Suddenly Susan

Not so long ago, Austin women in need of couture clothes had to go to Dallas or Houston. Now Susan Dell (the wife of Michael) is selling her own high-dollar designs in a tony boutique. It's your classic riches-to-rags story.

On a drizzly spring morning in Manhattan, Susan Dell, the wife of billionaire computer mogul Michael Dell, strode through the double doors of the Fashion Tower, an art deco high-rise on Seventh Avenue, and hurried to a meeting at the headquarters of her fledgling couture house, Susan Dell Inc. The 36-year- old blonde, who had arrived in the city after a dizzying evening in Austin hosting a fundraiser for the Austin Museum of Art, went unnoticed amid the dirt and din of the Garment District, though she had the look of a woman whom life is treating well. Luminous, lithe, and perfectly turned-out, she wore a sleeveless black ensemble of her own design and carried a Gucci black alligator purse, having pared down her constellation of jewelry to a simple diamond drop necklace, a platinum Rolex, and two diamond rings of astonishing heft. She stepped off the elevators, pushed open the frosted-glass door that bears her name, and walked briskly to a conference room. Pausing only to set down her laptop—Dell, of course—she put a well-manicured hand on her hip, beamed at her assembled staff, and said, "Let's get started."Working girl may seem an unlikely role for Susan Dell to have chosen, given that her husband's success in the computer industry has forever redefined the term "rich Texan." At 35, Michael Dell is the wealthiest Texan of all time and the ninth-richest man in the world, having amassed a fortune valued at a staggering $17.5 billion. His colossal wealth has catapulted the Dells into the heady world of the fabulously well-to-do, and in Texas it has made them one of the highest-profile couples around. The Dells' 33,000-square- foot Austin mansion sits atop Thompson Mountain, a peak that offers panoramic views of a landscape that has been fundamentally changed by the Dell name: Not only is Dell Computer the biggest private employer in Central Texas, but it has also helped attract the infusion of high-tech money that is reshaping Austin. Among members of the city's burgeoning social scene, the Dells are referred to as Michael and Susan, having reached the sort of iconic status that makes last names unnecessary.

These days, the Dell name most often in circulation around town is not his but hers; after playing a supporting role for eleven years, Susan is now taking center stage. The Dallas native is routinely described in superlatives: She is the most vibrant, the most stylish, the most gregarious, the most driven, and—as several socialites admiringly noted—the fittest and thinnest of the city's nouveaux mega-riches. Marriage to Michael Dell has made her one of the most-talked-about women in town, as have the five-figure couture gowns that she has designed for the city's elite for the past several years. But nothing has gottenmore tongues wagging than the recent opening of her exclusive clothing store—called simply Susan Dell—in the well-heeled Westlake area of Austin. Designed by renowned architect Charles Gwathmey, who drafted the addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York, it is no ordinary dress shop. The high-dollar boutique (its burnished-steel door alone reportedly cost $40,000, although Susan denies it) is the first retail outlet for Susan Dell Inc., the start-up company that she plans on building into nothing less than a fashion empire. To succeed, she will first have to persuade her critics that she should be taken seriously. From Seventh Avenue to Westlake Drive, skeptical observers are asking the same question: Is she for real, or is she—as plenty of eye-rolling Austinites have speculated—simply a bored socialite trying to elbow her way into the fashion world with her husband's billions? Under her direction, Susan Dell Inc. has lured talent away from some of the nation's best designers—Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Richard Tyler, Randolph Duke, Vera Wang—and now boasts three floors in the Fashion Tower and a staff of 45. The fashion press has begun to take note; in February Women's Wear Daily weighed in with a glowing write-up, and in May Harper's Bazaar praised the label's "clean, elegant designs." Still, breaking into the couture business is hardly easy, though Susan Dell appears less concerned with turning a profit than with building a brand, one that is inextricably bound up with her own identity. "Since the day Michael and I got engaged, I've been 'the fiancée of' and then 'the wife of,'" she says. "And before that, I was 'the daughter of,' 'the sister of,' 'the friend of.' The good news is, I'm thrilled to be all those things. But I'm also Susan Dell."

Her determination to make her mark was clear in her Manhattan offices, where, in a conference room graced by white orchids, she set to work refining her label's fall collection. She was both informal with her staff—"Very cool," she said with a smile when she noticed that a willowy design assistant had dyed the ends of her hair pink—and decisive. All eyes were on her as she made rapid-fire rulings on everything from the shape of the new Susan Dell dress boxes to the color of the new Susan Dell hangers, keeping in constant motion as she fingered fabric swatches, examined seams, and nixed particular designs ("That isn't my client"), never stopping to sit down during the nearly five-hour session. Frowning, she listened as a technician described how a white wool top had come in "way, way off spec." Reflective, she talked about the need for "trans-seasonal" clothes and a palette that could move from day to evening. Appraising a platinum-colored satin gown, she cut off the straps and made adjustments while circling the fitting model, in the process transforming the otherwise unremarkable dress into a striking sheath. "Fabulous," one of her design assistants whispered.

At the conclusion of the meeting, she smiled and was gone, dashing out onto Seventh Avenue, which was cluttered with dress racks and double-parked delivery trucks, and ducking into a waiting car. She had given a bravura performance, but the question persisted: Was the wife of Texas' wealthiest man merely dabbling

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