Owen is a brand new men’s and women’s multibrand boutique in the famed Meatpacking District. Carrying a carefully selected assortment of hard-to-find and up-and-coming contemporary designers and brands, the new 1,800-sq.-foot (167-sq.-meter) shop is lovingly run by Ohio native Phillip Salem, a first-time store owner still in his early twenties who graduated from college just two years ago. To give his industrial shop more drama, he and his architect, Jeremy Barbour, affixed 25,000 brown paper bags to one wall and the ceiling, creating a unique décor that resembles a field of brown flowers. Here, just three weeks after its opening, Salem discusses Owen’s conception, birth and why it is already a major draw for New York clotheshorses. Interview by Christopher Blomquist

Why Owen? Why now and why here?
I had this concept as soon as I graduated from college. I graduated from FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] a year and a half ago and as soon as I graduated I had this concept to open up this high-end contemporary boutique in downtown Manhattan. Specifically I wanted to be in the Meatpacking District because I wanted to showcase these emerging designers with these established brands in this very chic neighborhood, which I felt was missing from the market.

Where does the name come from?
The name comes from my middle name. Owen is also my mother’s maiden name and she used to be a fashion designer as well so the name is in the family and the name relates to fashion. Also, if you take Owen and you move the “W” upside down it becomes “men” and then if you move the “W” over it becomes “women.” It’s a men’s and women’s store and I also really, really wanted to create that. I want people shopping together rather than separately. I felt that that was missing from this neighborhood. There was nowhere to really do that.

Why do you think that is?
I think people feel safe by just only doing women’s. But it’s funny, across the street there’s a men’s only Christian Louboutin opening. I think that with my store we are bringing the men back to shopping. I specifically want men to find clothing that is forward but also functional. That’s sort of hard to find in New York. You either go to these crazy stores that I love that are very specific and avant-garde and dark and drapey or you go to a place that plays it very safe. I wanted to merge that together to create something that is funky and fun. We have guys that are 60 years old to 16-year-olds coming in to the store and picking up the same pieces. They are kind of fun and edgy whether it be a cheetah-print short or a longer tank top or a slimmer fitting Patrik Ervell button-down. We are bringing the shape back, bringing the function back and bringing this edge back to men’s shopping.

What about your women’s business?
I love all my peer stores that are in the neighborhood but sometimes you see the same designers running through from downtown to uptown Manhattan. Since Meatpacking is really sort of in the middle of Manhattan, I wanted to have all these new great designers that are not heavily showcased in New York and throughout the US. I have a lot of European designers, especially French designers, I have Australian designers and a lot of New York–based designers.

How do you pick which ones to stock?
I made a wish list as soon as I graduated. I loved Preen but you can’t find it. And you can’t find Sass & Bide from Australia. And Jen Kao is an amazing New York-based designer who is all about architecture and detail and luxury. It’s also hard to find nice men’s shirts so I started researching shirts like Patrik Ervell and Lucio Castro, a new Argentina-born, New York-based designer. And I also looked for fun sunglasses that really aren’t showcased heavily like Karen Walker from New Zealand and Prism in London.  I love Suno’s prints and that is another one that is hard to find in a boutique setting. So I made this wish list and I just started contacting all these designers. I would just call them or e-mail them and say, “Hey, my name is Phillip and I am a new FIT grad. I want to make a showroom appointment.” Many of them said, “Of course. We would love to have you in the showroom. We really don’t know much about what Owen is or where it is but we would love to have you.” And then some were hesitant but I was very persistent until they invited me to their showroom. I don’t take “no” for an answer. I make a “way” out of “no way” always. Even in college I was like that. I covered New York Fashion Week as one of only two students invited to correspond on TV backstage. People said, “You’re nuts. You are not going to get coverage” and said, “Yes, I will.” And I did.

What is your retail background?
I started working retail when I was 16 years old, the day I turned 16. I went to the mall two weeks before my 16th birthday because in a lot of States you have to be 16 to work.  I went into American Eagle, Hollister, Gap and Abercrombie and I applied and told them I would be 16 in two weeks. American Eagle called me the day of my 16th birthday. I worked there and I loved it. Then I started working at this boutique called Indigo Nation in Cleveland. Then I moved to New York to attend the Fashion Institute and the week after I started school I applied at Barneys and the major retailers. I got the job at Barneys Co-op Women’s and worked there all throughout college.

