Phillip Lim

Before Christmas, when no one had yet heard of the deadly coronavirus that would change our lives overnight, Phillip Lim wanted to push reset. Approaching his brand’s 15th anniversary, Lim found himself dealing with issues hardly unique to him — that the pace of fashion, its relentless speed and mind-set of more, had become negative forces in the culture and a drain on our humanity. “What are we doing? Why are we just running this race just to keep up? And what is the goal, what is the finish line?” he shared his soul-searching questions with WWD. Taking a step back “to allow myself the time to think about the act of joyful creation again, not just the hustle,” Lim decided to forego a runway show and instead threw a spirited come-one/come-all house party at his New York store.

Lim acknowledged that shows are expensive to stage and business was already challenged. Now, he and his partner, 3.1 Phillip Lim chief executive officer Wen Zhou, are determined to live their values, which Lim summed up as “humanity first.” But, he acknowledged, looking after employee needs as the industry implodes presents “a Catch 22 — we don’t have a source of income.”

The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified Lim’s belief that, on the other side of this, fashion must change. “In this moment,” he said, “we all have the ability and the permission to reset. We don’t have a choice.”

WWD: Phillip, I appreciate you talking to me.

Phillip Lim: Thank you. I think more than ever it’s the smaller brands, the independent brands, that need the platform. The beautiful thing about the news or any kind of platform, you never know what connections you can make or who can actually reach in or reach out. That’s the power of what you guys do. It’s the smaller brands that need this platform right now, so you can amplify their voice.

WWD: Thank you. That means a lot to me, and to everybody who does what I do. Generally, what’s your mind-set?

P.L.: These are quite surreal times. It’s like everything that used to be a friend is now a foe. Everything can be dangerous — a person, a surface, food. Not only are we trying to mitigate business loss, what it means to socially distance, to work from home, to over the course of literally 24 hours have had to uproot and reorganize your working process, but also, there’s the fact that I’ll go for a walk just to get 20 minutes of fresh air. And everybody I see, every surface I come across, I  have to second-guess because I’m like oh, is that a threat? Is there contamination? We’re not dealing with a tangible business circumstance or typical fashion issues — deliveries or next collection or market. We’re dealing with literally the unknown. It feels like we’re in this dense fog with no exit signs. It makes the mind go kind of wild, the imagination.

WWD: How are you handling it?

P.L.: It volleys between shock and heartache and focus. We have to focus on what to do to be clean and safe, and on things like paying the health insurance.

WWD: Emotional and pragmatic concerns. What’s you day-by-day at home?

P.L.: Obviously, because we can’t have physical contact I’m using technology to reconnect with people. I stay in contact with colleagues from work; I go on community chats with fellow designers. I have chats with Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, Laura Kim of Oscar [de la Renta] and Monse. Just like, “how’s your day, what are you dealing with?” We take turns airing out grievances, and we also take turns on “OK, who needs what?” You know what I mean, how do we help each other.

WWD: What else?  

P.L.: It’s very important, too, to maintain a routine, a morning routine. Usually, I would get ready — wash up, brush my teeth, put on a scent, pick clothes and then rush out, grab coffee, rush to work. Now my work is literally in the other room. So I get ready as I normally would to go out to work. I do all my routines. I change clothes because it’s important that we don’t live in the same thing. That’s the power of clothing — it really allows us to disconnect or connect, and brings us to more of a sense of purpose and place. So I do that. Then, I’ll walk into the other room. And then it feels like there is some sort of purpose still.

WWD: You’re inspiring me. I’ve literally been living and working on my bed.

P.L.: OK, Bridget, get off that bed.

WWD: I think I might have to take your advice.

P.L.: Get off the bed. You’ll feel so much better. Right now, because everything is so unfamiliar, we’re searching for familiarity. Familiarity is routines like work, like the clothes we would dress up in to get to work. Any small reminders of what normality feels like are so helpful. And also, when you’re up and you’re in a certain type of clothes, you act and behave differently, and even your posture is a different. That is the power of clothes.

WWD: Did you take a lot of psychology or philosophy classes in school?

P.L.: No.

WWD: Well, you’re a natural. That’s such good human advice.

P.L.: Human advice. Also, it’s important to just walk around and stretch and breathe. Breathing through this and having empathy for the situation is important, but also having empathy for yourself. People have asked me, “what should I do?” I’m like, “de-prioritize all the nonsense and all the noise because no one really knows the truth anymore, and reprioritize what makes sense. Common sense.”

WWD: A universal reset/reprioritize moment that’s been forced on us.

P.L.: Exactly. It’s also oddly beautiful because we now have time to connect to community, the community we choose. It’s going to be interesting to see, after we get through this, the realignment, the re-connectivity, because we were all in the same boat. No matter what your class, socioeconomic, cultural, whatever, that you’re in, guess what? Everyone is dealing with the same issue right now.

WWD: We all have to muddle through.

P.L.: It’s making us reprioritize. Like, when we closed the store, we had to prioritize safety first and community and what that meant. Right now, we’re trying to address what is priority to us, which is, how do we keep our teams on, how do we keep paying health care for them? That’s what’s most important — health first, humanity first.

