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Rediscovering Identity: The Significance of Phillip Lim's Fashion Comeback and the Quest for Authenticity


Editor’s This narrative unfolds as part of CNN Style’s ongoing initiative, The September Issues: A thought-provoking hub for conversations about fashion’s impact on people and the planet.

The atmosphere backstage at Phillip Lim's recent runway show during New York Fashion Week was charged with emotion, as the acclaimed designer marked his return after a four-year hiatus. Amidst selfies with celebrity admirers and interviews with the fashion press, Lim, visibly moved, stole moments with a close-knit group of friends, family, peers, and co-workers. Reflecting on the experience, he confided in CNN, "I'm not a crier, but I just can't stop."

The revival of Lim's eponymous label, 3.1 Phillip Lim, was fueled by rekindled connections—with his inner circle, community, and the city itself. He revealed that the label underwent a transformative process of "undoing the business and then rebuilding it" during the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. The result was a triumphant return, showcasing Lim's refined aesthetic through elegant draping, sharp tailored pieces, and vibrant citrus floral prints.

Describing this phase as the brand's "second act," Lim emphasized a deliberate departure from the norm. The runway not only featured the signature polished style but also introduced elements like dark denim workwear and the artful use of sheer fabrics on gowns and layered separates. This collection served as 3.1 Phillip Lim's response to the transformed landscape of the fashion industry in the pandemic era—a landscape where costs have surged, and creativity has faced unprecedented challenges.

In the words of Lim and the brand's CEO Wen Zhou, the adversity posed by the pandemic paradoxically elevated their craft. The necessity to navigate a changed industry compelled them to embrace a bold approach. This philosophy echoed prominently in the show notes, a customary feature at fashion shows. In this instance, the notes accompanying Lim's collection conveyed a deeper message: "If we use fashion as a vehicle, it requires context. If it's about a deeper purpose, people should be brought into the conversation."

As 3.1 Phillip Lim reclaims its spotlight, this narrative becomes not just a tale of a fashion comeback but a poignant commentary on the evolving ethos of the industry, where resilience and reinvention take center stage.

In a rare moment of candor, Phillip Lim laid bare the introspective journey that led to his fashion label's resurgence. "We took some time off the calendar to reflect on why we kept showing without truly showing up," he confessed in his notes, a candid reflection that resonated as a rallying cry for change. Addressing attendees directly, Lim, at the helm of the independent brand, underscored their self-financed endeavors and the nuanced negotiations involved, from the cost of seating to every meticulous detail.

"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 post-show discussions with CNN Style, Lim and CEO Wen Zhou delved into the profound themes of rediscovery, community-building, financial sustainability, and industry accountability. Lim, not a writer by trade, revealed the impromptu creation of his show notes—an unfiltered account of the industry's intricacies. "Let’s just tell it like it is—what people should know about the cost of the front row bench," he mused. The struggle for such fundamental elements, often taken for granted, became a metaphor for the broader challenges faced by independent brands.

Highlighting the financial tightrope walked by independent labels, Lim exposed the sacrifices made for a prestigious front row. "I had to really fight for those benches, even if it came down to the cost of (clothing) samples or the lights," he explained, emphasizing the cultural importance of providing seats to guests. The decision to showcase came with a hefty price tag—monetary and otherwise. "If I didn’t show, I would have saved, at minimum, half a million dollars. Probably more than that," Lim admitted. This potential saving, however, would have come at the expense of a crucial platform and moment of visibility for the brand.

In an era where these shows represent rare moments of respite for independent labels, Lim's revelations underscore the profound challenges and choices inherent in navigating the fashion landscape. It's a testament to the delicate balance between financial prudence and the imperative to assert one's presence in an industry that often demands both resilience and sacrifice.

In the current landscape of fashion's hyper-commercialization, where larger brands command astronomical budgets for runway extravaganzas, the struggles faced by independent labels like 3.1 Phillip Lim are magnified. Lim lamented the overshadowing effect of conglomerates, expressing concerns about being drowned out in this era of hyper big business. "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," he remarked, highlighting the stark contrast in resources.

CEO Wen Zhou shed light on the daunting decision to stage a show despite financial constraints. "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," she revealed, underscoring the resilience and determination that fueled their endeavors.

Lim's initial foray into fashion was fueled by a pure love for the art of creating beauty. However, the evolving landscape has transformed his vision into a broader mission—using fashion as a platform for shared values, empowerment, and community-building. Zhou echoed the sentiment, reminiscing about the founding spirit of 3.1 Phillip Lim, rooted in the daring question of 'why not?'

Reflecting on the past four tumultuous years, Lim and Zhou acknowledged the continuous challenges faced by their independent brand. "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," Lim disclosed, offering a glimpse into the relentless perseverance required in the fiercely competitive industry.

In the face of adversity, Zhou poignantly noted the metaphorical eject button presented to them during the pandemic-induced halt. Despite the option to take the safer route, the duo chose to stay in the fight, symbolizing the indomitable spirit that has been the cornerstone of 3.1 Phillip Lim since its inception. Their journey, marked by financial tightropes and unyielding determination, paints a vivid picture of the trials and triumphs inherent in the pursuit of independence in the fashion realm.

