New York Fashion Week is nothing if not kinetic. Fall 2020’s perpetual motion includes a major change: Phillip Lim will not have a show. It’s the designer’s only hiatus since he first took 3.1 Phillip Lim to the runway 13 years ago, two years after he and his partner/chief executive officer Wen Zhou launched the brand. Instead, they will host a relaxed “house party” at their store at 48 Great Jones Street from 1 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 10, the day Lim was to show. While the collection will be on view and his longtime music collaborator Sebastien Perrin will create a playlist, Lim does not consider the event as an alternative show. Instead, he sees it as a stress-free gathering for retailers, press and clients that will be fun, low-key and open to the public.
Though he decided to forego the runway just before Christmas, Lim made no ado about the move, and his name appeared on the CFDA’s early calendars. I found out when I asked him to appear at WWD’s Style Dimension program on Feb. 7. He said yes, and that he had the time because he’s not readying a show. That called for an on-the-record conversation, before which he sent me a moving, carefully thought-out statement on the converging circumstances that led him to his decision. His square root: that fashion and creativity need to breathe. While taking stock at a milestone moment, his brand’s 15th anniversary, Lim found himself “grateful for all of the success and blessings we have enjoyed,” yet aware of the loss of “some spontaneity, and dare I say, humanity.” He wants to regain those virtues, and “to allow myself the time to think about the act of joyful creation again, not just the hustle.”
WWD: The statement you sent me is eloquent and powerful. I want to go through it with you. But before we do that, tell me what actually made you make the call to cancel the show?
Phillip Lim: Honestly, it wasn’t one particular reason. It all was kind of mounting up from a tangible reason — for budget purposes, to an existential reason of everything, kind of. The writing was becoming more apparent on the wall. 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?
I’ve been thinking about it, and I finally understand what it means when we say fashion cannot exist in a bubble. For us, this came from so many places — consumer spending habits changing; the way [people] shop changing; our business being born in a more traditional model; the impact of technology and social media; you’re supposed to keep up with the normal, traditional business, but at the same time be ready for new demands.
We are also in this space where we’re thinking about environmental sustainability. We are speaking up on social, racial inequality, talent retention, keeping up with fashion cycles and politics, like the new tariffs. So it was all aligning to be the perfect storm. It just came to the point where we’re like, we are insane. We’re insane. And it’s becoming kind of out of control.
WWD: When you say “we are insane,” do you mean fashion is insane, what do you mean by that?
P.L.: Everything. The pace; not knowing the clarity of your purpose as it pertains to how you fit into the fashion industry and what you do. We put out really beautiful things and we have always worked on this wardrobe and tried to make it with as much value as possible. But in this crowded space of technology companies, the new way of doing business — buying, distribution — literally you couldn’t reach your customers anymore, you couldn’t reach the customers anymore because your output, output from all ends, and input is not matching up.
WWD: Let me ask you about that. It seems to me that everyone is talking about direct-to-consumer. But unless you’re selling cheap T-shirts or have major-group marketing funds behind you, achieving meaningful success at DIC is extremely difficult.
P.L.: Yes, it’s a difficult challenge, but it’s one that you have to take on your own journey and pursue what works for you. I know for me it’s this hybrid model. We can’t abandon the model that we started, which is with wholesale partners, with brick-and-mortar and physical connection to the customer. But at the same time, we cannot not acknowledge technology and a new way of shopping.
So instead of just continuing this race of trying to meet everyone’s demands, including the fashion cycle, we came to the decision, let’s remove one major part of it, one major part that will allow us to pause, reflect, take stock and revamp. And realign what’s important.
To me, a fashion show feels important because as a creator, it’s that eight minutes where the world is silent, and that is so rare these days. But I want to do it when I feel that my team is healthy, when what I have to say is more clear, when it feels right again.
WWD: There’s so much there. Do you feel that what you have to say right now is not clear? Are you questioning your own message?
P.L.: No, no, not at all. The irony is this. Taking this pause has cleared our message even more. It is about the wardrobe for that everyday hero and heroine, the working professionals. And it has allowed us to really question what we’d do — how we’d do it with less resources, how we’d do it more responsibly.…Make no mistake about it, this collection, it’s very strong. It’s very edited and tight and precise and purposeful.
WWD: Will you tell me how much you typically spend on a show?
P.L.: It is north of half-a-million dollars.
WWD: When was your first show?
P.L.: I think our first show was spring of 2007. It was the all-white collection.
WWD: Have you had a show every season since then until now?
