Phillip Lim, Pretty Modern, Pretty Smart
Glenn O'Brien converses with Phillip Lin and Dree Hemingway
ONE OF THE HOTTEST DESIGNERS ON THE SCENE, YOUNG PHILLIP LIM DID IT HIS OWN WAY. IN FACT, HE MAY SERVE AS A PROTOTYPE FOR FASHION-DESIGN SUCCESS IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. HE’S HARDWORKING, REALISTIC, DETAIL-OBSESSED, EXACTING—ALL FINE QUALITIES IN ANY BUSINESS—BUT ULTIMATELY, LIM’S TRIUMPH IS ALL ABOUT PITCH-PERFECT AESTHETICS: HIS CLOTHES LOOK GOOD AND FEEL GOOD AND ARE MADE TO WEAR STUNNINGLY IN REAL LIFE.
Phillip Lim is not a flamboyant or dramatic person, but his life story could inspire an adventure/comedy/drama screenplay. Lim was born in Thailand to an ethnic Chinese family. They moved to Cambodia, but soon afterward the civil war there made it unsafe, so they moved to the conservative suburbia of Orange County, California, where his father made a living as a professional gambler, and his mother worked as a seamstress. While Phillip attended UC Long Beach, he took an intern position with the designer Katayone Adeli, with whom he developed his skills. When Adeli moved to New York, Lim was recruited as designer for a hip start-up, Development, which quickly made a name with its young, fresh and lively clothes. However when his backers decided to take a different direction, Lim decided not to follow. But Wen Zhou, the young CEO of a fabric company that had worked with Development, had been wowed by Lim’s talent, and she insisted they launch a company. After a protest lasting several hours, Lim relented, and the rest is history. The company was named, 3.1 Phillip Lim, because Zhou and Lim were both thirty-one at the time. After a few years of smart business and inspired design, the company became an industry powerhouse, and the pair are still enjoying their thirties. The model actress Dree Hemingway, who is a friend and a devoted wearer of 3.1 Phillip Lim, joined the designer and Glenn O’Brien on the phone.
PHILLIP LIM: Hi, everybody. How are you doing?
GLENN O’BRIEN: Hi, Phillip. Dree is in a car heading for the Hamptons.
PL: Dree has that life that we all want.
DREE HEMINGWAY: Well, I am going to do work. Can you hear me?
GOB: It’s a little noisy. Are you going 100 miles an hour?
DH: No, I’m actually doing 10 miles an hour.
GOB: Oh, sounds like the Long Island Expressway. So, how did you become a comic book author, Phillip?
PL: It’s a love story. I’m a die-hard romantic and this love story is in the form of a comic book. Actually, the collection was based on superheroes and superheroines in everyday life and it’s kind of an ode to their heroism. We were thinking about how to take what the few select get to see on the runway and bring it to a wider public. What better way than a comic book?
GOB: Do the characters have superpowers?
PL: The superpowers are about transformation through clothes. It’s the clothes that give them the confidence that makes them walk upright, that makes them feel like they could destroy the day or kill the night wearing a good look.
GOB: Are you going to have superpowers on the runway?
PL: Walking down the runway with those kind of heels, that is a superpower. Actually, the two main characters in the comic book are my real-life friends, and the three of us, on the down-low, have a secret love affair. Not a real affair, but I know in my heart of hearts that they will end up together and I’m going to make their wedding clothes for a big English country wedding.
GOB: Fantastic. So, you’ll be like Alfred the Butler in Batman?
PL: Basically. But wait till you see the comic. We got a woman illustrator who worked for Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Star Wars. It was important to get a female hand on this because this comic book lives in the fashion industry, and they needed help to make things feel more sexy.
DH: Have you always wanted to do a comic book?
PL: No. I was never a video game or comic book person. I was just really into clothes. But I’m thirty-eight now, and the older I get, the younger I become and the more open-minded. And working in a different medium makes it fresh for me. For me every season is about trying to find something to inspire me. I think as you get older, you should become younger.
DH: I agree. I think that you stop trying to conform to what you think you need to be, and you realize that you can touch base with all the goofy things that you enjoy, and that makes you feel younger.
GOB: I like the idea that the characters get superpowers from clothes. I had a Ferr blazer, which I called my “deal-making jacket.” Every time I had a negotiation, it seemed to work. Do you have anything that makes you feel lucky or powerful?
PL: When I put on a beautifully made jacket . . . well, it’s almost a bad habit. I love a well-cut jacket, one that is tailored so that on the outside it looks nonchalant, but on the inside the construction caresses you like your mom’s hug.
DH: That’s kind of like underwear for women. I’m wearing a beautiful pair of underwear and a bra underneath a dumpy outfit, it gives me that inner confidence. You know it’s there, and nobody else does. You hold yourself in a different way.
