At the recent Sustainable Business and Design Conference, held by the Fashion Institute of Technology, speakers dissected what it takes to deploy sustainable practices. It’s a challenge that often requires soul searching for brands and retailers.
Phillip Lim, creative director and cofounder of 3.1 Phillip Lim, was a panelist for one of the sessions. He told attendees that the “beginning of sustainability is with yourself. If you cannot consistently show up and be present, there’s no purpose. And if there’s no purpose, there’s no point.”
From there, sustainability evolves into a collective effort. “How we champion each other is by bringing each other forward,” Lim later told WWD, emphasizing that information sharing is perhaps the most powerful way to help other fashion brands embrace sustainability — and change. And since Lim’s beginnings in 2005, 3.1 Phillip Lim has indeed transformed: The brand announced a switch from using fur and exotic skins earlier this year, in addition to a partnership with Guatemala-based Iris Textiles’ The New Denim Project, which creates sustainably designed materials by upcycling textile excess from textile mills’ pre-consumer industrial waste to create premium natural fabrics. The project also donates its own waste to coffee growers in the region to use as compost for growing specialty coffee in the highlands of Guatemala, all according to the firm.
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Here, Lim discusses 3.1 Phillip Lim’s brand transformation, collaborations and material innovations in fashion.
WWD: What was the moment you thought 3.1 Phillip Lim should pivot and head in a more sustainable direction?
Phillip Lim: People are always asking me, ‘How do you separate you from the brand?” And it’s very difficult because I don’t have a roadmap or a book to reference on how to make a brand. I am, kind of, the store to the brand. It hasn’t been a particular moment, it’s been a long time coming, a journey of self-discovery and questioning, “Do you need that?”
This journey, on my personal side, has been about five years in the making of really coming to question [fashion design] in consciousness. I think I was born this way, and it was really finding my voice and the acceptance of not having to be perfect at [being sustainable], and then having the courage to speak out about it. Once I realized that, I came out internally first [to my team], and then you start to realize, ‘Oh, other people feel the same way,’ and then it becomes a bigger movement.”
What we’re trying to do is be present and represent transformation. We started the business in 2005 and here we are today. But you can’t stay in 2005, and you can’t ignore 2005. So how do you bring it all along and acknowledge that it’s an evolution and constant growing and learning? The next stage for us is going in, looking at our boxes, plastics, packaging, sourcing, raw materials — and even the affiliations that we’re making, too, because all of those components need to constantly move with you. It’s not just ‘I’m not just announcing this’ and ignoring all the rest. I hope my purpose is to represent an entrepreneurial personal choice that is part of a brand that exists in the ecosystem of fashion.
WWD: You recently announced a move away from furs and exotic skins. Can you elaborate on that?
P.L.: [The move away from exotics] is part of a couple of things: Do we need that kind of fur? Who has this lifestyle? And also the idea of animal byproducts, such as shearling (we’re working with Woolmark): That’s fur. You can use creativity to make that cool, easy and chic. It doesn’t have to be such an elitist stance, [using] the most endangered or the most rare. To me, what’s the point of that?
[Regarding synthetic fur], we use natural fibers that are woven to mimic a skin or fur. So that’s another way at it, too. It’s not acrylic and it’s not cheap — it’s actually natural. That nuance is quite important. People are talking about faux fur and real fur, but what if it’s mimicking using real fibers?
WWD: During the FIT panel you mentioned working with Iris Textiles in Guatemala for denim. How did that initiative come about?
P.L.: While we’re coming out and saying that we’re banning this or doing that, we still have to create the next collections. Everything is multilayered and we work in past, present, future, all in the present. I was working with my textile team and I said, ‘Let’s break this down. Give me a list of everything we’re good on, eco or responsible, etc.,’ the things we run constantly, and our relationships with mills that we should question and effect change. But how we do that is by changing the fibers and to have the due diligence to ask the suppliers, ‘Hey, I want to keep this, because it’s not broken and we’re not going to fix it, but within that, can we take a moment to scrutinize all the elements that make this [particular material]? In these elements, what’s harmful and what’s not? It’s like using a fine-tooth comb, and combing through what’s in front of you. If it was cotton, fantastic — where’s it coming from? In working with Woolmark, I’m on this fixation with using wool all year round, and I thought, ‘OK, can wool be part of this conversation? Using technology, can it be performance-based?’ But it really took me to believe in it and to want to do it, not just someone telling me to do it.
Going back to denim, we want to use denim. We’ve used it before, we love using denim because it’s something that we don’t really do; we’re not a denim-based brand. So we thought, how do we elevate denim but still keep it street cool? But the washing, it’s so detrimental — so how do we avoid this? What do we want to do and what do we want to say? So we asked our suppliers if they worked with recycled denim, and what does that [process] look like, because I don’t want to wash it [through normal methods], so what do you have for me? They said they represented this third generation-owned denim mill in Guatemala, Iris Textiles, that actually takes all the off-cuts and discards and transforms them into recycled, new denim. And all of their waste is passed onto coffee growers in the region, so it’s a circular process.
WWD: What other sustainable materials are you working with?
P.L.: Recycled cottons, organic cottons, polyesters (second and third generation). I work with a mill in Barcelona and the owner is so excited about converting polyesters and subbing them out for recycled polyesters. We’re having these conversations. We’re talking about viscose, is it more harmful, or can we use Cupro? Just anything that lessens the impact.
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