Once more, with feeling

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After nearly 20 years, Sarah Phillips has relaunched her fashion line – not from the streets of Manhattan but from the comforts of her Wilton home.

Famed for designing Hillary Clinton’s inaugural ball gown in 1993, Phillips retired at the top of her profession in 1995 to start a family and later move from New York to Connecticut. But with her son off to college now, Phillips says it’s time for a comeback.

“It’s a multitude of feelings – anxiousness, anxiety, stress,” Phillips says of the relaunch of Sarah Phillips New York. “We’re nervous and excited. The hard work is finally coming to fruition.”

For years, Phillips’ clothing could be found at Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus and specialty boutiques. But this time she’s starting off differently. She’s selling directly to private clients, allowing them to choose specific colors and get a custom fit. So far she’s held one trunk show in Greenwich with additional shows to follow in both Connecticut and New York.

“Our main challenge is to get the word out to more of our market,” Phillips says.

But already former clients have contacted her saying they’re thrilled she’s back.

Phillips’ new line features silks and lightweight wools and a design she describes as sculptural, dramatic and timeless. Several of her pieces in the roughly 25-piece collection are based on her original collection in the 1990s.

The fabrics are from Italy and France, yet Phillips says it was important to her that the clothing be made in the United States. A factory in New York City sews the clothing.

“With the economic climate right now, it’s very important to support the country as best we can,” Phillips says. “I do manufacture in the United States and the way that we work benefits the client, because they don’t have to pay retail. It’s direct from the designer to the client.”

The price of the line ranges from $500 to $2,600, which is about half as expensive as it would be in stores, Phillips says.

From inside Phillips’ home office, she and three employees huddle around a small table to discuss Phillips goals for her new company. The office – likely larger than most one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan – is filled with clothing, sample fabrics and inspirations for her new line. Of note are the several images of bats and their Gothic-like wingspans.

“Working in Wilton is fine,” Phillips says. “But there are things I miss about New York.”

Compared to when she first started in New York more than two decades ago, Phillips says it is much more difficult to restart her company in Connecticut. It’s more expensive, there are more taxes and there are too many regulations, she says.

Plus, there’s no longer the ease of running across the street to meet buyers or factory employees. She’s not as close to the high density of customers either. But this time around, she’s also armed with a smartphone, email and the Internet, all modern-day conveniences she didn’t have before, making many phone calls and meetings no longer necessary.

“I’m a small business owner, which is one thing that this country desperately needs,” Phillips says. “I have eight part-time employees, but the business climate is difficult. We need to encourage and do as much as we possibly can to help small business owners. It’s extremely difficult to start a business and it’s much more difficult than it was when I first started in the ’90s.”

Despite the challenges, however, Phillips says she has no plans to leave the state any time soon. Her home and employees are all in Connecticut.

“It feels wonderful to be back,” Phillips says. “I wish I had come back sooner.” n

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