PL: Does that make you feel naughty or empowered?
DH: Empowered. It’s almost a secret power that you have to trigger any kind of emotion, playful or naughty or glamorous, just knowing it’s there.
PL: That’s exactly how I feel that clothes transform people. People use clothes as their cape, their armor. I have a closet in my office . . . It’s almost like Superman’s telephone booth. I ride my bike to work every day, I roll up in shorts, looking like a college kid, and then I put on my business attire. I make the deals, go to meetings, then at the end of the day, I change into my creative clothes, and that allows me to be crazy.
DH: I change about three times a day. I change shoes about six times a day.
GOB: Do you make your own jackets, Phillip?
PL: I am the ultimate consumer in appreciating what other people produce. I love going into a store and finding something done just so right. But that happens less and less, because I feel that the direction of the industry is about more and more people having less and less time. But it’s not only about designers having time, resources and energy, it’s also that buyers don’t necessarily want what’s right. They want what is fast. They want what’s going to hit immediately. For me, that’s the biggest shame. So, I make my own jackets now.
DH: You’re so good at that attention to detail. You have a perfectly, fit coat that looks like you haven’t tried too hard, and you’ve just thrown it on, and then inside it is so to-a-tee.
PL: That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. For me the clothes should be your best friend. You go to them when you’re feeling bad, when you’re feeling sad. You can always rely on them. It’s not only from the outside, but from the inside; that’s where it all starts.
GOB: My wife is always ranting, “The buyers didn’t understand this collection at all, and they didn’t buy the best pieces.” Does that happen to you?
PL: Oh, every season. It’s such a big disappointment.
GOB: That must be one of the great things about having your own boutiques, that you can correct that.
PL: Exactly. That’s why we opened a boutique a year-and-a-half into our business. People were saying, ”You’re crazy; it’s not like opening a corner convenience store.” But we said, “Actually, it is, because it’s convenient for people to come and see what we really do.” Different retail outlets buy for their own reasons, which is fair, because it’s their business. But at the beginning I heard comments like, “Wow, I didn’t know you made gowns” or “I didn’t know you made trousers; I thought you just made T-shirts and dresses.” I would say, “Come to this address, and you’ll see that we make everything from head to toe.”
GOB: That’s so smart.
DH: You make kids’ clothes and men’s.
PL: And at Christmas, I make gifts for pets. I have a dog named Oliver, and he’s like my child. One Christmas, I made an Oliver special: a box of two cashmere sweaters and a leather leash. It’s really about, “Hey, come in and find something that you didn’t know you needed.”
And a lot of the times, too, I find that journalists don’t really take the time to understand where it comes from, why it comes, or how it has evolved. They just want to give three key words to a whole collection. They don’t realize that every single designer in every single house is different, and we have different ways of seeing things.
DH: But it’s art.
PL: I wouldn’t call it art. I think art is something that’s insane, and you take it as you want. Clothing, I think it’s more about craft—craft with imagination and blood and heart and tears and love as the ingredients, with textiles and some thread.
GOB: Saying that design is not art doesn’t make it any less creative. But design implies a relationship with a client. Fashion design is like architecture, because you have to take into consideration the particular needs of the people you’re selling to. In art, that doesn’t enter the process.
DH: Fashion is my art. For me, it’s an investment and it represents a certain thought or memory. It’s about how it makes me feel. It’s about the story that I may create in my head. So from a wearer’s perspective, I consider designers to be the artists or the painters of a portrait with me being the canvas.
PL: I’ve never thought of it that way. I’m using that! The next time someone asks me, “Do you think it’s art?” I’ll say, “No, actually, I think it’s the wearer’s art.”
DH: Sometimes I prefer borrowing clothes rather than owning them, because there are certain things I feel I can only wear once really well. I almost feel bad for the clothing cooped up in my closet.
PL: Sometimes owning is overrated. It’s more about experiencing.
GOB: Are you an art collector, Phillip?
PL: I met a dear friend of mine named D.J. about four years ago. She’s an art advisor and we met at my store in Soho. I always go there and change the mannequins and it allows me to observe people. She introduced herself, and we became friends, and she invited me to go to these galleries and events. I told her, “I don’t know what art is. I know what’s very pretty and what’s interesting.” She helped me acquire my first piece, which was hanging in a bathroom at the Gagosian Gallery. It’s a Sugimoto photograph of a Richard Serra sculpture called “Joe.” It was from a series of . . . I think twenty-seven different angles, and each was one-of-one. Since then, I’ve become like a very rabid student collector of art. Because as much as I might not realize it, it really seeps into my output. It really colors my world. But it becomes an expensive habit.
GOB: If you have good taste, it doesn’t go down in value.
