Grunge made an unlikely comeback over the last year with cult New York label Phi's fusion of androgynous tailoring and monochrome layering of lightweight, feminine fabrics. Inspiring women everywhere to adopt a darker attitude and approach to style, Phi's creative mastermind, Andreas Melbostad, has a vision encompassing everything from punk revelry to the photography of Helmut Newton. Taking a moment out of his hectic schedule, Melbostad let Indigo Clarke in on Phi past and pending.
For many Phi, the luxury New York label with a penchant for oversized suiting and sombre hues, has existed just below the radar. The five-year-old label, headed by Norwegian expatriate Andreas Melbostad as creative director and backed by Susan Dell, wife of computer billionaire Michael Dell, has long promoted a unique femininity (albeit buried beneath layers of angular black), but until their SS08 collection hit the catwalk and turned heads, Phi's signature aesthetic managed to escape mainstream attention.
The last two collections, differing in aesthetic but not attitude, saw Melbostad's dark interpretation of urban style surface with androgynous tailoring and structured over-sized silhouettes in monochrome. Heavy biker details, buckles, zips, chains and punk overtones came out in force for SS08 (a show for which French Vogue's Carine Roitfeld was in attendance), followed up with a softer, surprisingly divergent AW08 collection inspired by Helmut Newton, featuring "lace, bright colour and dots; femininity over boyishness, but in an empowered way," explains Melbostad, Phi's Creative Director, renowned for his equally severe and elegant aesthetic, from his SoHo studio. "We wanted to create a lean and leggy silhouette with the focus on redefined classics, essential fabrics, and a clean palette. The grey lean suit in the Spring/Summer collection coherently evokes Phi's point of view – the iconic formal dress re-proportioned, re-constructed and re-positioned. For fall though, I wanted to let go of the androgyny and boyishness a bit, but maintain a tough attitude overall."
Catering to, "Women who express their sense of individuality through their clothing," the charming Melbostad says, "The spirit of the PHI woman is hard to describe… but she has an urban, international attitude first and foremost – a tough sensibility, but with an innate femininity. I feel Phi is more about an attitude than a type of person and aesthetic actually," he continues. "The woman who chooses to wear Phi has confidence in their own sense of style. I often move outside my comfort zone to create something new each season – I'm interested in this kind of challenge, to challenge myself and also to push the wardrobes of the women I dress."
The challenge for last spring, Melbostad says, was to take a "tougher approach to the season," by referencing the irreverence and punk sensibility of The Clash. "That's really where the androgynous style for the collection came from," says Melbostad. "The punk influence came through in rope dying - but with a punky rather than Bali feel – and tough elements like zippers and chains, which I recreated in light, delicate fabrics. I really pushed the light fabrics as far as I could go – taking them from being quite soft and feminine and transforming them into something more striking and tough." For AW08 Melbostad flipped this approach with somewhat busy, feminine prints across a collection informed by 'Sleepless Nights', the photographic work of Helmut Newton. "Fall 08 was inspired by a sense of fantasy capturing the female body," Melbostad says obscurely. "A search for departure, and futurism with nostalgia… The idea that something wildly improbably is just about to happen."
Beginning his professional design career with Nicole Farhi in London, Melbostad relocated to Paris for two collaborations with Alber Elbaz – on the Guy Laroche and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche collections. He later worked with Nathalie Gervais at Nina Ricci in Paris before being recruited by Calvin Klein, and then Donna Karen in New York, acting as design director before being snapped up by Phi. "The initial attraction to phi for me, and what made Phi an exciting company to design for, was the idea of really starting up something from nothing," says Melbostad, explaining his decision to work for the young label. "There was no history when I started at Phi, so I had a real sense of freedom to take the label where I wanted to. It allowed me to create my own work environment and develop a unique way of working, which is very important in the creative process."
Sending fashion drawings to Jean Paul Gaultier at age 7 from his Norwegian hometown, Melbostad was always destined to follow a career in design. "I was so happy when I received an encouraging letter from Gaultier when I was young - he was a real hero of mine," he remembers. "Ever since I was a child, I was drawn to the world of fashion. I was very distant from fashion though, growing up in Norway, it's like I felt that my life and thoughts were reflected in the fashion I loved. This career has really been a dream come true, designing has taken me to so many places – I've lived in cities and met people I otherwise wouldn't have because I'm not an extroverted person." Having lived in New York over the past seven years, Melbostad says it has inspired his aesthetic in many ways, "because it's such a liberating place. My designs are very contemporary which might be because New York is such a young, creative and vibrant city. The style here is so eclectic, you don't have the uniformity you get in other cities. There are just so many lifestyles here, and such excitement and energy."
Slowly transforming itself from a niche to international luxury label, Phi is currently broadening its scope and reaching out to a larger international clientele. "We are very excited this week because we are doing our first advertising shoot," Melbostad smiles. "It will be small but very precise. We are fortunate to have our own store here in NY that acts as a constant platform for our product… but this shoot will be like a little launching pad to extend the image of PHI to a larger international audience, to women everywhere."