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‘We lost control of who we were.’ Why Phillip Lim’s return to fashion matters

<i>Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images</i><br/>Models walk in the finale of the Spring-Summer 2024 3.1 Phillip Lim show at New York Fashion Week on September 10.
Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Models walk in the finale of the Spring-Summer 2024 3.1 Phillip Lim show at New York Fashion Week on September 10.

By Alex Rees, CNN

(CNN) — The tears were flowing backstage at Phillip Lim’s latest runway show, as the fashion designer made has return to the New York Fashion Week last month after four years away. Between selfies with celebrity fans and interviews with the fashion press, an emotional Lim snuck in moments with a group of close friends, family, peers and co-workers. (“I’m not a crier, but I just can’t stop,” he told CNN.)

It was largely borne of such cherished, re-kindled connections — with his circle, his community and his city at large — that Lim’s eponymous New York-based label, 3.1 Phillip Lim, made its comeback, having “undone the business and then rebuilt it” during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said. And it was an empowered, polished homecoming, with the designer’s well-honed aesthetic evident in elegant draping, crisp tailored pieces and bold, citrus floral prints.

But 3.1 Phillip Lim’s “second act,” as Lim he described it, is about flipping the script. On the runway, this meant there were also dark denim workwear pieces, and the sophisticated use of sheer fabrics on gowns and layered separates.

Beyond that, the show marked the brand’s response to today’s fashion industry, which both Lim and his brand’s CEO Wen Zhou said has changed drastically since pre-pandemic times (and their last Fashion Week showcase).

In a nutshell, costs are up and creativity is down. But if this sounds like a worse deal, though, Lim and Zhou would argue it’s made them better — in forcing their hand, the pandemic era compelled them to go all in.

This ethos was particularly apparent in the show notes — show notes, a common fixture at fashion shows, whether poetic missives or detailed explanations of a designer’s inspirations and intent behind their clothes — that accompanied Lim’s collection.

“We took some time off the calendar to reflect on why we kept showing without truly showing up,” Lim wrote in his notes, a moment of transparency that also read, to many, like a call to action. “We remain an independent brand, self-financing every move, negotiating the cost of the bench you are sitting on,” he wrote, directly addressing attendees.

“Even though it has become continuously more difficult to navigate this changing industry run by titans and fueled by ‘au courant’ marketing,” Lim continued, “the bottom line is the only way for change to happen is to make sure the next generation sees us doing what we love, including them in the narrative and being whomever the F**K we need to be.”

In several conversations with CNN Style in the weeks following the show, Lim and Zhou discussed just this: rediscovering themselves in fashion and finding a community, fashion; getting paid and paying it forward; and holding the industry to account.

CNN: The fashion industry is all about keeping up appearances, literally and metaphorically. What inspired your candid show notes this season?

Lim: I wrote those show notes an hour before the show started. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a writer, but I thought, let’s just tell it like it is — what people should know about the cost of the front row bench. That is something we often overlook, because we expect it to be there. But as these past years have shown, nothing is guaranteed.

This is the reality: We still have to count the seats. I had to really fight for those benches, even it came down to the cost of (clothing) samples or the lights. Because if you’re over budget with seating, you have to take something else away.

In my culture, the biggest shame is when you invite someone to your home and you don’t give them a seat — a seat fit for a guest of honor. I couldn’t put on this show and not have everyone feel like a guest of honor, but that is a huge sacrifice. And I think people don’t realize that.

CNN: How do you go about weighing up those decisions, when there are certainly no easy answers, and seemingly no ‘right’ ones either?

Lim: If I didn’t show, I would have saved, at minimum, half a million dollars. Probably more than that. I could actually have invested back into my team — secure further health insurance, get additional people to assist and stuff like that. But, unfortunately, in this day and age for an independent brand like ours, these show moments are the only 15 minutes of silence we have.

When you see larger brands put on runway shows, they fly people in from all over the world; their music budget is probably bigger than our whole show budget. This new fashion environment (is all about) hyper big business. The conglomerates, right now, are very daunting — you worry you’re going to be drowned out.

Zhou: We knew we couldn’t afford to do a show, but we knew that we needed to. We had seven, eight, nine months of working towards something that we knew it was almost impossible to achieve, but we made it happen.

CNN: Did planning your return to New York Fashion Week take you back to when you launched 3.1 Phillip Lim in the first place? What has changed in your mindsets now versus then?

Lim: I came to fashion because I just loved it. I didn’t know what else to do. In the beginning, it was about searching for beauty, creating beauty in fashion. Fast forward to today, though, and it’s about creating a platform in fashion as a vehicle for shared values, to empower people and to (build) community. And that’s beautiful, too.

Zhou: 3.1 Phillip Lim was founded on the idea of ‘why not?’

Phillip and I were both 31-years-old. We were so naive and so fearless. That spirit is still with us and is still the foundation of how the company operates. But the climate, from 2005 — when we first started — to today, is very different.

Four years ago there was this moment — the pandemic moment — where we were stopped in our tracks. Phillip and I started examining our lives, our lifestyle and our work — the ‘why?’ (versus) the ‘why not?’ Look, business had not been the easiest for an independent brand prior to Covid, so it was already something we’d been feeling.

