Friday, 22 August, 2014

Published January 04, 2014
The pragmatist
A self-dubbed introvert and social media recluse, US fashion designer Phillip Lim has nevertheless managed to build a mini fashion empire based on 'It' bags, quirky cool looks and decidedly Asian work ethics. By May Yip
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Part of Phillip Lim's success, apart from a focus on functional, beautiful clothing that is well-priced, is the coveted status of the brand's accessories such as its Pashli bag.

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IN a time when the grande marques of fashion like Chanel have Facebook accounts, 67-year-old British designer Paul Smith blogs, and Burberry - long lauded for its savvy approach to digital marketing - lost its CEO to Apple Inc, 40-year-old trend-maker Phillip Lim is an anomaly.

"A lot of people play the social media game," says the American-Chinese co-founder of his eponymous brand 3.1 Phillip Lim (the numbers stand for the age at which Lim and business partner Wen Zhou started the label). "But it's not about people liking and tagging you. You may have the most followers on social media but the smallest business. I don't Tweet, Instagram or have a Facebook account. I have nothing."

This refusal to succumb to the digital age is perhaps in line with the designer's elusive, introverted nature. "When I signed up to be a designer, it was about making clothes backstage," admits the articulate, rather earnest Lim, who was in Singapore to speak alongside Ms Zhou, who is the chief executive officer of the company, at the International New York Times Luxury Conference.

"A designer, by nature, is more behind the scenes. Now you have a persona, a brand, and have to be in the spotlight. Taking a bow at the end of a show still equates to anxiety and butterflies in the stomach for me."

Not that Lim has the option of staying in the shadows very often these days. The one-time business school major hosted a swank party in Beijing to fete his first boutique in China - a 27,000 sq ft flagship duplex, right after his trip here. Within the same week, he was in London to unveil a 3,200 sq ft store - with a second outlet set to open in the British capital next year.

"To come so far, being Chinese, is really a dream," said Lim during the conference to Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International New York Times, when asked how he felt about opening his first China store. "My parents are typical immigrants who did whatever it took to put food on the table. My mother was a seamstress, and the hum of a sewing machine is like a symphony to me because I would always want to be next to her, and she was always at the sewing machine."

While his family immigrated to Orange County, California, when he was just a year old, Lim has often spoken about his Asian roots during interviews, even though his designs are aimed at the global citizen.

"I never think of designing for an Asian woman, but you can't help but have the traits that your parents raised you with - there is an understanding of subtlety, irony and grace," says the youngest of six children.

His best friend and business partner Ms Zhou was also an immigrant from Ningbo, China, and worked in a sweatshop with her mother and sister when she first arrived in New York to pay off the family's travel expenses.

And when asked about his father's profession as a professional poker player, Lim answers: "You're never going to run away from who you are and where you come from. I'm a gambler in business and life, and no one can be in this business if you don't take risks, but they have to be solid, calculated risks."

And he would know. In 2004, the duo started the company with US$750,000, raised by re-mortgaging Ms Zhou's home. Today, with a projected US$85 million in revenue this year for 3.1 Phillip Lim, according to, setting up shop was certainly a risk with rewards. Part of the business' success, apart from a focus on functional, beautiful clothing that is not solely priced within the reach of privileged society girls, is the coveted status of the brand's accessories. Lim was named Accessory Designer of the Year at the 2013 Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards, and it was an unsurprising nod to a designer who has conceived the uber-utilitarian Pashli and 31 Hour bags. The accessibly-priced day bags not only garnered a legion of celebrity followers, they also enjoyed enduring demand long past their 'It' status.

"I love accessories, I love bags, shoes and jewellery, but it's hard to make a bag or a shoe," says Lim. "Designing accessories is like sculpting: How to make something supple yet rigid, and inject it with desirability? I can't just think about how a bag looks, but if it's heavy or light. And I don't think of something as a hit but a bag for a specific purpose."

It's this stoic pragmatism melded with the ability to create discreetly cool looks that has propelled the label to the mainstream. In September this year, the designer launched a collaboration with US chain retailer Target, which sold out on the day of its launch in most stores.

"I've been asked to do a line for six years but I didn't feel ready," says Mr Lim. "People know us as an approachable fashion brand but I had to make it even more commercial, and that's more challenging than making the most beautiful dress possible. I must consider how to dress a million people, and you just have to remove the ego and attack the project with purpose. It boils down to accountability and responsibility."

When told that his comment came across as somewhat Asian-sounding ethos, the mild-mannered aesthete laughs and says: "See, you could tell."