WWD: You closed stores early.

P.L.: Wen and I sat down early. We said, “this won’t stop. The stores are a petri dish.” We were asking our store managers [in New York, Los Angeles, London and Waikiki] what other stores in their areas were doing. Then we thought, let’s just take the lead. We closed when there were only a few — Patagonia, Apple, a few others. [Our values] have always been to put people first. This is a time to put that in action, to be tough. We actioned it that night.  It was literally in a day. We decided on Wednesday and by Wednesday night, we were closed.

WWD: What percentage of the business is your own physical stores?

P.L.: Seventy or 75 percent.

WWD: So that’s gone. What do you do now?

P.L.: Focus on our web site. But it’s hard. Most [independent brands] are under threat. We don’t all have a cash reserve. If the stores are a petri dish, you have to close. But it’s a Catch 22 — we don’t have a source of income. We’re having an Archive Sale to cover the health insurance. It’s on now. We thought, what do we have accessible from past seasons to offer at 75 percent off to keep paying? What are we sitting on? We’re looking for small ways to raise money.

WWD: The sale is pretty fabulous. I’ve looked.

P.L.: I’ve been getting so many messages from people, and people are like, “oh my God, this is what I wanted but I missed out on it or I couldn’t afford it, thank you so much for this!”

WWD: Still, it’s a lot to expect from an archive sale. How long can you go paying salaries and paying for health insurance?

P.L.: That is a difficult question. I think that if we can keep this sale going, if we can keep driving traffic, it just lengthens the time, because it’s all unknown. If you said to me, “by June 21st this will be all over,” then we can plan for that, right? But no one can give us the answer right now. So it’s, “OK, how do we be innovative and just continue to drive sales?” We are living off our inventory.

WWD: Fall. I imagine you’re experiencing cancellations.

P.L.: Up to 60 percent. My advice to the big retailers — not my advice; I’m begging them — if you can prioritize not canceling orders from brands like us, independent brands, start-up brands, please do. I’m talking about retailers like Saks, Runway, Net-a-porter. Shopbop, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman’s, Bergdorf’s — all the bigger wholesale partners who can affect change. Because we need that lifeline. You’ve become our lifeline. And through it I hope we forge a tighter bond where we work with each other instead of working against each other.

WWD: You’re naming names.

P.L.: They are my wholesale partners, right? I’m not calling them out, I’m just calling out, like a call to action. As my friend Prabal said in his interview [on], independent brands are the soul of fashion. We are the ones that originate new ideas, we are the ones that open the doors, we are the ones that diversify, we are the ones that are inclusive. We are the seedlings that you plant for future crop.

So right now more than ever, if big retailers or big partners like the ones I mentioned can rethink a bigger picture and reprioritize our orders and not cancel them. Because the automatic thing to do is, “OK, let’s cancel the less important orders.” But I beg them to rethink what is important in the long run. It’s to keep the dream alive. It’s not just to keep status quo alive.

WWD: “Reprioritize what’s important.” That’s so interesting.

P.L.: The less important orders are the future, the seeds of the future, right? So the “less important” now versus the “less important” in the bigger picture. I think this is a huge lesson for us to get to a bigger picture of realignment and readjustment.

WWD: You see major voluntary readjustment?

P.L.: In this moment, we all have the ability and the permission to reset. We don’t have a choice. Necessity is the mother of all inventions, right? Or reinvention. I hope that people take this as an opportunity to really think about what they stand for, their values, their value systems, instead of just continuing business as usual. It would be such a shame if we didn’t take this lesson to heart. We cannot continue at this pace. We cannot continue in this mentality. We are killing the environment, we are killing humans, we are killing resources. I hate to say this, but this is happening for us.

WWD: Do you think it’s some kind of cosmic correction?

P.L.: Yes. It’s a cosmic correction. Because too much is just too much. That’s nature’s law, right? Nature’s law is balance.

WWD: Any predictions?

P.L.: I think it’s going to return to a natural order, a natural balance of smaller marketplaces. All business models that we thought we knew — guess what? They are out the door.

WWD: I agree that business models will change. But do you think smaller brands and marketplaces emerge or the powerful become more so?

P.L.: They will become more powerful, but they will tap into smaller marketplaces to get there.

WWD: Do you think that they will step up? [We spoke before the announcement of the CFDA/Vogue a Common Thread initiative.]

P.L.: I hope so. Fledgling companies need help. Maybe the big corporations like Coach, Ralph, Kering, Capri, like all those kind of groups, they should start a fund, a health fund for younger brands, independent brands. How does the industry help its own, basically.

WWD: That would be great.

P.L.: We can’t all profess, “oh, we’re one big community,” and then when s–t hits the fan, where’s the life line?

WWD: Your business. Some are working from home?

