Phillip Lim is a quintessentially American designer but as a second generation Thai-Chinese, the questions he fields most often are to do with his minority heritage.
“The past 13 years, the one question I get the most often is how does being Chinese affect the way you design? Do you design Chinese clothes? Are you inspired by China?” Lim said.
“I’m Chinese,” he makes clear. “But what people don’t really understand is the fact that a big part of this culture is what we don’t say. It’s the stuff that’s unspoken. It’s the stuff I learned from my parents: work hard, integrity, appreciation of beauty, value. I think the way I approach design, it’s inherently in there.
“You’ll never see me make, unless I’m making a costume for an opera — a phoenix, dragon — that’s not the culture,” he continued. “That’s entertainment. The way we approach it is to make clothes for ourselves. What do we want being of Chinese descent?”
Asking that last question birthed the label 3.1 Phillip Lim in the fall of 2005 in a partnership with Wen Zhou, the brand’s chief executive officer, beginning with a collection of 65 pieces all crafted in China.
“It was very natural for me to be proud of my culture and where I came from,” Zhou said in a conversation she and Lim had with WWD editorial director James Fallon. Born in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo before moving to the U.S., she and Lim had bonded over their minority backgrounds and similar upbringings, such as both having seamstresses as mothers. “‘Made in China’ wasn’t something I was hiding. It’s something embedded in the foundation of the company. We spoke about it extensively with press in 2005. At that time, we were met with a lot of resistance,” Zhou said.
She added: “For the people who got it right away, they understood that luxury or craft, it’s not about where it’s made, it’s about how it’s made…In 13 years, we have made huge, huge improvements and strides. I think that Phillip and I were the first brand that actually celebrated this and today, we are still leading this movement.”
While launching a proudly crafted-in-China brand was, in a way, a radical move, Lim points out, it was unthinkable to do something else as it would ultimately would have felt inauthentic.
“For us, where would we go? We couldn’t abandon our roots, we had to just push forward. We had to stay the course, keep showing up and keep producing and designing collection after collection that was relevant for the moment,” he said. “Over time, people don’t even ask that question anymore. They ask, ‘When can I get the next thing?’ It’s about consistency and perseverance and having dignity.”
He’s also optimistic that other designers and brands with a Chinese DNA will also rise to the occasion.
“We went to go visit the terra-cotta warriors yesterday and we had an amazing guide, debriefing us on the history,” Lim said. “We talked about the Cultural Revolution. I think that we have to recognize that it’s a big part of this. Right now, you see things change so fast and from my point of view, I can see the confidence being built up. I think it was a lack of confidence.”
For their youthful brand, China has had its fair share of challenges, too. The brand was prevented from debuting in the market in a big way due to intellectual property fights.
“It took me almost 10 years to battle,” Zhou said. “I simply did not have the funds to just pay the pirate. I was not able to make a big statement in China or enter in a way that I wanted to. But that slowdown actually worked well for us. We were able to learn from the people that already have success or possibly the mistakes or the lessons other brands have made.”
Right now, the next hurdle they are trying to clear is global pricing. While big houses like Chanel control their retail footprint directly and can change their policy on prices almost unilaterally, smaller brands like theirs that rely on wholesale accounts have a situation that’s more complicated on their hands.
“It’s one of the biggest obstacles that I’ve been trying to solve,” Zhou said. “I know that the Chinese consumer is possibly or most likely paying 40 to 50 percent more, not only from a brand like ours, but I would say 90 percent of luxury brands have this global pricing issue. I have been trying very diligently to be the next brand that will have global pricing. In the strategy expansion plan, that is going to be my hot topic.”