CEO Talk | Wen Zhou, Chief Executive Officer, 3.1 Phillip Lim

Wen Zhou, CEO of 3.1 Phillip Lim courtesy of Akira Yamada

NEW YORK, United States Mention the name Wen Zhou to the average fashion fanatic on the street, or even ‘important’ fashion editors, and they may shrug their sh0ulders, not recognising the name. But, mention her name to fashion industry insiders, especially retailers and independent fashion brands, and invariably the words “dynamo”, “amazing” and “genius” will be volleyed right back at you.

As CEO of 3.1 Phillip Lim, Wen has earned the respect of the industry for her entrepreneurial mindset and can-do attitude, propelling the 3.1 Phillip Lim business from fledgling start-up to international fashion business—with retail stores in Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles and annual revenues exceeding $42 million—in just over four years.

Wen’s special skills in fabric sourcing, production management combined with sound business judgment have enabled the 3.1 Phillip Lim business to stake out a positioning in the market that is not easily replicated by others, combining a strong design point-of-view from Phillip Lim with high-quality, made-in-China production and accessible price points enabled by Wen’s strong relationships in China. Together, Wen and Phillip make a formidable team.

I recently caught up with Wen in the 3.1 Phillip Lim studio in New York and over lunch in Paris to talk about how she is coping with the economic downturn and the ideas she has up her sleeve for Phillip Lim in the year to come.

BoF: First, how is the business performing overall? Are there particular regions which are still showing signs of strength?

While we cannot ignore the current market conditions, I am happy to say that our Spring/Summer 2009 collection, in stores now, is doing fantastic, in both our wholesale and retail channels. This has certainly given us even more wind in our sails…or sales!? Our price points, design, and approach to the market work together and are helping us to continue growing, even under this economic climate. Our growth, at the moment, is coming primarily from Asia and Europe.

BoF: And, how has market week for Autumn/Winter 2009 been for you?

We were incredibly busy, and I am extremely happy with the reaction we received. Everyone kept commenting on how the Fall 2009 collection from Phillip is one to remember. He showed himself to be a designer who is running on all cylinders, creatively speaking. I could not have asked for much more than what he has created…it is a dream collection.

BoF: So, while many other independent businesses are struggling—especially other Contemporary brands—3.1 Phillip Lim continues to thrive. What’s the secret to your success?

Aside from an amazing designer, Phillip, our entire team is the secret to our success. Everyone, from sales, press, to design to production, to interns…this is what gets the job done, day in and day out. My team goes above and beyond, for the greater good and success of the company. It’s as simple as that.

BoF: After opening stores in New York, L.A. and Tokyo, retail expansion is still on your agenda, despite the uncertain economic climate. What are your plans?

We believe in continuing to expand on our own retail stores. These are the only places where we have full control over our merchandising strategy, visual merchandising, and marketing. This is very important for a young brand like ours.

We are set to open flagship stores in both Seoul, Korea and Hong Kong this August. And, we have a slew of shop-in-shop locations in the works, and 3.1 stand alone stores planned for China, as well as Japan.

To execute on this, we have selected our retail partners carefully, with Sazaby-league in Japan, Joyce in China and Hong Kong, and Shinsegae in Korea. Each of these partners has the know-how of the luxury market in their territories, as well as rich histories and strong retail real estate relationships.

BoF: Leather goods. Kidswear. Accessories. All of these are part of your growing business. What can we expect next?

Accessories will play an even larger role for 3.1 Phillip Lim, going forward. We are launching our first line of shoes, for both men and women, exclusively in our own retail stores, starting this Fall. Also, we are really going to expand on our small leather goods category…they will be quirky, fun, at an amazing price point…just like our ready to wear.

After that, who knows? We like to always try new things, this is what makes our company fun…we love to experiment. The result is a product that is fun to look at, and even more fun to wear!

BoF: What advice do you have to new fashion businesses that are just starting out, in the context of this economic hurricane?

My advice would be…take one bite at a time. Take small steps, especially now, but make sure that your product has heart and soul. It really shows on a hanger.

CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.