P.L.: Yes. When I started, I was hesitant to do the show because I’m like.…Our collection was never about a show. We don’t make show clothes, we make real clothes for people to show in. And then we did the show and we haven’t stopped [until now].
It was scary to make this decision, really, really scary. I feel like you’re my therapist right now, because you’re the first person I’m speaking about this publicly to. I feel nervous, I feel scared, I feel vulnerable, but at the same time I feel liberated. I feel liberated in the sense of, let’s just talk about real things.
WWD: When I first asked you how you would present the collection in lieu of a show, you said you would do a different kind of event that wouldn’t contradict the idea of taking a pause, and that you were still working it out. Then [communications consultant] Edith Taichman e-mailed to say you will throw a “house party” at the store, on your former show day, Feb. 10, “no RSVP, no rush, no stress.” How did the idea come to you?
P.L.: It is a response to feeling isolated and having to navigate so much noise, and news and new without a sense of physical community, I feel that we have lost connectivity. So I figured the best way to reconnect was to invite everyone to the party and have a simple meet-and-greet.
WWD: How are you getting the word out — via social media?
P.L.: Yes. This is a public-facing event and the goal is to have direct connection, so I truly want to meet people in person and reconnect to loyal, local customers and meet new customers and friends in the community. We will be using both the brand’s Instagram account @31philliplim and I will invite from my personal account @therealphilliplim.
WWD: I love the idea of “no RSVP, no rush, no stress,” but does the “no RSVP” concern you at all?
P.L.: Yes and no. I just have to remind myself that it is something different so we shouldn’t expect the same. We have to do something new to shake up the routine. It will be a great exercise in a true direct-to-consumer conversation.
WWD: What do you want to take away from this event?
P.L.: I want to meet people, I want to listen and share stories from their point of view. I want to have conversations that may strike up new ideas and ways to create intimate experience and commerce.
WWD: What do you want those who attend to take away from it?
P.L.: I want people to see all the faces that make up our brand. My designers, managers, sales, press teams will be present so that people can see and meet all the incredible humans that make up our tribe at 3.1 Phillip Lim. I am looking to connect on a simple human level. This feels fresh and right for now.
WWD: When did you make the no-show call? You were on the CFDA’s first calendar.
P.L.: It was right before the Christmas holidays. Also, we did it, because in speaking about sustainability, it’s not just about the clothes, the product. It’s about human sustainability, too. I had to look around the room and like, I want to let my team have time off to kind of have a life, too. It was really a difficult decision to make because we could have pushed, pushed, pushed. But then that goes against a moment to reflect, to really think about sustainability in all of its forms, all its beautiful forms — environment, product and people.
WWD: Talk about each, first, product and environmental sustainability.
P.L.: In the pursuit of tour sustainable balance, the 3.1 sustainable balance, it’s about how to start correctly so you don’t have this big footprint you’ve made. It’s reducing the footprint from the beginning instead of having to fix it in the end. That has meant reducing the scale of our collections and working with our suppliers in a more methodical, deeper way where we start with more responsible fibers and textiles. It’s meant myself and my team working to craft a more clear product, something beautiful that has the essence of 3.1 Phillip Lim, but at the same time delivers even more value and clarity.
And going back to the process, it means allowing factories and partners that I work with to take more time to make things correctly instead of rush, rush, rush to meet the deadline for styling and fittings and stuff like that for that, for the show. So this allows us to actually do things a bit more properly. And all this is because of time. Time and resources.
WWD: When you say reduce, do you mean cut back on the number of items that you design and produce?
P.L.: Yes, cut back on the amount of materials we develop, cut back on the amount of excess styles we make because it’s a guessing game. It pushes us to be more methodical and work with each other as a company to really fine-tune and consider and craft what we want to put forth, and to control the message.
WWD: You said fashion can’t operate in a bubble. But do you think ultimately it does exist in a bubble?
P.L.: I think it still does, to be honest. It needs a spiritual reboot. There’s a lot of talk, which is fantastic, because talks hopefully turn into walks, you know what I mean? But it’s still going to take people like ourselves to actually step in front of it and just [say], OK, enough is enough, this is nuts, hopefully, even me speaking to you. I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t want to remain silent. If we can put ourselves out there and be vulnerable, maybe this will instigate better communications, more conversations. It’s actually helping my team internally to be closer together when we define our mission. What’s interesting, too, it allows my other designer peers to form communities, which we never had before.
WWD: Will you name some of them?
