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.

August 2000By Comments

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 in dresses? Back in Austin, she didn’t flinch at the charge, instead addressing it with characteristic forthrightness. “I want to build a house as big and lasting as Chanel,” she said, her aquamarine eyes fixed resolutely on the future. “This is not a hobby.”

Before she was Susan Lieberman, doctor’s daughter and all-around golden girl, who knew early on that her life would be extraordinary. To expect less would have been out of character. Her father, noted Baylor University Medical Center cancer surgeon Zelig “Zeck” Lieberman, is a 72-year-old fitness fanatic and a study in self-realized positivity, a relentlessly upbeat man whose vitality has defined his brood. To meet Lieberman and his sons—Susan’s older brother, Steve, is president of the Weitzman Group, a Dallas-based real estate company, and her younger brother, Randy, is a venture capitalist—is to be struck by their collective drive. Athletic and self-assured, they have firm handshakes, broad smiles, and the zeal of motivational speakers. Conversation frequently touches on “playing hard,” “embracing life,” “thinking positive,” “setting your priorities,” and “being the best.” Susan exhibits the same unflagging optimism and ambition, often with an eye toward shaping her public image. Casting herself as a tireless champion of self-improvement, she likes to expound on the virtues of personal challenges, trying to dispel any notion that she might be a lady of leisure. “I set goals for myself, and I put every bit of myself into them,” she says brightly. “I make a huge investment in blood, sweat, and tears.”Susan came of age in a five-bedroom house in the North Dallas neighborhood of Russwood Acres, a comfortable enclave of late-seventies suburbia. The Liebermans routinely spent their weekends running together, racing to improve their times. Susan kept pace with her brothers but also cultivated her femininity: She was meticulous about her appearance, even for swim meets and family waterskiing outings for which she primped at length with a curling iron. “No one has ever looked better getting ready to be plunged into a lake and pulled along at forty miles an hour,” recalls Randy. At the suggestion of friends of her mother, Marilyn, she began modeling with the Kim Dawson agency in junior high, doing runway work and department store catalogs; though she soon tired of being a “mannequin,” her interest in fashion was piqued, and she dreamed of someday being a buyer. Academics did not always hold her interest: After the ninth grade, the self-described “social butterfly” transferred from the exclusive Greenhill School to the bigger, and more social, W. T. White High School, where she was named a Sophomore Beauty.

High-spirited and outgoing, with a Farrah Fawcett mane and a dazzling smile, she became one of the most popular members of the class of 1982. The house was perpetually filled with flowers, her brothers say, and one suitor regularly brought Tyler roses by the bucketful. “Susan always went out with the star athletes—the quarterback, the pitcher for the baseball team,” remembers Steve of her days as a cheerleader. “She didn’t get serious with them, but they were serious about her.” After high school, she vowed to apply herself to her studies at Arizona State University, though majoring in fashion merchandising and design proved to be disappointing. She candidly admits that she had an eye for design but not the skills for clothing construction. “Anything I sewed, you wouldn’t have caught me dead in,” she says, laughing at the memory. “I couldn’t take an idea from the page to the garment.” At the end of her senior year, unsure which direction her life would take, she confided in Zeck Lieberman on the long drive home from Tempe to Dallas. She wanted to meet someone she could get serious with, she told her father, and though she had never cared much about marrying within her faith before, she also wanted him to be Jewish. There was only one problem, she said, “Jewish guys don’t like to sweat.”

“Well,” her father suggested, “why don’t you teach a Jewish guy how to sweat?”

Enter Michael Dell, a pudgy, bespectacled 22-year-old wunderkind who had launched his career selling PCs out of his UT dorm room. Susan met him in February 1988 after she had followed her brother’s lead and ventured into real estate, moving to Austin to work for Trammell Crow. One of her clients insisted that she meet Dell, then a rising star in the business world but by no means a household name. His fledgling company was still called PC’s Limited, and as Susan tells it, she had not the slightest idea who he was or even any certainty about his last name. They met at a North Austin bistro for lunch, and shortly thereafter Susan told her brother Steve that she was smitten. “Most men I dated talked about themselves a lot and tried to impress me,” she recalls. But Michael, whose father is also a doctor, seemed unassuming. “He was the nicest guy I’d ever met.” The young entrepreneur also looked good on paper; when he took his company public later that year, his stock holdings reportedly soared to nearly $100 million. The following spring they were engaged, and in October 1989 they were married. He was 24, she 25.