P.L.: Yes. Some teams obviously can work from home through a computer, like sales teams, press teams. But the design team, it’s quite a tactical and touch-related discipline. In my atelier, the patternmakers and designers interact with each other constantly. So how do you get that? We still make clothes from the ground up, it’s not like graphic design or, “let’s sketch and have a factory make this.” We still make the clothes. And many in the atelier, the patternmakers, the seamstresses, they’re an older demographic, so they were the most at risk. We sent them all home and then we had mannequins delivered to their houses, those that agreed to it. And now we’re doing design meetings or fittings via Skype.

WWD: They were happy for the chance to work, as opposed to just staying home without working.

P.L.: Many welcomed it because again, the idea of staying home and having nothing to do can last for a week. And then you start to get antsy, you lose a sense of purpose. So this keeps everyone engaged.

Still, through this process, too, our supply chains are kind of not there right now. Some of it’s open, some of it’s closed. We produce in China, but the materials are from Italy. So if China is starting to reopen but then Italy is closed, what happens? Luckily, all our supply chain partners, we’ve been working with them for a long time and we have good relationships. We’re able to communicate closely, so let’s de-prioritize the nonsense and focus on what’s going to make a difference. How do you drown out the noise and make the smart, quick decisions to save what we can? That forces everyone to realize, is this important or is this not important or is this just part of my ego trying to win an argument?

WWD: You said the press teams and the sales teams can work from home. But is there a lot for them to do, other than the sales team trafficking canceled orders?

P.L.: They’re going to have to reinvent how they do their jobs. Right now it’s really like I’m getting [media] opportunities more through video calls, through Instagram Lives, through getting on panels online. So we’re still working in this way. Again, in this moment, how do we reinvent in all aspects?

WWD: What do you think will happen with resort season?

P.L.: This is a business of past, present and future. The past is shipments that are ready to go, the present is manufacturing that’s on the sewing machines right now being made, and also collections that have been sold. The future is what we’re working on to present for future seasons. That whole process, that whole calendar system has been disrupted because when you’re ready to ship things, people can’t accept it, no one is shopping, and then when you’re putting things together in the factories, that supply chain is being disrupted, too, because not everyone is back at work. You can’t get materials to the location, you can’t coordinate. And then going back to the sales part, the confirmed orders for future seasons have been revisited to “hey, can we cancel this” or “can we cut this by 50 to 60 percent.” And then the future. We were I would say 80 percent finished with resort, we had to just stop. We had to just stop and look at what was done and say, how do we parlay that into a smaller capsule, not knowing if there will be a market for it.

WWD: It seems like that resort will be a lost season.

P.L.: I was speaking with designer friends and we’re all in the same boat, even though we make different types of clothes. I told them, “don’t even try to plan for just like wishful thinking, plan for reality and have a backup for that plan.” We were just talking about how do we combine our resources when we get back to it. Because if you can get back into it, everyone will be drained, basically. So how do we come together, how do we piggyback resources and use our platforms to re-message?

WWD: Piggyback resources?

P.L.: A showroom, for example. How can you be in the same space and share a showroom? Is there a way to share the cost of a show space if there is a show?

WWD: Are you at the point where you’re thinking about leaving your offices? You have such great space there.

P.L.: We’re not at that point; we don’t even know what will happen. But we do have to consider [whether we] will be able to pay rent for that.

WWD: How scared are people?

P.L.: Every time I get on a conference call, first we ask how everyone is and everyone is very focused and listening intently. And every time we try to make a plan, something has happened to force us to readjust the plan. So I tried to be very upfront and have adult conversations, like “guys, let’s not overdo things. Let’s not get into the old types of conversation, over complicating everything. Right now what you guys need to do is focus on just your safety, your mental health, your physical health, and let’s just plan for a more present and immediate future and not-so-far future.”

WWD: That sounds great. But when people have rents and mortgages and kids to support, is it realistic not to worry?

P.L.: It’s not realistic, but you still have to console and calm people down, because if you don’t speak about it then it actually stays pent up. It’s allowing and getting permission to put your feelings on the table. I think that I’m very honest, like, “I don’t have the solution and as you can see we are in this together, at least I am right here with you.”

WWD: Are you hopeful?

P.L.: As a company, I’m scared s–tless. Excuse my French, excuse my English. But also, in the place where I am, I want to return to a simpler pace. I think the most powerful thing is having hope. I don’t like being in this space right now, it’s uncomfortable and I’m scared because for the past 15 years, Wen and I have worked so hard to build this company and overnight we could lose it all. But Wen and I both know deep down inside, the pace that we were going at, the pace the industry was going at, people we worked with feeling burnt out [was not sustainable]. In the end if we can look at a bigger picture and put kind of the idea of, oh, it’s a shame, this 15 years that we’ve built. If we can put that aside and realize that yes, that was a difficult process, what do the next 15 years look like? We couldn’t have continued this way for the next 15 years. So trying to think that way offers me a little bit of solace.

WWD: Anything else, Phillip? This has been illuminating for me.

P.L.: Thank you. Again, I’m only speaking from my perspective, obviously. But I try to balance [current] reality with a bigger picture, too. The reality is really scary, but at the same time I want to remind everyone that we all can take this moment to reprioritize what is truly important. For me, the most important thing is how do we get back to balance.

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