“I want my work to speak for me.” Phillip Lim says these words flatly, much as he says everything when you first meet him. It’s really quite a fashion-designery thing to say–rather predictable, a tad pretentious, and not meaning much at all. Except in Lim’s case, he’s not kidding, because he doesn’t seem to want to speak for himself.
“Phillip is elusive,” says Wen Zhou, CEO of Lim’s company, 3.1 Phillip Lim. “It’s shy,” Lim clarifies. Elusive, shy, even distant and aloof–he does not seem like a designer for these times of red carpets and paparazzi, social climbing and social media. “If you’re giving all the time to the flashbulbs, to the people at the parties, it’s exhausting,” he says of his choice to stay mostly off the circuit. He avoids Facebook and Twitter. In conversation, he often deflects prying questions with one-liners that seem direct but are cryptic in retrospect. He once defined his style as “classic but twisted.” What does that even mean?
Whatever it is, shoppers have loved it. Lim’s style has, in just six years, fueled a fashion engine that is on target to drive $60 million in revenue this year. Along with his original womenswear collection, he now does menswear, childrenswear, swimwear, accessories, even lingerie. But the genius of 3.1 Phillip Lim isn’t found only in the design of the clothes; you can also spot it on the price tag. Tomoko Ogura, women’s fashion director of Barneys Co-op, says,”He’s a pioneer in terms of bringing a level of sophistication and a true integrity to design at the contemporary price point.” In other words, the clothes are made well, look good, and won’t cost you a month’s wages–a troika in fashion that’s all too rare.
At 38, Lim finds himself both a commercial and critical darling. In 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America presented him with its Swarovski award for womenswear; this year, he was a finalist for menswear. And on September 2, a day after his birthday, GQ China made him its 2011 designer of the year. Fashion-criticism doyenne Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune has praised the “careful craftsmanship” of his work, calling it “dynamic” and “energizing.” And, of course, he has his requisite celebrity following. “He designs so beautifully,” says actress Rachel Bilson, who last year cohosted, with Vogue, a first-anniversary fete for Lim’s L.A. store. “There is always a brilliant nod to femininity with a touch of edge.”
Clearly, his work is speaking for him, but where does it all come from? Modest and unassuming, he can fill hours of interviews with philosophical language like: “It’s important to get used to yourself. You begin with yourself and you end with yourself.” Really, who is this guy?
In june, I shadow Lim as he prepares to show his spring-summer 2012 menswear collection in Paris–the second time he has shown there. I arrive one Wednesday morning at the stunning, sun- dappled two-floor apartment overlooking the Place des Vosges that is serving as both a temporary atelier and his lodgings for the week. Art, much of it large-scale photography, dominates one wall. “There’s a Cindy Sherman in my bathroom,” Lim marvels. With gracious 17th-century facades peeking through the windows and the art-filled minimalist decor, the place is a happy amalgam of ancient and modern–classic but twisted, you might say.
For most of the first day, Lim barely says a word to me. He had flown in that morning on a red-eye and got right to work, examining and swiftly adjusting his designs, fitting male models, sending pieces to an anteroom to be finished by his tailor and seamstress, who had also flown in from New York. The mood is surprisingly mellow and even light. (During one lull, he looks around and says, “Should I throw a tantrum to make it more interesting?”) French mood music streams from the Internet. There’s a never-ending supply of Evian and Diet Coke, and the communal table groans with food–croissants, fresh fruit, Chinese takeout, and, later, a snack of falafel.
At 6 p.m., while waiting for a petulantly tardy model, Lim finally approaches me. His dark hair is neatly brushed back and his eyes are brown, intense but lighter than you might expect. He wears navy slip-on Vans sneakers with black socks. For this collection, appropriately, he says he was influenced by California skateboarders of the 1970s. The rest of his wardrobe is simple and loose: billowy shorts, a slouchy sweater, and a jacket that he has a tendency to wear over his shoulders. That last piece is the one touch of flamboyance in sight–a baseball cut in leopard print.
“Want a beer?” he asks, holding out a petite bottle of Leffe. “Look, it’s a small beer. It’s like it doesn’t even count.” It’s like a test conversation, and after chitchatting for a moment more, he’s off, before I can even begin to ask a real question.
The hospitality wasn’t special treatment for me. As each model breezes in, all elbows and insouciance, he mothers them: “Are you hungry?” “Have something to eat.” “Do you want something to drink?” Later, he tells me, “I realized recently, it’s Freudian or a kind of therapy to be nurturing like that. I wasn’t raised in an environment where it was family centric and everyone did everything together. There was a void of that. So I’ve always found myself trying to collect and build a family, whether it’s a family of garments, of people, or of art.”
Lim was born in Thailand in 1973 to Chinese parents. He and his family immigrated to Orange County, California, when he was a year old. Growing up, there was always tension between his Chinese culture and Western surroundings.
“You take the best of this and the best of that and you make your own,” Lim says. “Third-party culture.”
