“My creative process is like a continual flow,” says Phillip Lim, making a circular motion with his finger to illustrate his point. He is calm and collected, a man who has come into his own. Eleven years after starting 3.1 Phillip Lim, the 43-year-old designer has entered a new phase of his life and is enjoying every moment.
Lim, with the help of his business partner and 3.1 Phillip Lim co-founder Wen Zhou, has achieved commercial and creative acclaim. The brand’s 10th anniversary was a sign the Asian-American fashion designer had come full circle. Seeking to do things differently in the second decade of his business, he has shifted priorities and is intent on returning to his roots.
Stop and Smell the Flowers, the 10th anniversary collection, was the product of Lim hitting the reset button. Like so many of his fashion contemporaries, he wanted to make a statement about the fashion industry’s frenetic pace. Stop and Smell the Flowers was presented in collaboration with artist Maya Lin, who created an installation for it. The show featured models walking around 300 tonnes of compost fashioned into conical mounds.
“We wanted to do a show where you would walk in and all you see is dirt,” Lim says. “But it gave new meaning to dirt because that’s where life begins. We spent six months taking dirt that people threw away and turning it back into topsoil that people buy to fertilise. After we did the show, we invited and worked with the parks of New York city to give it all away. There was no waste in the design of the set.”
The symbolic cycle of life was completed one year later, in the designer’s spring/summer 2017 show, which featured a runway strewn with flowers and clothes bedecked with blooms, as if an abundance of plants had grown and blossomed in the preceding year’s fertile soil.
“Our last collection had nothing to do with Stop and Smell the Flowers,” Lim says. “But the flowers on the ground, the dirt that was still there, it was like they were the remnants from before, and now you can see flowers grow.”
If there is a certain spiritual quality to Lim’s outlook to life and his ability to enjoy the little moments, perhaps it is nourished by his Chinese roots. He is unabashed by his humble upbringing in the United States and how it influences his appreciation of all of his success.
“When you’re the product of immigrants who are trying to make a living and trying to put food on the table, they would never tell you to stop and slow down. They’d tell you, ‘What? You’re too slow,’ or, like, ‘What’s wrong? This is not good enough.’ It’s not because they want you to just do it fast. Instead, they want the best for you,” Lim says. “From that place, what I saw was that they appreciated everything, even the smallest things. They could never throw anything away. They would never waste it and just carelessly buy things. Everything was so precious and valuable because they knew the inherent value of what they had. Maybe that’s where it comes from.”
Lim’s approach is reflected in his partnership with Zhou, who had a similar immigrant upbringing. The similarity of their backgrounds allows them to see eye to eye, but it is what distinguishes one from the other, notably Zhou’s business acumen, that has allowed their brand to blossom.
“She’ll kill me for saying this but our partners in Japan call me The Daydreaming Beauty and her The Wise Beast because I’m responsible for the creative side, what it is we’re working with, and she’s responsible for operations and business,” Lim says.
“But we need each other, too. If I don’t give her anything to operate, then there’s no business, right? And if she doesn’t handle the business properly, then there’s no dream. I think there is such a power when you have two very like-minded people who also understand each other and come from the same place of nothing to make something.
“It’s elemental. Without it, it wouldn’t exist. Because it really shows you the strength of what it is to be Chinese and where you come from. True strength like that isn’t just power. It’s about the drive that comes from inside.”
Lim also attributes the success of the partnership to their mutual respect the partners have. He emphasises that they don’t overstep the boundaries of their individual responsibilities, valuing respect, listening to each other, sharing opinions and ultimately trusting each other to do their respective jobs properly. Also key to Lim’s work philosophy is generosity, which he brings not only to his relationship with Zhou but also, he hopes, to every aspect of the way 3.1 Phillip Lim is run.
“We try to manifest this idea every day at work. Everything has a reason. You can’t just overlook small details when making a T-shirt, a gown, a leather jacket or even a purse. Invitations feel a certain way. People coming to the office are greeted a certain way. The way my team conducts themselves is done in a certain way,” the designer says.
“People always say that our staff are the best ever and, to me, I’m so happy with that because what Wen and I try to achieve every day manifests like that; the generosity of spirit. There’s nothing worse than walking into a shop that has a selfish spirit, when they’re not caring about anything. It presents itself in our collection that we care for everything: the clothes, accessories, the shoes.
“It’s so funny because I’m the most generous person. But I don’t like when things are wasted and taken for granted. To me, I would give you my right arm, if you need it. If you know what to do with it, then you can have it. But I won’t give it to you if you’re going to waste it.”
Looking ahead to their next 10 years, Lim and Zhou have their work cut out. Their brand may have been the first to offer reasonably priced designer clothes but a battery of competitors has bombarded the market, hoping to awe the same customers that 3.1 Phillip Lim targets. Yet Lim is unfazed.
“We stopped thinking about who’s in what category,” Lim says. “We started thinking about who we are as a brand and our brand voice. When you enter that kind of thought process, it doesn’t matter what people label you as. It matters who you are, how you behave and what you do with it. I think it feels like we’ve taken the power back.”
The designer is now excited about the goal of transforming 3.1 Phillip Lim from a formulaic business to a fully fledged brand. The hope is that by looking inside, by getting in touch with his spiritual centre, he can radiate the kind of joy that will bring the same pleasure to everyone that encounters the brand.
“The advice I would say to everybody, myself included, is to do what makes you excited. I remind myself to do this all the time. While it’s quite simple to say, it’s hard to do. That’s where the courage has to come in,” Lim says.
“What do you truly love to do? Who do you truly want to be? Who are you? Just do that. Because I promise you, within reason, that it will happen if you do what you love. There’s no one who can deny you of anything. No one will stand in the way.”