Why Phillip Lim's Comeback in Fashion Holds Significance

Why Phillip Lim's Comeback in Fashion Holds Significance

Discover why designer Phillip Lim's return to fashion is a monumental moment In an insightful interview with CNN Style, Lim openly discusses the evolving challenges faced by independent brands, emphasizing the profound impact of fashion on their success Don't miss out on his candid reflections!

This story is part of CNN Styles ongoing project, The September Issues, which serves as a platform for discussing the influence of fashion on individuals and the environment. During Phillip Lim's recent runway show at New York Fashion Week, the designer, who had been absent from the event for four years, was seen shedding tears backstage. In addition to interacting with celebrity fans and the fashion press, Lim also took the time to share emotional moments with his close friends, family, peers, and co-workers. Reflecting on his emotional state, Lim stated, "I'm not usually someone who cries, but I just can't seem to stop."

New York Fashion Week: Key Moments from the Spring-Summer 2024 Runways

3.1 Phillip Lim, the New York-based label, made a triumphant return to the fashion scene after navigating the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lim reinvented his business and showcased his signature style through exquisite draping, sleek tailored garments, and vibrant, citrus-inspired floral patterns.

Why Phillip Lim's Comeback in Fashion Holds Significance

Wen Zhou and Phillip Lim attend their brand's 10-year anniversary party in New York on September 14, 2015.

In his "second act," described by Lim himself, 3.1 Phillip Lim takes a different approach. Alongside the usual runway staples, there were intriguing additions like workwear pieces in dark denim and the skillful incorporation of sheer fabrics in elegant gowns and layered separates.

In addition, the show represented the brand's acknowledgement of the evolving fashion industry, as stated by Lim and Zhou, the CEO of the brand, who believe that the industry has transformed significantly since before the pandemic and their previous Fashion Week presentation.

To summarize, expenses have increased while creativity has declined. However, despite the seemingly negative implications, Lim and Zhou argue that this situation has actually benefited them by pushing them to take bold actions. The pandemic era has served as a catalyst for them to fully commit to their endeavors.

The show notes, a recurring feature at fashion shows, exemplified this ethos. Whether they took the form of poetic messages or detailed explanations, they provided insight into the designer's inspiration and intent behind Lims collection. According to Lim, utilizing fashion as a means of expression necessitates a contextual understanding. By engaging in meaningful conversations, the deeper purpose behind the clothing can be shared with others.

"We have taken a pause from the usual schedule to introspect about our presence in the fashion industry," expressed Lim in his written remarks. This moment of honesty struck a chord with many, who interpreted it as a call to take action. "As an independent brand, we finance our every step, negotiating even the smallest expenses, like the bench you are currently sitting on," he directly acknowledged the audience.

"Amidst the challenges of a rapidly evolving industry dominated by influential leaders and influenced by trending marketing strategies," Lim expressed, "the ultimate solution for progress is to inspire the younger generation by demonstrating our passion, involving them in our journey, and fearlessly embracing our true selves."

During subsequent interviews with CNN Style, Lim and Zhou delved into these very topics: the process of self-discovery within the realm of fashion and the formation of a supportive community; the importance of financial compensation and fostering opportunities for others; and the responsibility of holding the industry accountable for its actions.

CNN: In the fashion industry, appearance is of utmost importance in both a literal and metaphorical sense. What motivated your candid show notes for this season?

Lim: I quickly penned those show notes just an hour prior to the show. I'm not a journalist nor a writer, but I felt it necessary to be forthright about the reality of the front row bench's costs. This is often disregarded because its presence is expected. However, recent years have demonstrated that nothing is certain.

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The truth is, we have to tally up the seats. I had to put up a fierce battle for those benches, even if it meant sacrificing clothing samples or lights. If the seating exceeds the budget, something else has to be compromised.

In my culture, the greatest shame lies in inviting someone to your home without providing them a seat befitting a distinguished guest. I couldn't organize this event without making everyone feel esteemed, but it comes at a significant cost. Sadly, I believe people fail to comprehend the magnitude of this sacrifice.

CNN: In evaluating these decisions, which are undoubtedly difficult and have no clear correct answers, how do you approach the process?

Lim: Not participating would have resulted in savings of at least half a million dollars, if not more. This money could have been reinvested to secure additional health insurance for my team and hire more staff to provide support. However, regrettably, for independent brands like ours, moments like these shows are the only opportunity for brief visibility.