Reticence runs in the family–his father was a professional poker player. His mother worked as a seamstress, and both his parents put in long hours. “It was tough growing up,” Lim remembers. “There was always food. You always had respect, dignity, and clean clothes. But the parents, they’re stressed out. They’re like, You have to figure it out yourself.”
While studying home economics at the University of California, Long Beach, Lim figured out that his path would lead to fashion. Working a weekend job at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, he came across a collection by the designer Katayone Adeli–who was, coincidentally, well known for her allergy to hype and her enigmatic ways. Her work struck a chord. He landed an internship with the designer and worked his way up to design assistant.
In 2000, another opportunity beckoned. A friend of a friend offered to back him for a new label. Called Development, it was a successful but modestly sized contemporary line known for clean, wearable shapes. Intent on courting the masses, his backer pushed him to water down his work. Lim refused and quit in 2005.
That’s when Wen Zhou came calling.
On Zhou’s desk at 3.1 Phillip Lim’s New York headquarters, there is a coffee mug plastered with Lim’s headshot. It reads: Phillip Lim is my boyfriend. Who the fuck are you?
“It was a gag gift from my former assistant,” she says, laughing. “I like to say Phillip and I aren’t newlyweds anymore.” (They never were in the romantic sense; Lim is gay.)
Later, she chooses to characterize their relationship differently. “Phillip is like my brother,” she says. “When we first met, I was immediately so fascinated by him. I felt like I knew him forever. We share the same values with family.”
Like Lim, Zhou is an immigrant. She grew up in a rural town outside of Ningbo, China, which she describes as “devastatingly poor,” and immigrated to New York at 14. After school each day, she and her younger sister, Bo, worked in a sweatshop on the eighth floor of 54 Canal St. Her grandmother was a steam cleaner there. Eventually, her mother and aunt worked there too. Her father, who had been a professor in China, took a job as a dishwasher.
At 21, Zhou launched her own textile-manufacturing company. It grew into a bicoastal success with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Development was a client, which is how she came to meet Lim. “All the cool Asians wore Development,” Zhou says, and when she heard Lim was out at the label, she sent him an airline ticket to New York and said, “Let’s start a line.” Zhou and Lim were both 31 at the time–hence the “3.1” in the name. She plunked down $750,000 of her own cash, a decision that some people in her life found rash. “I was immediately optimistic that it was going to be the best investment ever,” she says. “I told my accountant we’d make our money back in six months, and he said, ‘In your wildest dreams.'”
The dream came true. 3.1 Phillip Lim was a global business from day one–the first collection, for fall 2005 womenswear, was sold in 20 countries. Within six months, sales reached $2.8 million. Today, there are 60 full-time employees and retail flagships in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore. A Hong Kong store is in the works. His New York headquarters has outgrown its Garment District digs and will move, in November, to a 25,000-square-foot SoHo loft.
Even during the recent economic turmoil, Lim’s work has proved a steady seller, with sales growing at least 10% each year. His bread and butter has been the in-between frock. It’s appropriate enough for work, but Lim renders it in a luxurious material such as silk crepe de chine and with trendy tweaks each season to make it feel cool enough to wear after dark–for instance, heavily beaded long raglan sleeves for his fall 2011 collection. “We live by the dress,” says Lim, “we die by the dress.” But aggressive pricing, which was the company’s policy even in boom times, has also helped: While you can spend $1,100 for a leather cropped jacket, there are plenty of options at substratospheric prices, including a silk-blend dress for $375 and a cotton jersey top for $175.
Lim delivers season after season for the shopper–and therefore for the retailer, which cares more about steadiness over time than a moment or two of excitement. Net-a-Porter.com, one of 3.1 Phillip Lim’s most important retailers, first stocked the brand’s womenswear in 2006 and now offers its swimwear and lingerie. Holli Rogers, Net-a-Porter’s buying director, praises the way in which Lim has built a relationship with his customers. “It’s this same sensibility in ready-to-wear, accessories, and intimates,” she says. “Understated and sophisticated.”
Zhou’s manufacturing knowledge has been crucial to growth. She’s a fabric geek and refers to bolts of textile by their industry abbreviations. Most 3.1 Phillip Lim pieces are made in China. (Some shoes and accessories are made in Italy, and a handful of items are produced in the U.S.) Being able to speak Mandarin with Chinese-factory reps is an asset, but Zhou says an in-house atelier that can produce the first sample of each piece is more important: “By having the first perfect sample to be sent out to copy, you set the standard. But if you don’t have anything for the factories to follow, then it’s up to their interpretation. That’s like having someone else design the garment.”
Zhou says she never interferes with design: “Phillip knows the market.” But she does protect the brand name fiercely and tightly controls distribution. While she is researching new markets–China, of course, as well as Brazil, India, and Vietnam–the company currently ships to just 75 stores in the U.S. and 400 retailers globally. That isn’t much given the size of the brand, but the limited number of outlets generates disproportionately high sales volume.