So how does having your own store compare to being an employee?
I love all the stores that I worked for from Barneys to American Eagle. I took things that I loved and I took things that needed help from both places and I made them into my own. I give a lot of credit to my other stores. It’s all related. You have to learn from everywhere you go and not just in retail but in life in general. I wouldn’t be the person I was if I didn’t attend FIT and surround myself with certain people.

Owen in New York
Owen in New York

Tell me about the unusual décor at Owen.
I am very involved with every aspect of the store including the décor. I interviewed about four or five architects but before I even interviewed an architect I hired a creative director who basically vacuumed what was in my mind into this brand book. It’s The Owen Brand Book and it’s about 30 pages of images, pictures and text—everything from the Northern Lights to a forest to an ocean to an industrial building to a parking lot in Miami that is just concrete. I really wanted to merge these industrial features even before we found this space. When you think industrial you sometimes think cold but I didn’t want anyone to feel cold in the store. We wanted to bring this book to life so we started coming up with textures and we went to these random junkyards in Brooklyn and Queens. But we couldn’t find a texture. Finally, he said, “I want to create my own.” Five days later he thought of paper bags. I trusted him, we went with it and then we had weeks of stapling 25,000 paper bags and 100,000 staples. We opened them up and it just made sense. It’s beautiful, it's dramatic, it’s welcoming and it’s inviting juxtaposed with the industrial brick.

What are your bestselling brands?
Definitely for men, Patrik Ervell. A lot of my Jen Kao exclusives are selling. Genetic Denim jeans are so soft and my Surface to Air women’s is gone. I have like two left of my Timo Weiland print dresses. I’m very happy.

How has the customer traffic been so far?
Monday through Thursdays we have the neighborhood girl or guy usually after work they want to do shopping. And they come to Owen to shop because they don’t have a lot of time to shop. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays it’s tourists, neighborhoods, families, High Line traffic, Standard Hotel traffic, Gansevoort Hotel people, Soho House people coming before or after the pool…. We have bathing suits coming in on Friday from We Are Handsome from Australia and we think those will do well with the Soho House people.

What sort of customer service do you provide?
I am obsessed with Mariah Carey and Beyonce so I say that everyone who walks in the door should be treated like Beyonce. So I will be ready when Beyonce does walk in in the next few weeks hopefully. But whether Beyonce or not we want everybody to feel welcome. We have espresso, we have 100 champagne glasses just in case we have a party of 100 come in, we have wine and always water. It’s just something that I felt is sometimes missing from high-end retail.

Owen in New York
Owen in New York

What have you learned thus far being a store owner?
Patience. And listening to the customer. In three weeks I have noticed certain things that customers pick up, certain things customers ask for. And how to be patient in training staff and being aware of trends. Within the past year and a half of planning the store I have matured so I feel like my buy has matured in the still classic Owen aesthetic–fun, unique.

Now that the store is up and running, are designers now approaching you?
Yes. Ones that have said no are now sending me e-mails requesting appointments in Paris.

What do you think are some of the biggest trends for spring?
For spring and waterfalling into fall, I love prints that make a statement and are timeless. One of my designers, Kaelen, does a great print that is timeless and I can see it lasting for ten years. We have some Henrik Vibskov prints that are just beautiful but we also have that more demure look with the pants. But it’s not just a basic white wide-leg pant; it has a really nice hand to it and a great texture. I’m all about function, fabrics and quality. You are not going to come into Owen and see something that is not built with good quality. Even if it is something from Cheap Monday–I buy the pieces that have that nice hand to it. Clients who come in say, “Your fabrics are great.” The denim is silk-cotton denim from Genetic Denim. Also going along with trends, I tell my clients and I tell my staff, “Fashion is not a rule; it is a preference–always.” So even if Vogue or Elle or Marie Claire didn’t say that this was a trend or that it is out it’s up to you if you want to wear it, as long as you are comfortable in it.

How much time do you spend in the store?
I’m the first to open and I am the last to leave. Every day. Seven days a week. I live and breathe Owen.