Cultural Revolution: Phillip Lim's cool classics

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal