Cultural Revolution: Phillip Lim's cool classics

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Designer Phillip Lim's cool, casual classics are an international success story. Harriet Walker meets one of New York’s biggest names

In an age when fashion designers can achieve a level of celebrity quite beyond their work, Phillip Lim is as understated and easy to get along with as the clothes that bear his name.

But a rare trip to the UK last week saw the New York-based champion of elegantly modern, sporty tailoring opening a pop-up boutique in Selfridges, and breaking his usual silence to speak to press.

"I'm not such a public person," he says from the safety of the store’s serene personal shopping lounge. "I'm shy. I’m more about being in the atelier, and dress-making. For me, that appeals – that’s my most happy."

So much is obvious from his label 3.1 Phillip Lim (he established it at the age of 31), in collections that focus on subtly updating classic and wearable pieces with cool but complex alterations to shape and silhouette. “Don’t get me wrong,” he continues, “I’m so appreciative. But creative people are introverted and the language they speak is not necessarily universal. When people ask about inspirations, and you’re like ‘oh, it was a flower or a mountain or a pony’, some people just think you’re insane. I’m worried to come across that way.”

But Lim’s clothes are about as far from the fashionably flamboyant as it’s possible to be. They are minimal without being severe, and feminine without the froth. 3.1 is the sort of label that you find in most well-stocked boutiques and websites; it’s the stuff that sells without making a song and dance; that flatters without being fussy.

“I’m about me,” he explains. “I don’t know quite what that is. The clothes are definitely a result of my personality. It’s an eccentric soul but at the same time it’s subtle and shy. It’s always about pushing this youthful elegance, which is a contradiction in itself, and I guess that’s why it’s difficult to explain. Because everything is a contradiction.”

This is evident in strictly cut shirting made fluid with draped and asymmetrical planes of fabric at the shoulder, for instance, and sophisticated silk cut into jogging bottoms with an elasticated waist. In 2008, Lim was one of a handful of designers brave enough to resurrect the drop-crotch dhoti trouser (a shape which later became ubiquitous), and he made the once subversive style feel newly uptown, even soigneé.

“I don’t consider it in terms of business, just in terms of a certain lifestyle,” he continues. “I’m youthful – when I wear a jacket, I rarely wear a shirt. I love that idea of being polished but finishing it off with something irreverent, or irrelevant. Something that doesn’t make sense.”

When he first emerged, Lim’s style was at odds with the pre-crunch, hyped-up bling and excess on many of the international catwalks. But he was praised for his “wearability” – a key attribute in a commercially-led fashion city like New York. The aim was to provide tastefully directional clothing to young creatives who could not afford many of the high-end names they aspired to. His line provided pieces at entry-level prices – £200 for trousers and tops, £400 for a coat – and while these have shifted slightly as his profile has risen, Lim’s clothing remains some of the more affordable in the designer bracket.

“When we first started, it was just where I was personally. I didn’t have much means, but I had a lot of desire. And that was the philosophy, beautiful clothing made to the best of our means, that was very accessible for myself, my partners, my colleagues, my friends, who were all in the same place. It was this idea of young professionals in the process of going somewhere.”

But that isn’t to say the collection is simply for thirtysomethings: Lim’s success lies in the fact that he makes pieces that suit a broad range of customers and fulfil needs according to lifestyle rather than age. He simply doesn’t create pieces that could be “inappropriate”. And while Lim might be characterised as a “young designer”, he certainly doesn’t fit easily into that stereotype; his metier and methods are tinged with a nostalgia for the days when designers worked day and night in their salons, perfecting a single piece for a loyal customer.

“I’m such a technophobe,” he laughs. “I have a joke that if I were to get fired, I would never get hired. I see a lot of the young students who have beautiful portfolios, and I’m like, ‘oh god, they’re good’. And then I think, ‘oh god, I have nothing’. If I want to photoshop something, it’s cut and paste – literally. Sometimes I think I should be in a different era. I’m blessed that we have an atelier in-house. It’s a dying craft. And if you don’t learn properly, shame on you.”

Lim’s skills, not to mention his passion, run deep: his exasperated mother, a seamstress, spent his childhood remaking clothes according to her five-year-old’s instructions. Hems were taken in, jackets shortened, shoulder seams adjusted. “I grew up in suburbia,” he smiles. “I didn’t grow up around a fashionable mother. Like ‘oh I used to see her descending the stairs in her gown…’ It was nothing like that.”

But clothing – not “fashion”, he insists – was an endless source of fascination; being a teenager in suburban California took Lim through an MTV generation dressing-up box of rockabilly, mod, nu-wave and metal; his obsession with dressing continues today, as he admits bashfully that he sometimes still changes three times a day.

“My parents thought it was a hobby,” he says. “And then when it was time to go to school, I had to grow up and be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessperson. It was that Chinese-American first generation thing. I didn’t think you could do something with clothes, because to me clothes were joy, they were pleasure. So I chose business.”

After almost three years of studying, Lim dropped out and re-enrolled in the department next door: home economics, where he learnt to sew and cut patterns. After an internship, he became an assistant at a design house, and co-founded his first company, Development, a few years later. “I said I couldn’t do it, I was an assistant,” he remembers, his modesty characteristic of a breed of fashion designers gone by. “I just never had an ambition or a goal. And people never believe me, but it’s true.”

By 2006, Lim’s current label had been founded, he had relocated to New York and been named “Rising Star” by Fashion Group International. Later that year, he was shortlisted for the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s coveted Fashion Fun, a bursary run in tandem with Vogue.

Lim missed out to designer Doo-Ri Chung, whose label has not enjoyed half the success that his has, but it prompted the first comparisons of his work to that of other Asian-American designers working in New York. There is a whole clutch of them – the avant garde Alexander Wang, Michelle Obama’s favourite Jason Wu, and streetwise Derek Lam – whose designs have come of age together, even though the creators themselves have very little in common.

“It’s lazy, because we’ve taken such different paths. If anything’s related, it’s that the culture definitely has this appreciation of aesthetics. It has to do with harmony of beautiful things. But it’s also the times, because if you go into design studios, there’s a lot of diversity.”

But Lim has been taken to heart in China, which is no bad thing given the clout of that developing market. Eighteen months ago he staged a show in Beijing for fashion fans whose tastes have developed beyond the logo-heavy culture so prominent in the East. “They said they were very proud – it was very heartfelt and touching,” he says.

And the line of accessories that Lim is launching at Selfridges this month reflects the international tastes of his followers in the “31-hour bag”. “It’s for a global citizen,” he explains, of the leather tote inspired by the brown paper bags that American kids take sandwiches to school in. “We were working in the studio with vendors from different time zones, and one day I realised a day takes more than 24 hours – it’s 31 hours! Everything fits into that bag, and it allows for those extra hours.”

It is this practicality and attention to detail which is at the heart of 3.1 Phillip Lim – just as it provides the energy which spurs on the man behind the label.

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