At first glance, they seemed an odd match: A family photo from the time shows Michael, plainly ill at ease in front of the camera, his tie slightly askew; beside him stands Susan, resplendent in a crimson dress she had designed and matching pumps, smiling brilliantly. “From a superficial standpoint, we were naturally sort of surprised,” says Randy, choosing his words carefully. “Michael was very cerebral, very philosophical. He had been so serious, with so many serious people, for a long time.” Susan took it upon herself to give his life, which had largely consisted of eighteen-hour workdays, more balance. She hosted the first party held at his Northwest Hills home. She took him jogging or biking around Town Lake most mornings. She persuaded him, on business trips abroad, to duck out of work long enough to take in the sights. Bolstering his confidence, she persuaded him to wear Armani suits for executive polish and to try warming to the limelight rather than shunning it. What her husband thinks of her efforts—or of her, for that matter—is anyone’s guess. “I’ll only answer questions pertaining to Susan’s business,” Michael Dell told me during a recent interview, living up to his billing as a famously tight-lipped CEO.

By 1991 Forbes was including Dell on its list of the four hundred richest Americans. Such wealth came at a price: Two years later, soon after the birth of the Dells’ first child, a burglar broke into their home when the baby and the nanny were alone. No one was hurt, but the incident left Susan deeply shaken. “I believe he should be put in jail where he can’t emotionally scar anyone else,” she testified at one of the burglar’s trials. “I’m fearful all the time.” Soon afterward, the Dells commissioned Charles Gwathmey to design a solitary estate on Thompson Mountain, a limestone-and-stainless-steel Shangri-la surrounded by 120 wooded acres and a tall game fence. Privacy at the mansion—which, from a distance, looks like a spaceship that has lost its way—is at a premium: Only intimate friends are allowed farther than a reception hall adjacent to the house, and hired help must sign non-disclosure agreements barring them from speaking about their employers. Security officers monitor the perimeter and discreetly keep watch over the Dells, even when Susan pedals into the Hill Country on her marathon 65-mile weekend bike rides.

Life inside the bubble is carefully stage-managed, and glimpses of Susan in unrehearsed moments are hard to come by. Friends and family are guarded in what they say about her, frequently retreating into banalities. “For Susan,” they invariably say, “the glass is always half full.” Even her husband prefers to stick to generalities, speaking of her “enthusiasm” and “energy” without providing any details. Indeed, those closest to her are relentlessly on-message, as if reading from the same stage directions: Reveal nothing. Always bring the conversation back to Susan’s business. Use buzzwords like “dedicated” and “passionate.” Questions that might provoke any other response often receive the same reply: “You’ll have to check with Susan on that.” Of course, there is a certain absurdity in trying to grasp the essence of a woman who is, by design, unknowable—though given those constraints, Susan talks about herself with little disingenuousness. Although she is keenly aware of shaping her own story line—”I always knew I would marry the greatest guy in the world,” she says—she is the least circumspect of her circle, offering frank assessments of her life beneath the glass.

Effusive, occasionally self-deprecating, and informal in conversation—”Killer!” she had exclaimed when she saw a new design at her New York offices—she spoke in June about the peculiarities of her high-profile life. Standing in her Westlake office, she compared the gradual increase in her husband’s fame with the way that Loop 360, the main thoroughfare running through Austin’s high-tech hills, has changed from a scenic drive to a choked highway during the thirteen years she has lived in the city; as a newcomer, she biked along it with ease, and as traffic has increased each year, she has forged on. “You just get used to it,” she said. First, people stared at her husband in public. Then they asked for autographs. The couple was recognized in an out-of-the-way restaurant in Paris, then in a toy store in Tokyo. Now, helicopters occasionally hover over their house. “Wherever you are, people know you, but you don’t know them,” Susan said. “They look at you and lean toward you and want to shake your hand.” There have been moments when the enormity of it all has taken her by surprise, as when her husband delivered a speech in New York that drew a crowd of thousands. “He was like a rock star,” she said.

