This season there were quite a few designers celebrating 10 years in the industry, among them Chinese American designer Phillip Lim, who celebrated with a collection that encouraged the fashion world to stop and smell the flowers.
Lim may be taking stock these days, but his rise in the industry has been a meteoric one. Born in Thailand and raised in California in the 1980s, he never formally trained to be a designer. This however didn’t stop him from pursuing a career in the business, first working at department store Barneys before becoming a design assistant at cult brand Katayone Adeli. In 2000 he co-founded a contemporary line called Development, until his partners went their separate ways four years later. It was then that his now business partner and textile magnate Wen Zhou approached him with an idea to launch his own brand, and thus 3.1 Phillip Lim was born (he was 31 at the time hence the brand’s name).
Since then, Lim has managed to achieve the holy grail of fashion in that he is both a commercial and critical success. He has been given countless of awards while building an empire including children’s and men’s wear.
We grabbed Lim after his spring/summer 2016 show to talk about the past, the future, China and his evolutionary approach to fashion.
Phillip Lim Spring/Summer 2016 collection
Your spring/summer 2016 collection is a celebration of the future rather than the past. Why take this approach for your 10th anniversary?
I didn’t want the clothes to feel retro, or a re-edition of what we had done in the past. I am about right now, not yesterday or tomorrow. I wanted to say, hey we are doing ok, lets slow down and appreciate things.
I never like to look back, but in this collection I was taught a history lesson. We have 10 years worth of history and I was able to mine our own, take something from it and re-amplify it. It’s completely our DNA – youthful, elegant, classical in the sense. Basically it’s the older sister of what we have done over the years.
You have said that your approach to design is evolutionary not revolutionary – how does this work in an era where designers are being forced to churn out more collections in a shorter space of time?
People forget that revolutions take time. Nowadays there is no time. I think that we are constantly pushed to have revolutions but for whom? Who is benefiting? Is it really for our true customers? I am interested in core customers – they want to have a thread, they are looking for a chance to feel, understand, and appreciate our clothes.
Our collections are about moving the needle. There are three particular genres I love and love to work with that have percolated in my work for 10 years – romanticism, athleticism and leisure. What appeals to me is making clothes.
Has your customer changed over the years?
Women today are so multifaceted – they are always on a go. They need 31 hours in a day instead of 24. That’s the new normal. It’s telling because I was making clothes 10 years ago for this sort of woman. I want to make clothes for the life my woman lives - I wouldn’t know how to make clothes for different lifestyles.
You pioneered the contemporary category all those years ago but today you have plenty of competition. How do you distinguish yourself from the rest?
For me it is about how to participate in this realm that we helped introduce but to do it in a way that has integrity. You see it in our technique, in the construction. There’s something in what we create that you can’t put a word to – an essence. I like having conversations with my clothing – they are like your best friend – they are supportive, look good, fix you when you are down.
What we do is not exclusive, it’s inclusive, but that doesn’t mean wasteful. I am not creating Friday night dressing or one time pieces. I try to make clothes whether it’s a T-shirt to a gown, to be timeless.
What is your advice to young designers out there?
Business affords creativity and creativity makes business. Their creativity should not be reduced to artistic notions. They need to use that energy and power to make decisions. Not just about the fabric, but real business decisions too.
You’ve said that your Asian heritage has been a double edged sword throughout your career. Do you still feel this way?
I never try to use my Chinese heritage to my advantage. Saying that, I have stacks of interviews based around this idea of me being Chinese. I’ve accepted it. I am Chinese and I am blessed.
People always ask me if there is Asian touch in my design, but I say it’s in things you don’t see. It’s not a motif, it’s an essence – this idea of integrity. It’s how I grew up – I was taught to make things properly, that last, that are pragmatic. That’s something my culture has taught me.
Made in China is a strong part of your DNA. Why have you never hidden this fact like other brands do?
I said it early on, skill is skill – it’s how you instruct it. Electricity is electricity; a sewing machine is a sewing machine. If you go to Italy and you look inside the factories, it’s all Chinese working. I always thought it’s not fair to judge a whole country because they are making money. Everyone has a different hustle.
Over 10 years we’ve proved that the Chinese can make anything. They are never challenged. In 10 years they are more challenged by a simple T-shirt than an elaborate evening gown.
Everyone is talking about the slowdown in China – what are your thoughts?
Things are difficult in China. We’ve actually pulled back because my partner had the foresight to know that the success was not sustainable. Look at these cities and malls –are these farmers really going to come and work an outfit? People have this perception that the Chinese will buy anything but they are not like that. Eventually we think China will stabilise- it’s not different from anybody in the fact that it’s governed by the laws of nature. There’s always going to be an equilibrium.
Looking back what has been your proudest moment in your career so far? What about regrets?
My proudest moment is right now. I don’t believe in regrets – everything is a lesson. Sometimes you may repeat it but take it for what its worth. Keep on moving. Many times I wanted to give up – even in this amazing process there are days where it sucks. Luckily I found a therapy that I can make a living out of.
You are one of the few brands that have managed to stay independent – would you ever consider working for another brand or even selling a stake to a big conglomerate?
Conglomerates knock on your door every day, so never say never. It’s always about the right situation. A while ago someone came knocking and I turned around and said to them: “I am so honoured but with all due respect I am interested in not making someone else’s history. I am only interested in making my own future.”
What are your plans looking ahead?
We started with no vision. After 10 years what is important is to have balance – if we overdevelop and balance is taken away from a person, no one is happy. I kept telling our team – do you remember what it was like to be a 10 year old child? What did you know at that age? There’s so much more we have to learn and do.
An edited version of this interview first appeared in the South China Morning Post newspaper.