NEW YORK — Since its inception late last year, absolutely nothing about the Phi collection launched by Susan Dell has fit into the standard picture of a new designer label — not its offbeat (but historically rooted) pronunciation as fee, not the 10,000-square-foot showroom, not its own store opening today after only one season and certainly not the introduction of its second design director in as many seasons.
With Phi’s big-boy attitude to an erudite niche — one might dare to describe it as ballsy to put some of that Dell fortune behind an untested fashion concept whose name is inspired by an ancient proportion — you’d half expect to find a playground bully lurking in the depths of the studio, compensating for something. Instead, there is Andreas Melbostad, a practical, polite, 32-year-old Norwegian, who, after studying at the Norwegian College of Art and Design and earning a master’s in design from London’s Royal College of Art, worked with Nicole Farhi, Alber Elbaz at both Guy Laroche and Yves Saint Laurent, Nathalie Gervais at Nina Ricci, then Calvin Klein for two years and Donna Karan for a season in New York.
On Friday, Melbostad will make the transition from behind-the-scenes to the face of the collection when he debuts as the design director of Phi, having been promoted when Tim Gardner, his former colleague from Calvin Klein, unexpectedly resigned this summer. Melbostad and Gardner had joined the company together when it was formed in October 2003, as Dell herself was transitioning her signature ready-to-wear collection into the bigger concept of Phi and stepping back from the daily design responsibilities.
Dell is now officially founder and chief executive officer of Phi, working alongside Melbostad and Julia Hansen, president of the brand, who oversees its open-office operations, production and design room from a command station in one corner of the block-wide offices, perched in a penthouse with 27-foot ceilings and wraparound views, high above Chelsea in the former Port Authority Building.
“Part of the initial concept of creating this brand was coming up with something that hasn’t been done before,” said Melbostad, whose design table is positioned in a loft overlooking the sample production. “Everything is done right next to design. It’s a very close collaboration. Everybody I work with is a big inspiration.”
Melbostad, the quiet Norwegian, presents an interesting contrast to Dell, an outgoing, athletic Texan. Such contrasts happen to be the driving concept behind Phi, which strives to address the modern woman’s schizophrenic lifestyle, from car pools to boardrooms to cocktails. Its debut collection featured both hard edges and poetic touches, such as tough-chic leather jackets paired with silk gauze dresses, an exploration Melbostad promises will continue for spring with lighter fabrics and colors.
“Looking at things from different worlds and trying to bring them together, that’s when it gets interesting,” he said, adding that it was the collaborative approach and creative business plan that attracted him to Phi.
“Naturally, Phi is a new company, without a history,” he said. “That makes it a company of today. It’s a small company with a small structure. We work in a very direct way because there are few of us involved. What is great about Phi at this moment is that it allows us to develop something for today that feels right for today.”
Melbostad has worked for most of his career designing collections within the parameters of the name on the door of wherever he worked that season. Working on the blank slate of Phi allowed him to explore new silhouettes and concepts of his own vision.
“What I see and what I am trying to address with the product is the complexity of a woman’s body,” he said. “What I mean by that is that it should address the different realities and emotions within one person’s life. That’s what sophisticated, intelligent women are today — they represent different images — the feminine, softer side and then a great deal of strength. The way I see Phi is as the name of the product. I feel that the product should give the name its identity, not the name giving the product its identity.”
As with the first season, a team of collaborators has been involved in the spring collection, including Iby Ibrahim, director of product development; Yuka Sudo, a soft goods patternmaker; Ingrid Solomonson for accessories, and Donald Oliver for denim. Similarly, Melbostad worked with a team on the concept of Phi’s first freestanding store at 71 Greene Street. Gary Magnus, who was formerly concept and development director for Levi’s Global Retailing, where he worked with Hansen, consulted on the design, with the New York-based architecture firm George Boyle.
“The store is really an important element for building an environment around the clothes, and also for starting a dialogue around the women who would hopefully wear the clothes,” Melbostad said. The first collection was picked up by Neiman Marcus, Colette in Paris and Restir in Tokyo.
Much as the store, designed in a landmark building with many of the original architectural elements left exposed to give a true sense of the space, is the first full representation of the brand, Melbostad said he realized that the public will be interested in his persona, as well.
“It’s very important for Phi to put an artistic face behind the brand,” he said. “It’s important to understand the thinking behind the brand and how it comes about, and to understand what is behind the design of the product. At the end of the day, I hope that is what people will notice most.”