This past year the media’s interest in the Dells has reached a fever pitch. In March the New York Observer ran a story titled “Yee-haw! The Texas Dell Boys Lasso Manhattan,” claiming—incorrectly—that the couple had purchased a $22 million Manhattan pied-à-terre. In June the Austin American-Statesman speculated that the Dells were the buyers of an $80 million spread west of town (land that Susan confirms will be the family’s horse ranch, although she says the reported dollar amount is incorrect). Heightened fascination with the Dells is probably inevitable; however, if they have inspired jealousy or resentment in Austin, it is largely discussed behind closed doors. On and off the record, observers of the couple’s ascendancy expressed little ill will toward them—perhaps in part because they have become the city’s most generous patrons. Dedicated philanthropists, they have donated nearly $50 million to a variety of causes and ushered in an unprecedented era of giving among the city’s so-called Dellionaires. In the same vein, Susan encourages her four children to give one third of their allowance to charity. “Their lives depend on us making sure they’re grounded,” she said with a sense of urgency.

Despite their billions, the Dells lead disciplined lives. They work hard. They exercise religiously. They don’t drink. But do they occasionally stop to marvel at their good fortune and allow themselves to get caught up in the moment? “There are times, now and then, when something really exciting happens,” Susan said, “when Michael and I look at each other and say, ‘Wow!’ and we’ll high-five each other. And then I say, ‘Okay, let’s get our heads back on,’ and it’s over.”

The appearance of Susan Dell’s tony, high-dollar boutique in Austin—rather than in Dallas or Houston—speaks more to the city’s changing character than does the ever-increasing traffic through its moneyed hills. The recent infusion of massive wealth has brought a new status consciousness to the city, along with a similarly alien taste for conspicuous consumption, so sudden in its arrival that a boutique like Susan Dell’s would have had virtually no client base five years ago. But as Michael Dell has helped create tremendous prosperity in Austin, so now his wife caters to its beneficiaries. On a blazing hot morning this summer, Deborah Green, an attractive blonde (and the wife of Tom Green, a Dell senior vice president who is the chairman of the Dell Foundation and one of Austin’s major players) stood before a mirror in Susan’s boutique, appraising her reflection. The store’s sleek, minimalist expanse of limestone and glass was adorned with vases of calla lilies; the clothes on display, mostly tailored suits and dresses cut on the bias, had a spare, understated elegance. Susan knelt beside Deborah Green in a large fitting room, pinning hems as she critically eyed each piece, a seamstress in tow. Green had already opted for a currant-colored funnel-neck top ($185) and a black satin skirt and top with ruched seams ($995). Now she stood appraising an olive sequined halter top ($2,850 with a matching skirt). “It’s very Deborah Green,” Susan said.

“Mmm,” Green murmured. “I want it.” Susan handed her a sky-blue silk-georgette blouse and a pair of black slacks and then set to work fitting them to Green’s petite frame.

“I’m feeling a little Rubenesque today,” said Green with a sigh, though she looked quite svelte. Her teenage daughter, who sat in a black lacquered chair in the corner of the fitting room, offered some reassuring words. Next, Susan suggested she try on a white blouse made from silk-metal gauze, a sheer fabric with steel bonded into it.

“Are we going to ding if we go through a metal detector at the airport?” Green asked, evidently amused. Susan laughed, all the while nipping and tucking at the black slacks. She reminisced about a hand-embroidered-and-beaded satin gown she had designed for Green several years before, a champagne-colored sheath trimmed with iridescent chiffon and Parisian lace encrusted with sequins and paillettes.

“Susan, you have a memory like a steel trap,” said Green. “We need to go to a big ball in Dallas so I can wear it again!” She shook her head and laughed. “Susan always says about my dresses, ‘This would look fabulous with a diamond necklace of mine—you should borrow it.’ And I always say, ‘Only if it comes with a guard!'”