In the face of adversity and personal challenges, Phillip Lim found a resolute determination to continue his narrative. As he contemplated the possibility of walking away, he confronted the rise in anti-Asian hate and attacks on AAPI communities, a poignant motivation not to let adversity dictate his story. In a powerful metaphor, he invoked a Chinese saying, expressing that protecting the mountain—their company—would ensure a lasting flame. Lim's commitment extended beyond personal resilience; it embraced the responsibility to the talented individuals within their teams, a testament to the collective strength that fortifies their mountain.

During the hiatus, Lim delved into unexplored facets of himself, redirecting his focus to utilize his platform and amplify his voice. Rejecting the label of an activist, he spoke of being 'activated' to recognize the potential to share the fashion-built platform. In the risk of losing it all, Lim discovered the essence of his identity, a journey he embraced with love and authenticity.

The decision to stage the show became an embodiment of creativity and vulnerability. Lim acknowledged the power in reaching out and asking for help, a sentiment inspired by his friend, supermodel Liya Kebede. Despite reservations about financial constraints, Lim approached Kebede with a casual DM, an act of vulnerability that spoke volumes. In doing so, he shattered the traditional barriers of the fashion industry, inviting familiar faces back to the runway. Kebede's response echoed a profound truth—people are willing to help when asked, especially for someone known for giving their all.

Lim's narrative exemplifies the transformative power of vulnerability, community, and the resilience to ask for help when needed. In Liya Kebede's closing act on the runway, there was more than a model strutting down; it was a manifestation of solidarity, friendship, and the strength found in vulnerability.

In the intricate dance of fashion's resurgence, Wen Zhou, alongside Phillip Lim, emphasizes the challenging path of paying it forward. Their commitment extends beyond personal success to a broader mission—reclaiming space for New York City and nurturing the vibrant energy that fuels creative talents. Zhou illuminates the city's loss of talents due to prohibitive costs, a poignant call to action to create an inclusive ecosystem for emerging brands.

Lim echoes this sentiment, stressing the importance of intentional participation in an industry dominated by titans and conglomerates. The duo emphasizes the need to continuously carve out space and seats, cautioning against taking it for granted. Lim's perspective is rooted in the acknowledgment that he stands on the shoulders of a previous generation, driving a determination to ensure the next generation sees the authentic expression of passion and inclusivity in the fashion industry.

As they navigate market season, Lim and Zhou recognize the game-changing dynamics. Familiar faces, including major players and international stores, are returning, seeking partnerships. However, Lim remains pragmatic, cautioning against overpromising and drawing on the lessons learned from the buffet analogy. Reflecting on the past, Lim reveals the pitfalls of losing control in the pursuit of growth, where external pressures can shape a brand's identity. The current moment signifies more than a market resurgence; it's a testament to their intentional efforts in creating a lasting legacy.

Wen Zhou's and Phillip Lim's narrative weaves a tapestry of resilience, self-discovery, and a commitment to shaping a legacy that transcends the ebb and flow of market seasons. Their story serves as an inspiration for independent brands, emphasizing the importance of staying true to one's identity and purpose in a rapidly evolving industry.

In this new chapter, the journey for 3.1 Phillip Lim is distinctly self-funded—a testament to the autonomy of an independent brand. Phillip Lim candidly shares this truth, emphasizing its significance for emerging designers who might not have encountered this reality in their fashion education. His openness extends an invitation to aspiring designers, a gesture reflecting the brand's ethos of fostering change and sharing knowledge.

Lim's vision for change is comprehensive, marked by humility, purpose, and power. The aspiration is to broaden fashion horizons and contribute to making the world a more beautiful place. This ethos is not just a tagline; it's a commitment to a holistic transformation that resonates through every facet of the brand.

Wen Zhou echoes this sentiment, highlighting the brand's adaptability and refusal to adhere to predefined norms. The future holds a fluidity that aligns with authenticity. The emphasis is on doing what feels right, staying true to their essence, and resisting the pressure to conform. Zhou makes it clear that the act of existing in the unpredictable world of fashion, surviving and thriving, is validation enough.

In essence, this dialogue reflects a brand unbound by convention, embracing the journey with an authenticity that transcends industry expectations. Phillip Lim and Wen Zhou offer not just a glimpse into their brand's resilience but also a mentorship in the subtle art of navigating the unpredictable terrain of fashion with grace and purpose.

In conclusion, the narrative of 3.1 Phillip Lim's resurgence unfolds as a powerful testament to the essence of being an independent brand in a rapidly evolving fashion landscape. Phillip Lim and Wen Zhou's journey is marked by self-discovery, resilience, and a commitment to redefining industry norms. Their transparency about the financial realities of self-funding sends a crucial message to emerging designers, inviting a dialogue that extends beyond the glamorous facade of the fashion world.

As they navigate the challenges of an ever-changing industry, Lim and Zhou embody a brand for change—one that embraces a holistic, humble, and purposeful transformation. Their vision extends beyond the runway, seeking to broaden the horizons of fashion and contribute to making the world more beautiful.

The interview concludes with a powerful assertion of autonomy and authenticity. Lim's invitation to young designers to reach out for a conversation underscores a commitment to knowledge-sharing. Wen Zhou's declaration of embracing the fluidity of the brand's future, unburdened by predefined rules, encapsulates their resilience and refusal to compromise their identity.

In a world where the fashion industry often demands conformity, 3.1 Phillip Lim's story stands as a beacon of individuality, survival, and thriving in the face of uncertainty. This interview not only offers a glimpse into the brand's revival but serves as an inspirational narrative for those navigating the complex journey of fashion entrepreneurship.