Phillip Lim on building his brand and the item he wants you to have most this holiday season


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In 2005, Thailand-born Phillip Lim, along with his partner Wen Zhou, founded 3.1 Phillip Lim in an attempt to make luxury wear accessible to the masses. The decision to do so wasn't easy — Lim had founded his first women's label, Development, years prior to critical acclaim but had to part ways with his financial backers.

"It was scary because I've never done that before," he told In The Know of starting his venture. "And like, you know, what does that mean to be a boss? What does that mean to be kind of self-employed? It means that the hustle never ends."

It also didn't help that Lim, the youngest son of Chinese immigrants with five older siblings, did not initially have the full backing of his parents. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur and founding Development, Lim, a California State University at Long Beach graduate with a degree in home economics, had interned for designer Katayone Adeli.

"[My parents were] unsupportive because it's not responsible," he recalled. "Like, what are you trying to do in fashion design? What is that you're sewing? It's not the certificate that makes you a successful human being."

Still, Lim and Zhou pressed on. Over the course of six weeks, the two reportedly created 65 pieces for the label's first collection. Like Lim's previous brand, 3.1 Phillip Lim garnered praise upon its debut, and that accolade, in turn, translated into significant revenue. That year alone, Lim and Zhou generated approximately $3 million in sales — in large part because luxury department store Barneys picked up their collection, according to Bloomberg. The next year, the pair made more than $10 million.

Along the way, Lim won the prestigious Council of Fashion ­Designers of America (CFDA) award for his women's wear. In 2007, he created a menswear line and later won a CFDA award for that too. He won his third award in 2013, for accessory design — one of his hottest items today (which he glowingly recommended for the holiday season) is the Alix Chain Clutch.

Alix Chain Clutch ($495.00)
Photo: 3.1 Phillip Lim

"I love what I do," Lim said. "It's my life."

Years after its launch, Lim's brand has purportedly made around $35 million in annual revenue and now has over 100 employees. But Lim hasn't let his success get in the way of his other ambitions. Not too long ago, the designer made the move toward creating more eco-friendly products. His Spring 2020 collection, for instance, features 40 percent sustainable and organic fibers.

"Every time you make something, it's already a footprint," he said. "So, for us, it's really like, 'How do we go back in, start things right, level set, and balance our footprint?'"

Lim is also working with other Asian American creatives and leaders, including fellow designer Prabal Gurung and Allure's editor in chief Michelle Lee, to inspire and promote fellow Asian American entrepreneurs through a nonprofit collective called Gold House.

"Asian-led businesses are not doing so hot," Lim explained. "[They're] easily forgettable. So it's like, how do we lean into that community and really promote it and also connect people in different disciplines and different professions who happen to be in the Asian-American community?"

The hope, Lim said, is that those people feel empowered to create more, no matter what the end product is — just as he did when he launched Development and, later, his eponymous brand.

"We are such a huge population underrepresented visually in C-suites," he said.