P.L.: Laura Kim of Oscar, I speak with Prabal Gurung, I speak with Opening Ceremony, Umberto (Leon) and Carol (Lim).
WWD: The news that they’re closing their stores was a surprise.
P.L.: Yes. That’s another piece of news adding to this thing in the air. It was kind of out of the blue. We haven’t had a community to speak about these things, and now, we’re forming them, and breaking [the barriers].
WWD: Do you feel that you are of a particularly challenged fashion generation? You were the wunderkinds of 15 years ago who came into fashion with lots of new ideas but within the traditional wholesale model. And that traditional model has been hit hard.
P.L.: Definitely. Jokingly, I’m like, we’re the middle class. We carry the burden of paying these heavy taxes and also keeping communities alive. And also, our generation, we’re not the new, shiny, squeaky wheel so we don’t also get the amount of first press coverage. Because right now, it’s really about what’s new and what’s mega. Everything in between, where creativity is really being pushed and new ideas come from companies with a foundation, we’re not getting the love anymore.
WWD: You’re noting a milestone this year, 15 years in business. There’s a theory that a fashion company has maybe 10 or 20 years of influence. Do you think that there is an expiration date on brands that don’t cross over to mega status, in other words, that don’t belong to LVMH or Kering?
P.L.: I think if you have that kind of goal, if you want to be with LVMH or Kering, then maybe. But there’s a lot of very healthy, independent brands that have come to a space of realizing that we are OK at this size, and we’re happy. We have our independence, we have our freedom to create, and we can still operate a profitable business without playing to someone else’s rules. That has to come from each individual brand.
It’s kind of a come-to-Jesus moment of what do you need to be? Do you want your company to be the next Michael Kors or Louis Vuitton? Or do you always want to be the art brand? Or are you something in the middle? You need the range of brands that make this beautiful industry colorful.
WWD: Will you give me an assessment of the current health of your business?
P.L.: We are in transition. We are in a space where we’re examining, what do we want to be, what do we want to do? It’s not all rosy, for sure, but at the same time I’m very fortunate to get to work with a group of very talented, loyal, committed teams. I can’t tell you what the future holds, but at the same time, it’s nice to speak about the work in progress.
WWD: What are you transitioning from and what might you be transitioning toward?
P.L.: I think what we’re transitioning from is the traditional wholesale model. You’ve got to change with the time. But we cannot all of a sudden be a direct-to-consumer business. I think there is something in between, a hybrid model. I don’t know what that is yet; we’re still working to figure it out.
WWD: Let’s go back to what you said about your generation of designers not being the shiny new nickels anymore. How do you feel about your relationship to the CFDA? Do you think the CFDA can do more for people of your type in the market, in the industry?
WWD: What can it do?
P.L.: Reach out, first of all. If I could be honest, I don’t know when the last time was we had conversations with the CFDA. I’m sure everyone is busy and whatnot, but I think that we might be that generation in the middle that’s forgotten. Maybe there should be a program, a new program, “Minding the Middle.”
WWD: Have you and Wen reached out to Tom or to the board at all?
P.L.: Not as of lately because I think by now what we’re trying to do is focus all of our attentions and resources to our own business and trying to go from there. Because really it’s again taking a pause moment to really calm down the noise to see what are the priorities for our company, our people, listening to our people, listening to who we serve and trying to focus more on them.
WWD: Whom do you serve?
P.L.: It is the customers, it is that working woman, that working man, it is young professionals, it is our global citizen.
WWD: How do you continue to reach out to that person when she and he have more and more choices and dress more and more casually?
P.L.: What we have done, too, is really reassess our merchandising and lifestyle approach — does the collection meet her needs, what does the modern wardrobe look like as it evolves with the times, and what do her and his daily lives look like now. At the same time, maybe we have to go back a bit, to the old-fashioned way of physical communication, activating communities instead of just communicating through an e-commerce platform.
WWD: There is something about personal contact.
P.L.: Yes, think of old Tupperware parties, how to connect so it feels personal? How do we make our customer feel like she is our front-and-center focus? I have to believe, because we are all human, people miss that.
WWD: I think so. Years ago, there was a charity benefit at Saks and all the designers went into the store for a customer night. You could tell that some were miserably uncomfortable meeting with the customers. Then there was Oscar. I rode on an escalator behind him and it was amazing to watch the way he could connect to people — on the escalator. Michael Kors, too. I went into his boutique, and he’d taken over the role of sales associate. The customers ate it up — customer loyalty creation in real time.
