Remembering Susan Dell's PHI Collection

Susan Dell's PHI Collection Storefront in New York City

My first contact with the PHI couture house, which some compared to Jil Sander and Helmut Lang for its timeless fashion, came unknowingly. (The company wrote PHI in caps but pronounced it as "fee," for the Greek letter.) Another company in New York City for which I worked as an assistant patternmaker had been hit hard by the recession in 2007, and I had begun to apply for other jobs in preparation for change. An anonymous ad in Women's Wear Daily caught my eye because it specified couture work, and I emailed a resume and follow-up message to apply for the job as an assistant patternmaker. On my lunch break a few days later, I received a call to schedule an interview. The man on the phone just spelled out the letters of the company's name for me and suggested that I might not have heard of them before. At the time, I thought that was true, though I later learned I knew the company under a different name.

The PHI office was located in Chelsea, outside of the garment district in a classy part of south Manhattan. A sign on the wall indicated that Google shared the building, which impressed me even before I saw the PHI offices. Fresh flowers on the receptionist's desk, spacious rooms with high ceilings, and window walls overlooking the Statue of Liberty signaled that this company was special. It was near Christmas, and most of the other workers had been given the day off, so I sat in the empty workroom with PHI's president Julia Hansen and a man who who worked with her as the financial officer.

I found out right away why I had been selected for an interview. Ms. Hansen explained, "When I saw your email saying that you work for Iby Abraham, I wanted to interview you. He was the head patternmaker here for two years, and I know he doesn't tolerate any nonsense." As she went on to tell me about the history of the company, how it had been founded by Susan Dell, wife of Michael Dell of Dell computers, then I remembered my boss once worked for a company he called "Susan Dell." The company had since changed its name to PHI, which is why I did not recognize it. Michael and Susan Dell are Jewish, which may be one factor that attracted Mr. Abraham to the job, since with his skill as truly one of the best patternmakers in the world he could have his pick of work at any company. He had left Calvin Klein and brought several of Calvin's sewists with him when PHI launched in 2003. Then Mr. Abraham returned to Calvin Klein and later started his own collection.

Ms. Hansen showed me some of the clothing from PHI's designer Andreas Melbostad, who had also come from Calvin Klein with additional prior experience at Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan and Guy Laroche. I remember one dress had cutouts in the back with gold chains draped across the opening. "These are investment pieces," Ms. Hansen said, which generally means high-quality wardrobe staples but which in the context of my surroundings I also took to mean extremely expensive. Exquisite fashion photo murals decorated the walls, further indication of the company's status. Steven Miesel was the photographer, I was told, and they loved his work. Of course they would, as he is one of the legendary fashion photographers of our time, making his biggest mark through decades of Vogue magazines.

About a month later, PHI requested that I complete a sample jacket pattern, which I did. By this time, the company where I had been working was winding down its manufacturing operations, and I was ready to transition to another job. My boss found out that PHI had interviewed me, and he volunteered a few interesting details, how that Susan Dell flew to New York in her personal jet to check on the company, how nice a person she was and how that despite slow sales, the company was still on solid footing because of the strength of the Dell finances behind it. One other candidate of which I was aware completed the same jacket pattern assignment for PHI, but I was eventually told that although they were pleased with my pattern, they had decided to try to work around existing staff and not hire anyone else after all.

To my surprise, 10 months later in November 2008, Ms. Hansen contacted me again and asked me to come for another interview. PHI was branching out with some pre-seasonal collections, and they had hired a new patternmaker from BCBG who needed an assistant. I met with him and completed a sample pattern on site for him. We talked about the long hours at PHI, and he told me he had worked as many as 80 hours in a week prior to a fashion show. "Andreas is a very prolific designer," he said, meaning the staff was required to produce numerous samples that would be dropped from the final line. When I heard "80 hours," I was disheartened. This must mean he lived close to the office, because working those hours with any commuting time would not be possible. By this time, I had already worked as a patternmaker for another company's runway show and had exceeded 70 hours in the final week, with 60 to 70 hour weeks leading up to that. My daily round-trip commute to work was 3 hours (which included 4 miles of walking), and because patternmaking requires standing most of the day, long work weeks were making my feet hurt constantly and were breaking down my physical and emotional health.

Therefore, after the November 2008 interview, I emailed PHI to say I was interested in the job only if I would be allowed to limit my work leading up to fashion shows to 60 hours weekly. I had discovered through experience that my efficiency began to sharply decline past that point, and I felt that 60 hours of solid, hard work would go a long way toward accomplishing the company's goals while still allowing me to survive. Ms. Hansen was extraordinarily kind and called me in person to tell me that the patternmaker for whom I had done the working interview was very excited about me, but when they saw I wanted to limit my working hours to 60 per week, that brought up "red flags" because it would discourage the other workers if I went home and they couldn't. "We have down times, but we really hump it before shows," she said. While I was sorry to miss the experience I would have gotten at PHI, I have many times since smiled in amusement at the thought that 60 hours a week was not enough. Other garment workers with whom I am acquainted have developed chronic illnesses from the strain of similar hours.

Shortly after this, I returned to the Midwestern United States to start my own business, Fashion Belle. I have been encouraged by remembering the words of the PHI patternmaker after he saw my portfolio and the sample pattern I did for him, "Why are you applying for an assistant job? You can be a patternmaker." I had told him how much I enjoy learning from more experienced patternmakers like himself, and I always will. Having your own business is wonderful, but it doesn't mean you stop learning. Mr. Abraham had told me the same thing, that one of the reasons he loves patternmaking is because there is always something new to learn.

It had been several years since I checked on PHI's business, so I was surprised to find recently that the company closed in early 2010, a little over a year after I last had contact with them. It is always sad to see fashion businesses close, and for those people whom I've mentioned here, if you find and read this story, please know that I wish you the very best in your present endeavors. Working with you, interviewing with you and seeing how you run your businesses has been a tremendous privilege. Also, please contact me if I have offered details here that you would rather not have in print. I have tried as much as possible to edit the story to something that would be enjoyable to general readers as well as courteous to the people involved.

Photo of the New York PHI flagship boutique is courtesy of Wunderbloc archives via Google.