NEW YORK, United States — “I always believed in making clothes with affordable prices,” said Phillip Lim, one of the many young designers to have emerged in New York over the past few years. But unlike his peers, when Lim launched his label back in the autumn of 2005, he made a conscious decision not to compete in the high-end designer category. Instead, Lim's vision was to offer his customers beautifully made, well-designed clothing at a contemporary price point.
Lim’s fashion journey began with Development, a Los Angeles-based line he started with partners in 2000. But four years later, after relationships turned thorny, Lim walked away from the label. Soon after, a friend he had met in Paris convinced Lim to come to New York, just to 'hang out' for the week. That friend was Wen Zhou, who would soon become chief executive of Lim’s new brand and his new business partner in an entrepreneurial venture that is on track to turn over more than $60 million this year — not bad for seven years of hard work.
When the two connected in New York, Zhou had already been courting Lim for some time and had even offered to buy out his partners at Development, a deal that fell through. But Zhou was relentless, she never gave up. Lim arrived in New York on a Thursday. “By Saturday night, she said to me, ‘I have a plan; let’s start a company,’” said Lim. “I couldn’t say no, because she wouldn’t let me,” he continued, smiling. “She was a bulldog.”
Lim and Zhou are a formidable duo; a potent mix of creative talent and business acumen. “I am in charge of anything creative and she operates,” said Lim about their partnership. “I have to give her something to operate with and she gives me resources to create with.” While this kind of partnership isn’t unique in fashion — Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and Marc Jacobs and Robert Duffy, are amongst the most well-known examples — Lim maintains that theirs is different. “It’s just two kids who had a lot of love for clothes."
But Lim and Zhou launched their business with a simple yet powerful idea: to offer irresistibly cool clothing that was also accessible and practical. “This was intentional from the beginning," said Lim. “It wasn’t because we lived our lives in an ivory tower that we wanted to create clothes for people down there — we are those people!” he explained. “It was more like: I want an amazing trench, but at the same time, I’m on a budget. I’m a young professional and I have bills.”
Although many young designers may contemplate creating more affordable clothing, most lack the necessary connections with manufacturers — such as those in China, where Lim manufacturers his goods — that are able to produce a high quality product at low cost. “How do you keep the type of margins that make everyone happy and deliver goods that look impeccable with a certain type of quality?” Lim asked, rhetorically. “We were lucky because Wen had those relationships with the factories.”
But alongside partner, price point and production, there is a critical fourth “P” that has made the 3.1 Phillip Lim business successful: positioning. Indeed, by creating directional pieces alongside more practical clothes and showing his collections amongst luxury-level brands at New York Fashion Week, the designer has been able to cultivate a brand image that makes his fans feel like they are getting high-end fashion, only at a more affordable price. “You need the foundation, which are the basics, to work with the eccentricities," said Lim. "So in every collection, there’s always the classic pieces [and] a sense of madness.”
The approach has proven highly successful. “It’s incredible, right away we were an international company and the first season we were in 20 countries,” said Lim. 3.1 Phillip Lim has also expanded from its beginnings in womenswear into menswear, childrenswear, swimwear, accessories and lingerie.
Although Lim has a robust wholesale business and has shop-in-shops in Hong Kong and Japan, he is a strong believer in opening his own retail stores. 3.1 Phillip Lim now operates directly-owned stores in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore. The brand has yet to launch e-commerce, but Lim anticipates that over time, more and more of the company’s revenues will come from direct to consumer channels, citing better control over brand experience and more favourable margins.
“As a young company, when you are working with wholesalers, a lot of times you can be victimised," he said. "[Direct to consumer retail] is a way we ensure that the family we have built can move on tomorrow,” he continued, using an endearing term for his employees.
Asked if he has any advice for would-be fashion entrepreneurs, Lim offers a few words of caution. “I jumped into it and thank god it worked for me,” he said. “But if you have something to say, make sure you say it at the right time. Anna Wintour said to me: ‘Phillip, it’s always about timing. If it’s too soon, no one understands. If it’s too late, everyone’s forgotten.’”
In today’s shaky economy, where fashion consumers are seeking value like never before, it couldn’t be a better moment for a brand that’s carefully and sagely positioned at the top end of the contemporary market. Indeed, timing is everything.
Robert Cordero is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.