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Lim in the Limelight

There's a lot going on in the world of Phillip Lim, including a mother ship of a first freestanding store.

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NEW YORK — For Phillip Lim, life has been a little bit unbelievable of late. After he nabbed the CFDA Swarovski women’s wear award for his two-year-old contemporary label, 3.1 Phillip Lim, calls and e-mails from retailers and editors streamed in, as did invitations to a plethora of parties and events. Just as quickly, even more hip, connected young women started wearing his goods (and being photographed in them at parties). And yet, there was little time to sit back and enjoy the ride, what with collections to design, collaborative projects to fine-tune and, more immediately, details to wrap up on the first 3.1 Phillip Lim store, scheduled to open July 18 on SoHo’s swanky Mercer Street here.

Incredibly, it looks as if Lim will not only be under budget on his latest endeavor, but also early — no easy feat for any designer, new or established. As of Tuesday, the store was almost finished, save for a few minor tweaks in merchandising and furniture. (For those keeping track, that’s eight days in advance.) And no one is more surprised at these fortuitous turns of events than Lim himself. “People are like, ‘Can you believe your life?’ I tell everybody, ‘It’s like the stars came out and the sky opened up. And it just keeps staying open.'”

Although luck certainly played a small part, the two-floor store, which includes 1,600 square feet of retail space plus 600 square feet for an office and storage, is the culmination of Lim’s consistent trajectory as a rising star, coupled with careful financial planning by his business partner and chief executive officer, Wen Zhou. This has all happened in a short period of time, but speediness seems to be Lim’s m.o.

The designer found the SoHo property, formerly the short-lived boutique Space Mercer, in February and took it within a week. “It was instinctual,” he says. “It spoke to us, as corny as that sounds.” Finding the right architect was a quick process, too. At a dinner party that same month, he met Jeremy Barbour, who had recently finished his master’s in architecture and started his own design firm, Tacklebox. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m working on this store if you know any architects,'” relays Lim. “And he goes, ‘I’m an architect.’ I asked him to come in, and we hired him in five minutes.”

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Naturally, Lim’s colleagues were initially wary at the idea of using a newbie architect, but Lim says he never had doubts, even though he saw only a few pictures of Barbour’s minimal designs in his portfolio. Lim gives a long but effective analogy: “If you want to start a workout regimen, you go and get a trainer. Look at the trainer — that’s the kind of body you’re going to get. They built their body that way, so they’re going to give you that body. If you don’t want to be buff, go with someone who is normal.”

The retail body that Barbour has chiseled for Lim is a cool, nonfussy space. Other than the final yes-no, Lim gave Barbour free rein. “I really wanted new energy instead of being in my own zone,” Lim says. “I wanted new influence.” The two came up with a budget and worked backward, trying as often as possible to incorporate thrifty materials in nontraditional ways to keep costs down but interest high. “There was a mutual appreciation for construction, turning humble materials into something special and grand,” says Lim. The entranceway walls, for example, are covered floor to ceiling in thin, horizontally stacked oak floorboards. “The part you see is the part you normally never see when it’s on the floor — the tongue and groove,” points out Barbour. “We tried to use reclaimed wood originally, but this is the cheapest wood you can buy.”

Lim chimes in, “It was under our budget, straight up.”

Barbour hopes the entrance’s horizontal lines will move the client naturally through the space, which features a lofty ceiling and original wood-blocked floors. Men’s wear is on the left, where the stacked floorboard motif continues; women’s is on the right along a white wall, and in the middle, accessories are displayed atop and inside low Lucite platform boxes that were inspired by, of all things, Wonder Woman’s invisible jet. “Do you recall in the TV series where she’s just [floating in the air] and you can only see her in her outfit?” asks Lim. “We needed platforms to display accessories, but we didn’t want to take away from the store itself. This is all such a block of wood that we didn’t need a big block in the middle to weigh it down.”

