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NEW YORK, United States — It is for good reason that Wen Zhou is a respected business leader in the fashion industry. As chief executive officer of 3.1 Phillip Lim, her entrepreneurial mindset and can-do attitude has propelled the fledgling American designer label to become an international luxury brand stocked in over 400 boutiques and department stores worldwide, in just over four years.
Zhou’s expertise in fabric sourcing and production management have enabled the label to offer a winning proposition that combines a fashion-forward point of view with accessible price points and quality production, made possible through Zhou’s strong relationships in Asia. Today, the 3.1 Phillip Lim brand offers ready-to-wear collections for women and men, as well as kidswear, sunglasses and leather accessories.
Below, the entrepreneur shares five tips for success in running a fashion business.
1. Be observant and patient
Wen Zhou: I didn't grow up thinking that one day I would work in fashion or that I would be working with a designer and become the CEO. It came by chance as my mother was a seamstress. She was a sewer for the village in Ningbo, China, where I was born and raised. I'd watched her sew and cut fabrics and there would be the constant sound of sewing machine throughout my childhood. My mum and I would make our outfits for Chinese New Year — and those were the only new outfits we would get in the year.
I grew up in New York City, but I worked in a sweatshop and factory for three years, from the age of 12 to 15, making clothes for the American market. When I was a teenager, I landed a job working for a textiles importer. I fell in love with the materials and brought them from Europe to show to American designers. That whole process got me started in the fashion industry.
By the time I was 21, I had started my own company and was importing fabrics from all around Europe and Japan. A few years later, I met Phillip [Lim]. He was initially one of my clients, but we became very good friends. That’s how I became Phillip’s business partner and founded the company together with him. What I learned is that you have to be patient and know that things take time. Take the time to develop, learn and observe. We are living so much longer, so don’t be afraid to experience things.
Take the time to develop, learn and observe. Don’t be afraid to experience things.
2. Leaders must embrace teamwork
WZ: Even though my title is chief executive officer, for me, the role means many things. From a start-up or a brand new business, to a mid-size or even larger company, you have to wear many different hats throughout the growth of the company.
I believe that as a chief executive for any company, you should not only have a long term vision for how you want the brand to grow, but you need to be able to bring key players into the business and become, in a way, a maestro for a beautifully orchestrated dance and make beautiful music together. It’s about being able to bring a vision to life, and bringing together a team to make it work.
In the fashion industry, it takes an army of incredible people to make something great — it’s not just about one person.
3. Accept change, but stand for something
WZ: Everyone is talking about this changing fashion consumer, but we fail to realise that the fashion consumer has always been changing and evolving. We change our collections every six weeks and our wardrobes every single day. At 3.1 Phillip Lim, change is part of our DNA and that’s what we’re heavily embedded in.
With the developments in technology and the global economy, change feels much more rapid and that can be daunting because it might feel like you’re not ready. But I think it’s really about embracing the spirit of change, because that’s what fashion is all about. Change has always been a part of our company DNA, but we’re not adapting in a way that we feel is out of the norm for our brand.
I think that 3.1 Phillip Lim is neither an old or young brand. We’re sort of in the sophomore stages of the company. My key focus for the company is identifying key categories that we want to grow in, and key markets. This year, we’re focused on growing our Chinese business. It’s one of the largest and fastest growing regions for us. The main category we’re working on is footwear. It’s the main focus of our category growth this year from a business standpoint.
4. Positivity is essential
WZ: I always say our lives are made of chapters and you go through different types of chapters. I was blessed to be born into a family of an incredibly loving mum and dad. That gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of love, which makes me want to share it with everyone around me.
Embrace the spirit of change, because that’s what fashion is all about.
I’m naturally a very happy, optimistic person. I see the glass as always full. I think that is a really important attitude in any type of leadership role. Love life, and love the curveballs that are thrown at you. I look at things as a challenge and go after it. Of course, it helps that I have incredible friends, supporters and a business partner. [Phillip] and I love what we do and we have a great team.
5. Every chapter contributes to a great story
WZ: My philosophy is that life is full of chapters and every single chapter contributes to such a great story. The best thing for me to experience, which was absolutely life changing, was being able to move to the US from China when I was a teenager. Imagine coming from a village of about 50 to 100 people to New York in 1985, where I stayed in the Lower East Side.
To be thrown into a world that was completely unknown, and having to navigate that at a very young age, taught me how to be strong and resilient and really shaped me as a person. I always reflect on that and think that if I could survive through that, I can do anything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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