No sooner had Deborah Green left, a black garment bag slung over her shoulder, than a stylish middle-aged woman pulled up in a silver Porsche. “Gorgeous!” she exclaimed as she threw open the door and beamed at Susan. Admiring an ostrich-feather bustier—”It’s divine!”—she proceeded to tell Susan about a friend in Houston who was in need of several couture gowns, including one for a function at the Menil and another for the opera. “She’s a great gal, and she’s hosting stuff all year long,” the woman explained, fingering an ivory cocktail dress. She surveyed the boutique for a few moments, then gazed approvingly at its owner. “Susan,” she gushed, squeezing her arm, “I’m just so happy for you.”

The boutique, whose elaborate door handle is forged in the shape of Susan Dell Inc.’s signature elongated U—”U as in you, the customer,” Susan explained—evokes a mood more in step with her hometown’s sensibilities than with Austin’s traditionally dressed-down ethos. Susan began designing her own clothes after leaving Dallas behind, finding Austin’s lack of high-end designer wear frustrating. She regularly sent a Dallas tailor sketches of business suits and evening clothes to sew, and when she was unable to find a wedding dress that suited her exactly, she designed her own: a satin gown flecked with gold thread, opalescent bugle beads, and baby pearls, with a silk-tulle veil and four-foot-long satin train. “When women would comment on my clothes, I would never say, ‘I designed it,’ because I honestly didn’t think people would believe me,” she explained. “Someone would say, ‘I love that. Where did you get it?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, Dallas.’ ” She credits her husband with spreading the word about her talent; when friends learned that she had designed her dresses, they requested custom ball gowns of their own.

Dubbed “Susans,” they run from $5,000 to $30,000 apiece and are known for their impeccable finishing. “Her dresses could be worn inside out,” marvels client and friend Lisa Gottesman. “I’d put them in the same category as Gallianos.” Early on in her dress-designing days, Susan accompanied her husband on business trips to Europe, cold-calling Parisian mills whose fabrics she admired and sparing no expense in her pursuit of luxury materials. By 1997 her gowns were so popular that she had more work than one patternmaker and two seamstresses could handle. She drafted a business plan and began recruiting a team of fashion veterans to help build the company into a worldwide, multimillion-dollar corporation. Linda Beauchamp, the head of Donna Karan Menswear, signed on as president, and Ellen Enders, who had worked as a design assistant under Oscar de la Renta and Richard Tyler, became the head designer. (Susan, whose title is creative director, designer, and CEO, works in tandem with Enders throughout the design process.) In the future, promotional photography will be handled by Harper’s Bazaar legend Lillian Bassman, and all future stores will be designed by Charles Gwathmey—the sort of all-star team that only extraordinarily deep pockets could finance. The company is overseen by an advisory board that happens to include Michael Dell.

The label’s ready-to-wear clothes are by no means trendsetting or avant-garde, but—to the surprise of many who initially wrote off Susan Dell’s foray into fashion as a lark—they are surprisingly sophisticated. She has largely depended on word- of-mouth to promote her label; when her boutique opened last November, she threw a private party for one hundred well-heeled guests, who received sterling silver U key chains and a preview of her spring collection. Her clients currently include Melinda Gates (the wife of Bill), Julie Taubman (the wife of New York real estate tycoon Robert), Sarah Perot (the wife of Ross, Jr.), Julie Crenshaw (the wife of golfer Ben), and Donna Stockton-Hicks (the wife of radio magnate Steve). By next fall Susan wants to have her line in an upscale national department store, and her plans beyond that are no less ambitious. “I want my clothes to be as highly regarded as the clothes designed by all the fabulous people I look to now—Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren—but I am not naive enough to think that I will be there anytime soon,” she said, pacing her Austin office. “Doubts about me haven’t gone away, and they may never go away. But if I couldn’t design clothes, they wouldn’t be leaving the store. They’ll figure it out.”

After dashing out of her boutique to meet her next appointment, Susan called from her car phone to continue our conversation, confiding that in recent months she had been dreaming about her business nearly every night—long, convoluted dreams in which she was draping fabric on a mannequin for an elaborate ball gown. Did she ever get out of bed to sketch it on paper? “If I’m going to do anything in the middle of the night, it’s going to be to grab Michael,” she said, laughing. “I have my limits.”

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