P.L.: When I first opened our shop on Mercer Street, a couple years into the business, I was dressing all the mannequins. And a customer, her name is BJ Topol, she’s an art adviser, she would come in and she would like try on clothes. And I would ask, “Can I help you find anything today in the collection?” She didn’t know who I was. She’d say, I’d like to try on these shoes. And I would go get her size. And then when she started to realize I was the designer, she would freak out. To this day she is one of my most loyal clients, and the most amazing brand ambassador. And she’s become a dear friend. I remember those days so vividly. You would learn so much and you would build community and you would build friendships from that.
WWD: In your statement, you said, “I want our global team to operate sustainably, efficiently and happily, without the burnout that afflicts us.” Do you think burnout is inevitable in fashion?
P.L.: I think if you don’t address it, sure. Or it creates very unhappy people. The people who get burned out, they leave the industry, and the people who are burned out but continue to stay become unhappy, very disgruntled. For me, it’s such a privilege to be in fashion and make dreams come true and create beauty. It’s counterintuitive when you approach it with a toxic energy.
WWD: Why do you think there is so much angst now? The economy is good, major-house luxury is booming, but why do you think you’re having this existential moment now? And you’re not alone, clearly, why is this happening now?
P.L.: The economy is great for the really wealthy. The economy is great for the fewer-and-fewer basically. But for the rest of us, it’s still tough [to secure] our place in this society. We have to deal with so many factors.
For example, the new tariffs. This chest-beating, agro male [Donald Trump], whatever is happening, it’s wiped out a huge of part of our margin — 30 percent tariffs on products — that’s the capital you make that allows you to continue. We are paying for this. The people in the middle are paying for this. We are paying more taxes, which I don’t mind, as long as society is fair.
We try to run a very ethical independent business. We pay for health care, we offer a 401k, we try to carve out real time off for our tribe, our people. When we made that decision to forgo the show right before Christmas, it allowed us to shut the company down for almost two weeks.
WWD: That’s great.
P.L.: To give people time off so they could spend with their loved ones. I say that and it makes me very emotional, but it’s like when did that right go away? It’s time to figure out a way [to see] how we can still operate a successful business where we work together to make beautiful things, but at the same time honor people who are part of the making of it.
WWD: You’re talking about reacting to external forces, politics, global financial realities. What can fashion do as an industry, as a global entity? The European men’s shows started right after New Year’s. It’s relentless. It seems to never stop.
P.L.: Fashion can slow down, fashion can realign with the seasons. It’s really the obvious things. We talk about business and missed opportunities, the realignment of delivering the right type of clothes in the right season and not killing, stabbing, maiming each other to be the first one to go on sale — it destroyed the whole marketplace. It’s really a different way of consuming and respecting things. It needs to slow down.
WWD: Do you think it’s possible? Everyone acknowledges that it needs to slow down, but somebody’s got to be willing to do it first.
P.L.: Yes, I know what you mean. I don’t have that answer because it’s not a black-and-white issue. But if everyone could come together we could do it. If we think of what’s really pushing us this fast, it’s profits, it’s data, it’s technology, right? But human beings created all that. We all created this, we all played a part in it.
WWD: Everyone is focused on sustainability and the environment now, and talking about producing less and producing more wisely. If that proves genuine in the long term, will it necessitate a slowing down? Because if you’re making less, you’re rushing less.
P.L.: I don’t think that you can isolate sustainability just as a product, about product because humans play a part in this product. I can make the most sustainable, pure product, but if I push my people to the point where it’s not sustainable, then what is it, really?
WWD: It’s great that you’re linking in the human aspect.
P.L.: Because everyone wants to talk about sustainability as a product. And isn’t that the problem — too many products? So we’re focusing the attention on products only, and we’re going to put it out there in a way that’s kinder, gentler to the environment, but at the same time we’re ignoring the fact that we’re pushing people to convert to overnight [to better processes], to be the first one to say, “this is the most green,” or “this uses the most recycled parts.” To me, it’s all connected, product, environment and human capital.
WWD: It’s amazing to me, with all that’s going on in fashion, with all of the examples of talented people going out of business, that so many young people still want in. There is a calling.
P.L.: And that’s the beauty and the strength of it. Now we just have to readjust it.
WWD: That sounds wonderful and positive. Thank you so much.
P.L.: Bridget, can I leave you with this quote, the Wabi-sabi philosophy?
P.L.: It says, “Pare down the essence but never to remove the poetry.”
WWD: It sounds pretty darn good. Getting there is a different story, but it’s a wonderful goal.
P.L.: Thank you.