Wen Zhou

NEW YORK — Downplaying her work ethic and from-the-ground-up experience, 3.1 Phillip Lim chief executive officer Wen Zhou told a group of soon-to-be graduates Wednesday morning, “I still don’t know what I’m doing.”

That was unfounded, considering she and the designer amassed $2.6 million in sales alone in the company’s first season 12 years ago. Zhou’s easygoing manner and straightforward answers went over well with students listening in to her Q&A with WWD executive editor Bridget Foley. The discussion was part of the Fashion Future Graduate Showcase, an inaugural event started by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the New York City Economic Development Corp.

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In the Eighties, Zhou moved with her family from a village of 50 in China to public housing in New York’s Lower East Side and continued to live there until age 25. Speaking only Mandarin presented its own challenges in the U.S., and that was intensified by the fact that Cantonese was the predominant language in Chinatown. She went to work at the age of 12. “My parents, grandmother and I all worked at 54 Canal Street — the classic New York sweatshop. I cleaned seams for Liz Claiborne and Jones New York and worked there from 12 to 15,” she said. “The most important thing was that our family was together because coming from nothing anything is a plus. This is the best city in the world to be an immigrant and to be different. You are free to speak, to express, to bring your ideas and to articulate.”

A few students nodded silently as she mentioned how her father, a former university professor in China, had worked as a dishwasher in a takeout restaurant earning $800 a month. She herself earned $275 a week at one point, working as a swatch girl in Midtown, cutting swatches, answering the phone and doing light bookkeeping. A Brooklyn Tech grad, she was enrolled at FIT when she decided to switch to night classes to take a salaried full-time job with commission. That post allowed her to travel to Europe to buy fabrics for young designers, and subsequently several of those contacts encouraged her to go out on her own, which she did at the age of 21. “The designers trusted my eye. I felt like I was part of this ecosystem that was building something and that gave me so much courage and energy,” Zhou said. “I learned about global traffic, importing, manufacturing, suppliers, the supply chain…”

Through that business, which still exists today, she first got to know Lim, and they now have a 50-50 partnership.

Zhou mentioned how her 13-year-old daughter started her own company selling T-shirts and donating 40 percent to charity as an example of how important it is to learn the responsibility of hard work. Zhou’s career advice included, “first and foremost, to work with someone. You will learn a lot. Don’t just work with a small designer — work with a small, medium and large. See how they operate and how that works for you…I know we’re in a world where everything is so fast, fast, fast. From a career perspective you have a lifetime to build a career. Steve Jobs’ career didn’t take off until his 50s so I’m still a teenager and I’m still learning.”

Asked about how she hires, Zhou said, “I look for an undivided, unwavering commitment to fashion. Then I look for incredibly driven people. And then I look for their skill sets…With everything else, fashion trumps all. It’s always a gut instinct based on my internal radar. If I didn’t hire you in the first 15 minutes, you probably won’t get the job. I’ve done incredible hires within the first 15 minutes — feeling, connection, obviously resume, references.”

As for whether she and Lim would consider an outside investment, Zhou said, “That’s always a question and depending on the day that you ask me…sometimes I just want to be rescued — with a big check — no. But then I think about the people I work with, how we make decisions and how we’re able to look at our business and say, ‘You know what, we don’t need the growth or let’s not be greedy. And I am so thankful we are independent in this day and age where so many of our peers and friends had to sell and raise capital, and then at the end are left with a really minority share of the business and struggling.”

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