Lim, Phillip

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Lim, Phillip


Fashion designer

B orn c. 1974, in Thailand; emigrated to the UnitedStates; son of a professional poker player and a seamstress. Education: Studied home economics at California State University, Long Beach, early 1990s.

Addresses: Office—3.1 Phillip Lim, 260 W. 39th St., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10018.


H eld retail jobs at Benetton and Barneys NewYork in Southern California, late 1980s-early 1990s; began as intern for designer Katayone Adeli, became design assistant; founding creative director, Development, 2000-04; launched 3.1 Phillip Lim, 2005.

Awards: Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 2007.


N ew York-based fashion designer Phillip Limhas steadily gained a devoted clientele for his streamlined clothing, sold under the label 3.1 Phillip Lim, that steers clear of the latest trends. In June of 2007, his status as a newcomer to watch was confirmed by his win of the highly coveted Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Weeks later, Lim opened his first freestanding retail store in New York City’s Soho district. His clothes have earned enthusiastic praise in the fashion press, and comparisons to the equally cult-status favorite, Marc Jacobs. “The girls I design for are very modern, very feminine girls who are very strong-willed,” he told Maureen Callahan of the New York Post.

Lim was born in the early 1970s to a Chinese couple who were living in Thailand at the time, which has a large ethnic-Chinese population. The family moved on to neighboring Cambodia, but was forced to flee when a devastating civil war erupted. Lim and his five brothers and sisters eventually settled in the Southern California seaside community of Huntington Beach in Orange County. His father earned a living as a professional poker player—Lim would later say he inherited some of his father’s risk-taking personality—while his mother worked long hours as a seamstress. At home, she made her children’s clothes, and Lim recalls that he insisted his be unfussy and made from a narrow range of fabric shades. “I would direct my mother when she made my clothes,” he said in an interview with New York magazine writer Amy Larocca. “I look at pictures of myself when I was 5 years old and I think that, yes, that is exactly what I like.”

Lim’s nascent interest in fashion led to a job at Ben-etton during his high school years, and he enrolled at California State University’s Long Beach campus as a finance major to appease his parents, who hoped for professional careers for all of their children. Eventually he balked one day, as he said in the New York Post interview with Callahan. “One day in accounting we were going through equations and graphs and I was just like, I can’t do this. I can’t do this! I was getting physically ill,” he recalled, and immediately switched to home economics classes instead. His mother was predictably upset when he told her of his career plans, he said in another interview, this one with Times of London writer Lisa Armstrong. “All she foresaw was 18 hours a day of struggling for $3 a hour,” Lim recalled. “I said, ‘It’s not gonna be like that, I’m not going to be a seamstress.’”

Lim moved on to a job at Barneys New York, the premium retailer, at its Costa Mesa, California, outpost in Orange County. Unpacking boxes one day in the storeroom, he came across a shipment of clothing from a young, Iranian-American designer, Katayone Adeli, who had also grown up in California. Adeli’s designs had a minimalism that appealed to Lim, and so he called the telephone number on the box to inquire about a possible internship. Lim eventually became Adeli’s design assistant, but lost the post when Adeli decided to move her business to New York City. Lim was committed to remaining in California, and found his next role when a friend with a surfwear business offered to back him in a new label. Launched in the fall of 2000, Lim’s line was sold under the name “Development” and featured interesting, modern pieces for the women’s contemporary market. He and his business partners parted ways a few years later over creative differences. “I wanted to make more intricate things, special things, because I saw that everyone else was throwing stones on T-shirts and calling them contemporary, and I just wanted to elevate the quality,” he told Callahan in the New York Post interview. “And the company was growing healthy, but they wanted to grow faster, meaning a sacrifice, and I wasn’t ready to do that.”

Lim’s experiences at Development had introduced him to a woman who became one of his closest friends, Wen Zhou. Of Chinese heritage, too, she was the daughter of a seamstress and displayed a canny knack for business even in her teens, and was the chief executive officer of her own fabric company by the age of 21. When Lim lost his job with Development in late 2004, Zhou bought him a plane ticket to visit her in her New York City. “By Friday she said, ‘Okay. That’s enough. I’m tired of you crying,’” Lim told New York’s Larocca. “‘Let’s start a company.’” Wen invested $750,000 of her own assets, gave Lim a room in her apartment and told him to come up with a collection in two months’ time. They named their venture “3.1 Phillip Lim,” because both were 31 years old at the time.

Lim’s first 3.1 collection immediately interested buyers from two important stores, his onetime employer, Barneys New York, and Fred Segal, the Los Angeles-based retailer known for its cutting-edge fashion. Zhou’s investment paid off, with 3.1 Phillip Lim selling $2.8 million in its first six months in business, and signing up 150 stores interested in carrying his line. The fashion press began writing enthusiastic paeans to Lim’s cool, clean silhouettes and luxurious, but wearable and surprisingly affordable clothes. Lim added handbags, shoes, and other accessories in 2006, and a menswear line de-buted in time for the spring 2007 season. For fall 2007, sales reached the $12 million mark for that season’s line alone, and Lim’s label was now in 300 stores.

In July of 2007, Lim opened his first freestanding retail store on Mercer Street in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. The retail space was finished ahead of time and even came in slightly below cost—both rarities in fashion and retail that Lim attributes to his and Zhou’s combined vigilance. “I’m a very balanced person. I understand what the bottom line is,” he told Nandini D’Souza of WWD. “It’s not like every day Wen is like, ‘Phillip, you’re over budget.’ Actually, I’m always under budget and always ahead of time.”


Daily News Record, April 23, 2007, p. 16.

New York, July 30, 2007.

New York Post, January 30, 2006, p. 36.

New York Times, June 7, 2007.

Times (London, England), May 2, 2007, p. 9.

WWD, January 3, 2006, p. 24S; July 12, 2007, p. 6.

—Carol Brennan