Larger brands often host runway shows and bring people from various countries, having a music budget that surpasses our entire show budget. In this current fashion landscape, there is a predominant focus on immense commercial success. The presence of conglomerates can be intimidating, creating concerns about being overshadowed. Ultimately, the question arises for everyone: is pursuing a career in fashion worth the financial burden it may entail?

Zhou: Despite the financial limitations, we were determined to put on a show. We dedicated several months towards a seemingly impossible goal, but we managed to make it a reality.

CNN: Did organizing your comeback at New York Fashion Week evoke memories of when you initially launched 3.1 Phillip Lim? How have your mindsets evolved since then?

Lim: I entered the world of fashion simply out of a deep passion for it. It was a realm I found myself drawn to, without a clear direction in mind. Initially, my focus was on discovering and crafting beauty within the realm of fashion. However, as time has passed, my perspective has evolved. Today, my purpose in fashion goes beyond aesthetics; it revolves around establishing a platform that fosters shared values, empowers individuals, and cultivates a sense of community. This transformation is undeniably captivating and holds its own inherent beauty.

Why Phillip Lim's Comeback in Fashion Holds Significance

Models pose during the presentation of 3.1 Phillip Lim's Fall-Winter 2006 collection at New York Fashion Week on February 4, 2006.

JP Yim/WireImage/Getty Images

Zhou: The founding of 3.1 Phillip Lim revolved around the question "why not?"

Both Phillip and I were young, 31 years old, filled with naivety and fearlessness. This spirit not only continues to live within us but also serves as the bedrock for our company's operations. However, the landscape, since our inception in 2005, has greatly evolved.

Four years ago, there was a pivotal moment - the onset of the pandemic - that halted our progress. Phillip and I took this opportunity to deeply reflect on our lives, our chosen way of living, and our work. We questioned the reasons behind our choices and explored the possibilities that were previously dismissed. It is important to note that even before the pandemic, running an independent brand was challenging, hence we were already experiencing some difficulties.

CNN: What effect did the pandemic have on your brand and business?

Lim: We have spent the past four years constantly avoiding obstacles and challenges. As an independent brand, we do not rely on asking for additional funds or assistance. Our success depends solely on the popularity of our clothing and our ability to generate income.

Zhou: We had the opportunity to make a quick escape, like pressing the eject button in a fighter jet. However, we chose to face and overcome our difficulties instead.

For me, it would have been too effortless; my story was unfinished. And due to the prevailing mistreatment and aggression faced by Asian individuals, the surge of hostility and assaults targeted at AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders), I simply refused to let that overpower me. Additionally, we had to consider the remarkable individuals and talent within our teams. Although we couldn't retain everyone, there's a Chinese proverb, which I may not be translating accurately, but essentially conveys that if you can safeguard the mountain, you'll always have firewood to fuel your fire. Our company is our mountain.

Why Phillip Lim's Comeback in Fashion Holds Significance

Phillip Lim, accompanied by Ezra J. William, Tina Leung, Prabal Gurung, and Laura Kim, founders of "House of Slay," triumphed as the recipients of the Positive Social Influence Award at the CFDA Fashion Awards on November 7, 2022, in New York City. Established to combat anti-Asian discrimination and hate, the House of Slay also advocates for other marginalized communities and individuals, pledging to tackle racism, hatred, bullying, and fear towards those who are different. Additionally, Eva Chen, who presented the award, is also captured in the image (second from the right).

Lim: I finally had the opportunity to explore different aspects of my identity. During this time, I dedicated myself to utilizing my platform and empowering my voice. While I wouldn't necessarily label myself as an activist, I experienced a sense of awakening to the fact that I could use the fashion platform I had built to make a difference. Despite the potential consequences, I discovered my true self, and that is something I cherish.

Phillip Lim

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

Lim: The purpose behind organizing this exhibition was to promote creativity and embrace vulnerability. I challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone and ask for assistance. Vulnerability holds immense strength. Consider my dear friend, the renowned supermodel Liya Kebede; I was aware that I couldn't afford her fees. Those rates are reserved for the fashion elite, and remain a mystery to me! However, throughout the past few years, whenever she visited New York, we would meet for lunch. During these encounters, Liya consistently emphasized the importance of learning to seek support.

Why Phillip Lim's Comeback in Fashion Holds Significance

Liya Kebede, a supermodel with whom Lim said he shares a "true connection," walks the runway during the 3.1 Phillip Lim Spring-Summer 2024 fashion show.

Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

While planning the show, I mentioned to our casting director my desire to reconnect with models who have previously participated in our shows. However, he expressed concerns about the feasibility of this idea due to the changing dynamics of the industry. Despite my subconscious apprehension, I decided to reach out to Liya through a direct message (DM), opting for a casual approach.

In the DM, I expressed my curiosity about her availability for New York Fashion Week and extended an invitation for her to be a part of my show. Ending the message with a lighthearted sign-off, I anxiously awaited her response for two days, considering her busy schedule. To my surprise, she replied with a playful remark about my request for help.

You never ask for help, but you generously give everything. I admire your selflessness and I will always support you whenever you need me. She stood by my side and gave an outstanding performance.

Model Quannah Chasinghorse: In order to collaborate with me, it is essential to embrace every aspect of who I am.

CNN: Both of you have emphasized the importance of community and fostering community within the fashion industry. As 3.1 Phillip Lim is a brand that has been relaunched and has a well-established reputation, how does it currently engage in these efforts?

Zhou: Neither Phillip nor I believe that success comes easily or quickly. We share a common desire to give back and there are numerous ways to achieve that. One approach, as you witnessed at our show, involves reclaiming space in New York City.

It's important to note that this is not a competition where one side wins and the other loses. Countless talented young creatives are unable to make their mark in New York simply due to financial constraints. How can emerging brands truly express themselves if they lack the supportive infrastructure? My aim is to raise awareness within the city about the loss of talented individuals and the diminishing vibrancy they bring.

Why Phillip Lim's Comeback in Fashion Holds Significance

"The unveiling of the curtain allowed for a captivating display of transparency," remarked Phillip Lim regarding his Spring-Summer 2024 collection and the triumphant comeback of his eponymous brand at New York Fashion Week. "Intentionally designed, the initial quartet of ensembles showcased sheer elements to evoke a sense of openness and authenticity. Concealment has no place here."

Lim emphasizes the importance of actively creating opportunities for oneself in the industry. He warns against complacency and stresses the need to be intentional in navigating the current landscape, which is dominated by large corporations and biased media coverage. Lim believes in inspiring the next generation by showcasing our passion and involving them in the conversation. He acknowledges that his own success is built upon the legacy of those who came before him.

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

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

Lim: During market season, the moment when bills are settled and buy orders are confirmed or canceled, we have observed a significant shift. Notably, prominent players and international retailers have reengaged by requesting appointments. However, we must remain realistic and avoid making empty promises. As an important lesson, I always emphasize the importance of stepping away from the buffet.

Initially, when you are starting out, everyone wants a piece of your success. However, as we progressed through the first phase, it became more about satisfying the demands of the industry. Consequently, we began to lose our identity as a brand. The stores and buyers have the ability to dictate the direction of our designs, and the pressure of meeting business figures led to compromises and cutbacks. It reached a point where I could no longer recognize our true selves because we failed to walk away from the buffet. Instead, we became consumed by it.

Leading an independent company through the pandemic amidst uncertainty has proven to be exceptionally challenging. However, we remain resolute, drawing strength from our past accomplishments, confident in our ability to overcome adversity once more. This pivotal moment exemplifies our commitment to building a lasting legacy.

This time, we're covering the cost of our own meal. That's one of the advantages of being an independent brand... And I express this candidly, with the hope that if a young designer comes across this and relates to it, they can reach out to me. Because I am certain that many designers who attend fashion school are not educated on this aspect.


Lim and Zhou embrace at the conclusion of 3.1 Phillip Lim's Spring-Summer 2024 runway show, to cheers and applause from the audience.

But Sou Lai

CNN: Can 3.1 Phillip Lim confidently envision its future in the next five years, or is the brand still in the process of shaping its second act?

Lim: We are a brand dedicated to transformation that encompasses various aspects. Our approach will be comprehensive, modest, intentional, and influential. We aim to expand the boundaries of fashion and genuinely contribute to enhancing the world's beauty.

Zhou: I want to emphasize that there are no limitations on what we will do. We will never take our work for granted, whether it's one show a year, two shows, or none. What matters to us is staying true to ourselves and what feels right. If something doesn't benefit us, we won't pursue it. That's our mindset.

The mere act of existing in this chaotic world and industry should be sufficient for Phillip and me. That's the only thing I want to hold onto. I don't feel the need to justify ourselves to those who don't understand our position. We are not only surviving but also flourishing. And that's all we need.

Editors Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity from conversations with Lim and Zhou.