CNN: How did the pandemic impact the brand and your business?

Lim: It’s been four years of us dodging falling bricks, constantly. One thing after another. As an independent brand, we don’t go to someone and say, ‘Hey, can I have extra budget on this?’ We live and die by the dress. We pay our bills by the hemlines.

Zhou: When you’re in a fighter jet, you can press eject, OK? I think the eject button was presented to us. But we decided not to press it.

For me, it would have been too easy; I wasn’t done with my story. And because of what was happening to Asian people, the wave of anti-Asian hate and attacks on AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) people — I just didn’t want that to beat me. And of course, there were the amazing people and the talent within our teams to consider. We might not have been able to keep everyone, but there’s a saying in Chinese — I’m not sure if I’m translating it right, but, basically, it’s that if you are able to protect the mountain, there’s always firewood to build your fire. Our mountain is our company.

Lim: I had finally time to explore other sides of me. And I focused my time on using my platform and emboldening my voice. I don’t want to say ‘activism’ because I’m not an activist; for me, it was being ‘activated’ to realize that I could share the platform I had built in fashion.

CNN: What have you learnt about your platform, and what using it entails?

Lim: Putting on this show was about creativity — and vulnerability. About me saying to myself, ‘Let’s just be vulnerable and reach out and ask for help.’ Vulnerability is powerful. Take my dear friend, the supermodel Liya Kebede, for example; I knew I couldn’t afford her. Her rates are like… I don’t know — that’s for fashion titans to know! But over these past few years, every time she was in (New York), we would get together for lunch and she often told me that I needed to learn how to ask for help.

(When planning out the show), I told our casting director that I would love to reach out to models who used to do our shows and have some familiar faces return. He said that might be difficult, because the game has changed. So I sent Liya a DM — subconsciously, I was like, ‘Oh God, she’s going to say no.’ But at least with a DM, it’s casual.

I wrote something like, ‘Are you going to be in town for New York Fashion Week? If you are, can you do my show? Love you, bye.’ Then I didn’t hear back from her for two days — of course not, she’s busy. But she replied: ‘Wow, you’re asking for help!’

‘People would love to help you,’ she wrote. ‘You never ask for anything, and you always give everything. I’m very proud of you, and if you need me, I’ll be there.’

She showed up for me, and she closed the show.

CNN: You’ve both mentioned community — and building community in fashion — as a core value. As a relaunched brand, but also one with a reputation preceding it, how does 3.1 Phillip Lim do that today?

Zhou: No path is immediate or easy. Phillip and I both want to pay it forward, but there are many different ways (to do that). One way, as you saw at our show, is really reclaiming space for New York City.

This is not a zero sum game. So many young creative talents are passing by New York because they simply cannot afford it. How can younger brands express themselves without an ecosystem that’s going to give them a lift? I really want to help the city realize that we are losing talents and we are losing this vibrant energy.

Lim: If we don’t continuously do the work to make space for ourselves, then that space — that seat, or that bench — is gone. You can’t take it for granted. We need to be intentional about how we participate in the industry in this day and age of titans and conglomerates and pay-for-play coverage. For me, part of this is about ensuring the next generation sees doing what we love to do, vibrating in their direction and including them in the conversation. I am here standing on the shoulders of a previous generation, after all.

And I think that coming back now and feeling like this is the second act, we’re more intentional than ever.

CNN: What will you be doing differently this time around?

Lim: Now we’re in market season, which is where the bills get paid. When the buys get confirmed or canceled. And this season has been game changing, because we’re starting to see familiar faces — big players and international stores — come back to the table requesting appointments. But we have to be realistic — what we don’t want to do is overpromise. I always say the lesson is, step away from the buffet.

When you start out, everyone wants a piece of you… but towards the end of our ‘first act,’ it was about feeding the beast. We started losing control of who we were as a brand. The stores and the buyers, they can almost become your ghost designers, and business (figures) force your hand to bend and cut back. It got to the point where I didn’t recognize who we were anymore, because we didn’t walk away from the buffet. We became the buffet.

This time around, we’re paying for our own meal. That’s the beauty of being an independent brand… And I say this very frankly, because I hope if a young designer sees this and it resonates — call me, we can talk! Because I’m sure a lot of designers who go to fashion school are not taught this.

CNN: It’s a classic job interview question: Where do you see yourselves in five years’ time? Does 3.1 Phillip Lim have that roadmap right now, or is the ‘second act’ still being written?

Lim: We’re a brand for change. However that change happens, it’s going to be holistic. It’s going to be humble. Purposeful. Powerful. It’s going to be broadening the horizons of fashion, and to truly make the world a little bit more beautiful.

Zhou: What I would say is, ‘What is not next?’ We are never going to take anything that we do for granted. Whether we are able to do one show a year, two a year, or none a year, it doesn’t matter. There are no rules. We’re going to do what feels right and what is authentic to us. If I can’t do it for us, I don’t want to do it at all. That’s what’s not going to happen.

The simple act of existing in this crazy world, in this crazy industry, should be enough for Phillip and I. And that’s all I want to remember. I don’t need to explain anymore to people who are not in my shoes. We’re surviving — and we’re thriving. That’s enough.

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