Wen Zhou got her first pair of real shoes, the store-bought kind, when she was nine years old, a gift from her father, who’d traveled outside their small Chinese village. Four years and thousands of miles later, Zhou got her first job, packing and seam clearing at the garment factory where her mother worked on New York’s Lower East Side. Today, she is chief executive officer of 3.1 Phillip Lim.
From those three bullet points, one can infer of Zhou intelligence, grit, a superhuman work ethic and utter mastery over her professional life course. On the last point, she begs to differ. “I have a very philosophical way of thinking about people, about business,” she said. “Phillip and I are together because we were destined to be together. That’s just it.”
Consider destiny kind. In the 11 years since they launched the company as equal partners, they have garnered the respect of the industry while remaining independent, growing steadily through good times and holding their own through bad. Currently, 3.1 Phillip Lim has 16 freestanding stores and 450 points of sale around the world. Last year was a bad one across fashion; the company maintained its women’s and men’s ready-to-wear levels and experienced healthy growth in footwear, offset somewhat by a dip in accessories. Why? “It’s all become too much. How many bags do you need?”
Zhou presents as both forward-thinking and old-school in her business vision. On the hot topic of instant fashion, see-now-buy-now, she’s all for two-thirds of that equation, arguing that shipping clothes out of season paves the way for markdowns. Yet she considers in-season shows more marketing ploy than solution. Creativity and longing are what matters and if powerful enough, it’s worth the wait.
Asked if she and Lim shape their brand’s aesthetic together, Zhou offers a forceful “no.” Design should remain the exclusive domain of the designer, no business-side interference allowed. Yet a shared perspective brought the partners together. “It was a very innocent and naïve time,” Zhou said. “We decided we would just make clothes we wanted to wear. We knew we couldn’t afford designer. We also knew we didn’t want fast fashion. We wanted things that were made to last, with a point of view, integrity and design. We wanted Phillip’s vision to come to life.” The brand launched to raves, she recalled.
Zhou has been aware of the power of fashion her entire life, going back to those first store-bought shoes. She recounted that story sans self-pity or congratulation, but as an example of an early enlightenment. It’s not as if she spent her early childhood running around barefoot; her grandmother made the family’s shoes and most of its clothes. She thus grew up with an understanding of artisanship. As for her childhood factory gig, she recalled it fondly. Zhou and her younger sister went there after school because it beat staying home alone. After homework, and then some paid work, the sisters would leave for home, an apartment at the nearby Vladeck Houses public housing facility. Zhou’s father, a professor in China, worked for 25 years as a dishwasher in Chinese restaurants. (His current gig, as the janitor, where every day he brings the boss a homemade lunch: 3.1 Phillip Lim. )
She also developed academic skills. Newly arrived in New York at almost 13, she had no English. By 16, she’d tested into Brooklyn Tech, one of the City’s lionized specialized high schools. “All of the Asian kids did well in math,” she deadpanned the stereotype. When it came time for college, FIT made sense. “I loved clothes,” she said, before correcting herself: “I don’t know if I loved clothes then. Clothes were what I knew.”
While in school, Zhou secured a job at a fabric company that would proved life-changing, moving rapidly from swatch-cutter to salesperson. In that capacity, Zhou visited showrooms. What she found, at Vivienne Tam, Cynthia Steffe, Dana Buchman, left her awestruck. “The showrooms were beautiful. There’s carpet; it’s silent. They have beautiful receptionists. It was not the world I knew. I knew the factory end.”
At 21, she opened her own fabric import company, Aegis, which she retains today. Through Aegis, she met Lim. She added a production arm, and started making clothes for various brands. One, Development, employed Lim as its designer. When that gig ended, he and Zhou went into business together.
Today, Zhou is “always dreaming” of expansion, and finds personal care (skin care, shampoos) particularly compelling. Belief in their brand ethos and each other lies at the core of how Zhou and Lim operate, and is one reason their independence has served them well. Which is not to say they wouldn’t consider an investment partner — but not just for the money. “They’d have to share the vision,” Zhou said. “I couldn’t work with someone I don’t connect with philosophically.”
In the mean time, there’s always opportunity to do better, to broaden perspectives and rethink the status quo. “It’s been 11 years and I still feel that I know nothing,” Zhou said. “This industry is so incredible, things we’ve learned or know how to do — [the situation] may be different today. So I always wake up thinking I know nothing about this industry, and I have to go into it with a fresh eye and a naïve eye.”