Roughly 10 years ago, something was in the air in fashion, specifically American fashion. Or maybe it was that something was missing — the proverbial void that designers from here to eternity invoke when they talk about why they started their line. Between 2004 and 2006, a window of opportunity presented itself, based on some variation on the concept of everyday luxury, and several savvy, stylish entrepreneurial minds seized
it to build what are medium to massive brands today.
To rattle off a few names: Tory Burch (2004), Alexander Wang (2005) and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who established The Row in 2006 on their quest for the perfect T-shirt.
Phillip Lim and Wen Zhou were also part of the crop, launching 3.1 Phillip Lim in 2005 when they were both 31, hence the name.
All of the aforementioned designers have charted very different courses, raising their profiles by escalating in price, adding new labels — sport, denim, etc. — to their portfolio, partnering with luxury conglomerates, or mulling over an initial public offering. Lim and Zhou, on the other hand, have avoided most of those steps, all while expanding their business to an impressive degree: 14 freestanding stores globally and more than 450 wholesale accounts. The company doesn’t comment on annual volume, but the last reported figures were $60 million a few years ago and industry sources say that number is now significantly higher. Their steady course of cautious creativity has secured 3.1 Phillip Lim a premier position within the realm of advanced contemporary, where the average price is somewhere between $300 and $700.
By now, that market needs no explanation, but a decade ago it was a blank space that Lim helped pioneer: cool clothes of an elevated, directional taste that are attainable. In other words, affordable luxury. These days, retailers consider 3.1 Phillip Lim one of their most important collections, one with major growth potential. The collection headlines Bergdorf’s 5F, Barneys New York’s seventh floor and Saks Fifth Avenue’s contemporary space, but Lim and Zhou prefer not to be defined by department store semantics.
“That’s just terminology,” says Zhou, sitting around a pastel lime-colored tufted leather sofa in her office at the company’s gleaming Hudson Street headquarters, a chic boutique fashion enclave that also houses PR Consulting, with CR Fashion Book next door. “We are an aesthetic, a brand. I think we are an authentic price value. Price value isn’t even the right word. It’s a lifestyle that works for me and Phillip and works for the customers that we service.”
Lim and Wen are very much a “we,” professionally speaking. They started the business together with her money, earned from Aegis, the successful textile business she started at age 21 and still owns, if mainly for “sentimental reasons” at this point. It’s also in the same building as 3.1 Phillip Lim’s offices. Their retailers speak of Lim and Zhou’s impressive partnership.
“When I think of both Phillip and Wen and their brand, the adjective that comes to mind repeatedly is ‘real,’” says Linda Fargo, senior vice president of fashion at Bergdorf Goodman. “They make real clothes for real people in a price zone which jives with a sane reality….There’s always been a very attractive balance between wearability and aesthetic reach in Phillip’s clothes. He and Wen were forerunners in this space — the dynamic crossroad between democratic and trend-driven contemporary and the signature elevated qualities of the better designer business.”
Company profiles usually frame them as a pair, rather than singling Lim out as the designer and front man, but Zhou has racked up her own share of individual media accolades. An interview to reflect on their 10 years in business could not be done without both of them.
Lim and Zhou acknowledge that they’ve built a brand, though they realize that the word has been bastardized to some extent. “You can’t just come out of the gates and you’re a brand,” Lim says. “There’s no experience. There’s no knowledge. There’s only an intuition. That’s not a brand. To me, a brand is like a person. You need to evolve.”
In that sense, 3.1 Phillip Lim is autobiographical. It is Lim and Zhou, two first-generation Chinese-Americans — one creative, one business-minded — who partnered for a by-their-bootstraps vision of hardworking, stylish aspiration. “It’s a creative pursuit that is put in a business box,” says Lim, describing the label’s ethos.
Without having a specific destination, they set out to make subtle creative clothes for busy professional women and men. “Look at this blouse,” says Lim, pointing to the filmy ivory style with pinked seams that Zhou is wearing. “Why is that being twisted? Why does it fit this way, why does it move that way when the wind blows? And at the end of the day, it’s all wrapped up in price point.”
He is the dreamer of the two, the right brain to Zhou’s left. His personal Instagram account @therealphilliplim is full of photos of him cooking with friends, lying in bed with his dog and reading passages from books on mindfulness that are framed in pastel pink. Common hashtags are #bepresent, #31globalcitizens and #livethelifeyouwish. To celebrate the anniversary, Lim is collaborating with artist Maya Lin, known for her large-scale, site-specific installations, on his spring show set, titled, “Stop and Smell the Flowers.” The message is to slow down, appreciate the beauty of the present.
That’s not to say he blinds himself to business realities. Lim is very much interested in growth, ticking off the clinical steps to move forward: “Structure, experience, key hires and real estate,” he says. “Business affords creative, but creative creates businesses….It’s a really delicate thing to keep or lose.”