PL: That’s the argument I give my business partner. I say, “Listen, some people invest in stock; some people invest in houses; I invest in things that hang on a wall.”
GOB: Is your design process different for men and women?
PL: I work the same way. The seasons overlap. I have to start with men’s, because men’s shows and markets are ahead of women’s. Sometimes I’ll have an idea of a theme, but I prefer not to do that. The way I am able to keep it fresh every season is to learn about the craft of clothes. One season I’ll study the shoulder, how to cut a very structured but relaxed shoulder. I’ll study everything that goes into it, and I’ll apply that to men’s and women’s. The next season, I’ll go into the knee. I work in a very microcosmic way that then expands into a theme for both men and women. Neither one is easier. You apply the same type of rigor and craft and construction to both, because you’re building a house for the body. I would say the men’s clothes are the boyfriend or the best friend or the brother of the woman’s clothes. They’re not identical, but you know they hang together, and that they’re birds of a feather.
GOB: I find that the best designers are the ones who are really involved in the craft of it, and in the architecture of the body.
PL: Yes. I love the body. I’m a human being with insecurities. I’m a human being with good days and bad days. But I have this slogan that I always use, and I put on T-shirts, actually: “Some days peanuts; some days shells.” I’m always looking for ways to present the peanuts and hide the shells. I have a question for you, Dree. What are you into now? What are you channeling now?
DH: I’m channeling outdoors and being around water. Is that weird?
DH: I feel like this year I’ve figured out who I really love and who I want to have around me, and what makes me feel uplifted and happy. I figured out that water makes me really happy, and fresh air, good food and having good people around. Also having things in balance.
PL: When people see you from afar, I’m sure they think of this fashion girl, a hip girl, whatever. But when I had a conversation with you, I was thinking, “She’s amazing, because she’s just a normal young lady who is in the process of finding herself.” It’s kind of a great contradiction between who you are and what you seem to be.
DH: I know people have this perception that I’m this wild child but that’s not who I am at all. I am hugely affected by fakeness. If I’m going to embrace somebody, I want it to be real, and I want to feel something from them. I can see how people have that perception of me because if I go out dancing, I plan on having fun. But I’m also very conscious of how I’m affecting people. When I go out I’m so nervous. I always put on this armor that I’m very cool and collected, but I’m very shy. You have to have the armor in the fashion world, because it can be draining if you don’t hold it in a little bit. There are events that you have to go to, and even though you want to be a real person . . . you can’t give yourself to everybody.
PL: Yeah. If you just keep giving, it’s giving empty things.
DH: A lot of the energy goes into what we do. I love taking pictures and I love acting because you can express a lot of that emotion and those feelings that you don’t get to portray in everyday life. It’s almost like through modeling and wearing the clothing that people have created, I can play this character but also show these real emotions that I’m feeling that I may not get to put out into the everyday world. I’m sure with your design, you can almost live vicariously through something that you put on paper, and it is one of the most therapeutic things anyone can do.
PL: It’s true. Sometimes you are set up with dates for events, and actually we have nothing in common . . .
DH: I find myself complaining, “Oh, I don’t want to go” and then I remind myself that I am in something that I’ve always dreamed of doing, and that I am so lucky. And I find that if I go in with an amazing attitude, I end up meeting amazing people. If you are real with people, they open up to you, and they start telling you things that you never expected to hear at a social gathering. You end up finding that you do have something in common. We forget that the people who are so successful are human beings, and they are really excited to meet somebody, and they get nervous too.
PL: Glenn, do you still get nervous?
GOB: I almost never get nervous. I’ve been through it all. But I am optimistic about new people. I think what Dree said is really true. If you don’t put on airs and you say what you think, you’ll get something out of people that you might not expect. They might turn out to be really interesting after all.
DH: Yes. I’ve also learned to try not to judge people. I try to let people be who they are.
PL: I always tell myself “Take it back down to zero” Every time I feel like I’m in that position, where I’m about to judge or be judged or a complete stranger is saying hello . . . in my mind I say, “Phillip, take it to zero; take it to zero.” The reason why I take it to zero is it’s a blank starting place for both parties.
DH: I’m going to take that “Take it to zero,” for myself.
GOB: But then eventually you wind up with a stalker . . . [laughter]
PL: This person has kind of become . . . almost my life coach in a stalker way. It never fails. Every month for the past five years I get envelopes from this person, and when I open the envelope it’s full of quotes . . . inspirational quotes and maybe there’s a press clipping about me. Every month, right before Fashion Week, I get a couple of them. I used to think, “What the hell is this?” Now I look forward to it. This person puts their initials and address on the envelope. So, I think, “They can’t be too dangerous.”
DH: Are they good quotes?
PL: They’re amazing quotes. He’s become like my stalker life coach. And it’s free. I don’t have any therapy. I don’t need to pay him.