3.1 Phillip Lim’s sell-through–industry-speak for the proportion of items that go for full price–is vaunted in the fashion world. A key factor is getting merchandise to stores at the right time, and Zhou’s sister, Bo, who once worked with her in the sweatshop, is the company’s in-house martinet on deliveries. She calls the factories every single day. “With fashion, you can experiment and have fun,” Zhou says, “but when it comes to delivery, it’s still business. There’s only a small window of opportunity to sell through before [an item] goes on sale.”
An unofficial part of Zhou’s job description is to care for what Lim calls the “3.1 family,” including offering yoga lessons for the staff at her West Village townhouse and tending to the ego of its patriarch. Zhou missed the Paris presentation–the first time she’d ever been absent from a 3.1 Phillip Lim show–because she had to travel to Ningbo for her grandmother’s funeral. An hour before the presentation, Lim is visibly jittery. To no one in particular, he says, “It’s too bad Wen’s not here.” Another time, he says to me, “I would never do this alone. Hell to the no. There’s a lot of pressure. Wen shields me from a lot of it.” Later, he tells me, “I think I need nurturing. I think a part of me is damaged.”
Six days after the Paris show, I meet Lim at his New York showroom, a Garment District space with white walls and whiter tables. A few floors downstairs is his studio and atelier, a wonderfully undone space with bolts of fabric and spools of thread sprouting from every corner and assistants rushing here and there, one on a search for black fringe, another hunting down a wayward sample. Lim’s office, at the center of the fracas, looks like a small, well-used library. Floor-to-ceiling shelves spill with books of all varieties–from Patti Smith’s Just Kids to monographs on Isamu Noguchi and Richard Serra. On his desk is a stack of his drawings.
He greets me with a hug, and eventually our conversation meanders to his seven tattoos. He pulls up his left sleeve and shows the one on the inside of his forearm: a flock of birds in midflight. “I marked that on myself to know that freedom is always my priority and a priority I should give to everyone else,” he says. “Being from this Asian cultural background, it’s about keeping everything to yourself. But I see everyone else expounding and sharing, so it’s negotiation and navigation for me. It’s going to be a lifelong process. My own personal traits are being aloof and introverted, and I’m in an industry that probes me and requires a team to work with.”
But what does freedom mean in an industry governed by other people’s judgments–not only the consumers’ but also the critics’? That has been particularly tough as he has expanded beyond the womenswear that won him his reputation. “I see the men’s line as an extension of Phillip’s personal style, which is very distinct and cool without being too off-putting,” says Eugene Tong, senior style editor of Details. “However, I feel that certain pieces or looks can only work on Phillip himself.”
Lim’s second menswear collection addressed some of this criticism, winning strong reviews. He still has to win over more retailers; Net-a-Porter’s brother site, Mr. Porter, does not yet stock the line. But Lim is trying to be sanguine about external evaluations, pro or con: “When I first started, I was so curious about reviews. The more you read them, you realize there’s always that element of subjectivity. But if I were to say I didn’t take it personally, I would be lying through my teeth. I’m better at disengaging now and compartmentalizing. It’s a learning process.”
For Lim, the moments of professional triumph aren’t necessarily the awards or the accolades from the big names. Last October, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of 3.1 Phillip Lim, he staged his first runway show in Beijing, an event that he still sees as his personal acme. Never before had an independent young designer from the West put on a full-scale show in China.
But that wasn’t why it was significant to Lim. For the first time, his mother attended one of his shows. “It was her own country and this perfect alignment of everything,” he says. “It was a huge moment for me.
“When I grew up, I did everything to disconnect from my roots,” he says, softly. “But meeting Wen, being of the same culture, and being more mature about things, it was this realization: Wow, I love my roots. I’m so happy.”
He seems almost surprised, abashed even, that he has ended up where he is today. “Things have opened up and all these roads pointed here,” he says. “You can’t deny all these coincidences. That’s why I have always believed there’s a bigger picture for everything. When you’re presented with opportunity, you ask if it feels right. If it does, then you do it and you never look back.”
Then he tells me a story from his youth. The summer after eighth grade, Lim rode his bike past his future high school, a huge inner-city institution known for its championship tennis team. The team was out practicing, and attracted by their pristine uniforms, Lim approached the courts. The coach lent him a racquet and allowed him to practice hitting a ball against the wall, and from that point onward, Lim says, he practiced for eight hours every day. After the team’s practice was over, he would practice some more. His coach also hired him to work for his court-resurfacing company. “We’d wake up at 5 a.m., before the heat seals the asphalt, and go resurface tennis courts. It was grueling labor. But I was fixated.”
At the start of freshman year, Lim was hitting with the junior-varsity squad. He heard that the tennis-gear brand Prince was offering to equip the player with the most potential with racquets and outfits for his entire high-school career. Lim unexpectedly challenged the favorite, a sophomore known for his booming baseline shots, and won in five sets. For the first time in our days together, Lim offers a bit of a boast: “I was the first ever on that tennis team to make varsity as a freshman.”
And then he instantly dials it back. “I don’t know if I was good,” he says. “But I was determined.”
(Asian) American Made
These prominent designers all have Asian roots–and success stories written in the U.S.A.
Photos by Jake Chessum