s hard to miss her sizable white and yellow diamond rings. She acknowledged that her name alone is a draw, but she figures they wouldn’t buy if the clothing wasn’t appealing.
Dell, who opened a namesake store in her hometown of Austin, Tex., in 1999, does not sell wholesale. Instead, about once a month she and her collection travel to a store, hotel or private home to meet with an invited group of women. The events last from one to four days.
“It’s a great way to build a client base and figure out what most of them will end up buying,” Dell explained. “It brings the clothing to the clients, and they can supplement with the Web site. It’s exciting to come in as the new designer and partner with a really great store. The clients know it’s not always here.”
“It’s a clever way to do it,” said Crawford Brock, president of Stanley Korshak. “I think she is still trying to feel out the market.”
The shows average $75,000 in sales but have done up to $150,000, said Linda Beauchamp, president of Susan Dell. Korshak declined to reveal sales for the show; Beauchamp declined to reveal the company’s volume.
Dell has held such events in Atlanta, Seattle and Kona and Maui in Hawaii and has plans for shows this fall at Tootsies in Houston, Berry Hill Galleries in New York and possibly at Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Louis Boston.
“Everyone is trying to find ways to reach the affluent customer,” Beauchamp observed. “We try to pick a high-profile, multifaceted store that is very connected with the community.”
And, in classic prenup style, she added, “You have to be very judicial who you partner with. Wholesale will come in time, but right now we’re testing the waters with stores. [With wholesale] you lose control of how the clothes are bought and sold. If they know our standards now, there will be no problems when we get married.”
Dell expects to open more stores eventually, but now she is concentrating on building her Web site as well as her clientele. Susandell.com currently is open only to those who call her store in Austin to get a password.
“My way of doing things is slow, steady and careful,” she noted, a surprising approach from a triathlete who rarely sits down. “Until [the Web site] looks great, it’s not open to everyone — probably in the fall.”
“The computer is an additional venue to communicate, but we don’t pester,” Beauchamp added. “We try to only e-mail our customers about what pertains to their personal choices.”
Dell’s 23 spring looks were tailored and wearable with a slight edge manifested by asymmetric necklines and hems as well as oval cutouts on the back and shoulders. A one-shoulder swimsuit and some sexy black bikinis trimmed with hematite chips were the newest additions to the line. The fall collection is due in May, postponed by delays in fabric shipments. The season’s theme is a study in contrasts of boy/girl, hard/soft and classic/bohemian elements, Dell said, citing a ruffled chiffon blouse over men’s wear pants, a men’s chalk-stripe fabric cut into a curvy suit and a biker jacket made of bonded leather and flannel over an asymmetric kilt.
“My collection is sportswear-driven and functional,” Dell commented. “There are pieces for day that can go into evening. I think about convenience and the way people live their lives and what’s practical and easy — that’s pretty much what people buy. If you live in New York and you’re getting in and out of cabs in the winter, you don’t want a big heavy coat — I’d want a warm wrap that I can fold up.”
Having gained reams of publicity last year from her custom inaugural dresses for her fellow Texans, the Bush twins, Dell said she still does some made-to-measure clothing.
“It’s a small part of our business,” she explained. “It’s so labor intensive and costly — though we do make money on it. So I tend to do it only for special occasions. My focus is on the collection. It’s really about finding out how to run the business, how to market better, make better designs and understand what she wants and what she’ll buy — not things they say are beautiful but don’t want to try on.”
So a runway show is not in sight for Dell, who clearly has learned a few things from the other family business.
“I’m focused on doing things that bring in revenue,” she said. “A fashion show could be helpful to bring name and brand recognition. That’s the business side of me talking. The emotional side wants a fashion show.”
Ever-practical, Beauchamp put it more bluntly: “Fashion shows are a lot of money that you don’t get a return on the investment.”

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