Another Wonder Woman touch is a Lucite credenza that holds antique Victorian glass jewelry boxes that Lim discovered in London. Inside are rings, cuff links, necklaces and bracelets from 88 Fine Jewelry for 3.1 Phillip Lim, a new collection for fall that he’s collaborating on with Bing Bang designer Anna Sheffield. “It’s beauty that lies within, so why hide it? I’m like, ‘Jeremy, wonder jet!” he jests. “It’s real diamonds, solid rose gold and stuff. If we’re going to do something, let’s have it be worth its weight in gold.”

In addition to jewelry, Lim is also collaborating with Birkenstock on Tatami, the shoemaker’s fashion-forward line, to be carried in his store come spring. Starting for holiday and with a bigger push for spring, he will unveil an organic capsule collection called Go Green Go at Barneys New York, retailing from $195 for T-shirts to $695 for cocktail dresses. “When you hear green, you think T-shirts and jeans, and I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t we do things that girls actually want to wear to work, to parties?'”

In his own store, Lim plans to roll out reusable shopping bags in several sizes for a nominal fee, donating the proceeds to an environmental charity. He hopes clients will use these bags at his store, of course, but also when they’re shopping elsewhere, even for groceries. It’s a smart, two-pronged notion: great advertising for 3.1 Phillip Lim, which will be printed somewhere on the tote, and great ethical karma. “You feel better. You can’t change everything overnight, but one step at a time helps,” he says. “It’s so simple [an idea]. Why aren’t retailers doing it? Especially if you can make it a really cool and simple bag.”

And for the holidays and exclusive to his store, he’ll present a six-piece collection for little girls that almost directly reflects the grown-up selection. “It’s not for everybody; it’s for the discerning mother. It won’t be something sexy and risqué and not appropriate,” he says, holding up an adult’s camel cashmere coat, for instance, that could easily be shrunk to a smaller proportion.

The new store, Lim says, is what has propelled him toward the additional projects. “It changed my whole view,” he notes. “It makes me want to do more special things because it’s necessary. Coming into a store, it’s an environment and there needs to be a special reason to come in.” It’s also affecting Lim’s collection. “Merchandising the store, I took a look at what we’re doing, what we’re not doing, what we need to do” — starting with changing the label so that his name, and not 3.1 (he was 31 when he launched his line), is prominent.

But at the moment, all focus is still on the store itself, where the designer will play a fresh, non-repeating 40-hour soundtrack each week. As a visitor moves through the main floor, sunlight beams through large windows on the back wall that also illuminate a smaller, gray-toned space below. Stairs accented with original ornate railings descend into this area that Lim describes as “lonely — it has that romance about it, so I want to put gowns and stuff down there, so you have to descend into that tongue-in-cheek tragedy.” In another cost-effective plan, Barbour notes that the floors are exterior concrete pavers, “something you’d never find inside, but, again, we wanted to flip that idea,” he says.

Of course, this begs the question: Will there be another store soon? Yes, Lim says, definitively. He’s already scoped out locations in London and is checking around Los Angeles, too. “We’re going to go where the business is, where they want us,” he says.

Lim maintains that he is able to afford such endeavors because he’s in the contemporary market. Zhou concurs, adding that they’re “a small-staffed, independent, forward-thinking company that allows us the flexibility to move, make decisions that max our situation at any given point and time.”

Lim says he and Zhou founded the company on what they know: the essentials — the perfect pants, the perfect trench. And the prices aren’t too bad: retails are around $1,200 for coats, $700 for dresses and $650 for bags. “Doing that and keeping everything streamlined and low, this store is a result of that idea and way of working,” he says. “I’m a very balanced person. I understand what the bottom line is. It’s not like every day Wen is like, ‘Phillip, you’re over budget.’ Actually, I’m always under budget and always ahead of time.” And he has no desire to bump up his prices. “As long as we can find ways to keep it at this level, then we will do so.” And it will certainly keep him seeking new projects.

“This is literally an intimate space in which to try things,” Lim says, surveying the store, “so let’s try a new architect. Let’s try out a staff of six who are young and quirky and cute. Let’s try to put some brick cinder blocks on the inside. It’s all about that.”

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