Lim studied design in California, afterward working at the cool California contemporary line of the Aughts, Development, which was a client of Aegis. That’s how he and Zhou met.
He left Development over creative differences and Zhou put her money behind him for 3.1 Phillip Lim, believing in his aesthetic. He loves the discipline of design, whether in art, fashion, cars or furniture, but it’s difficult for him to articulate his point of view. “It has to be harmonious,” he says. “I don’t know, maybe it’s a type of energy.” Over the course of his collections, there have been moments of the ethereal, the tough, the grungy and the deconstructed, but always with an undercurrent of clean femininity. He moves with the trends, but his staples are boyish tailoring (a lot of cropped pants recently) and outerwear contrasted with the girlish whimsy of flowy fabrics, embroideries and a quirky sense of color. The pastels of his Instagram and office furniture convey the mood.
Zhou is practical and tactical. She grasps numbers, as in the percentage of their business that is currently wholesale, and that by October they will have 16 freestanding stores — e-commerce is also relaunching for the 10th anniversary. She begins her day with a goal and list. “There are three things on my list that I want to tackle today and that’s what I’m going to be focusing on,” she says.
A clear business perspective doesn’t negate Zhou’s ability to think creatively, even counterintuitively. For example, in 2007 the partners opened their first store in New York City on Mercer Street between Prince and Spring Streets, which has since boomed into SoHo’s retail home-run alley with a cluster of cool contemporary brands — among them Carven, Rag & Bone, Derek Lam 10 Crosby — as well as luxury labels such as Marc Jacobs, Marni, Vera Wang and Balenciaga. “It was a great location, great timing and that store was so profitable,” says Zhou, who nevertheless overruled the numbers to close the store in 2014 and reopen on Great Jones Street. That store, while charming, receives a fraction of the traffic of Mercer.
“SoHo became a giant outdoor mall, the client demographic started to change,” Zhou explains. “It started to get a lot more tourists, we were selling a lot more accessories, but the business shifted. It had doubled over the last two years in the Mercer Street store, but I wasn’t getting the clients I needed, people who really understood the brand and were coming in to buy ready-to-wear. I felt the connection less and less.”
The Great Jones Street store is a beauty, 3,500 square feet designed by Campaign that embodies the concept Lim and Zhou call “studio luxury.” Lim’s decorative gems include one-of-a kind midcentury furnishings, such as a 1938 prototype chair designed specifically for sitting in front of the fire in a cabin. “People love coming in and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s not for sale,’” Lim says.
hat is for sale is men’s and women’s rtw and accessories. For a moment, there was children’s wear, too, but “We had to kill it,” says Zhou, matter-of-factly. “We had to refocus on our core competency and it wasn’t there. You grow up from your mistakes.”
Rtw is the majority of the women’s business — 60 percent — with accessories at 40 percent. The primary growth area is footwear. Almost everything is produced in China, a practice both Zhou and Lim preemptively defend. “When we first started, [manufacturing in China] had a negative connotation about being mass-produced, but it’s so not true,” Zhou says. “The Chinese factories and their work is so exquisite and skilled.” Adds Lim, “It’s the oldest civilization that makes clothes.” Both his mother and Zhou’s were seamstresses. Speaking the language and generational experience in Chinese production has been a great advantage for them.
The brand has remained independent — everything grew from Zhou’s initial $750,000 investment. Asked if they consider selling or financial partnership, neither denies taking meetings. “You want to know what your house is worth,” Zhou says.
“We’re not creating a company to sell it,” Lim says. “We’re creating a company to ensure its success.”
Part of achieving success is overcoming challenges. Zhou and Lim are quick to list them, calling out the industry’s system of oversaturation, shipping limbo and sales that are designed to cannibalize. Lim brings up a recent technology powwow he attended, where the tech folks were intent on merging with fashion. “They kept repeating, ‘How do we commodify?’” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘You have to stop speaking about fashion as a commodity. Tech is a commodity because it’s scientific and engineered. But there’s one thing about fashion that’s so elusive that you’re not understanding — and it’s desire.”
Zhou points out that merchandise in the Great Jones Street store doesn’t go on sale. Instead, the location hosts a one-week or weekend friends-and-family event. When she initially proposed this idea to her team, it was met with resistance. “We’re so used to doing business the normal way that makes sense for businesspeople,” she says. “That’s why I’m either a really good businessperson or a really bad businessperson….Do you know how many times I went into a retail store in the past — and I go into stores all the time — and the first thing the salesperson greets me with is ‘There’s the sale rack.’ Let me enjoy your product. Let me take in your environment. Don’t direct me immediately to the price point. You have killed my desire and that’s not the business I want to do.”
And she has big plans.
“The brand is going to live beyond Phillip and me,” Zhou says. “We went from a trend — a line of clothes — to become a brand today. It will be a house.”