New York-based fashion designer Phillip Lim is the man with the dragon tattoo. "It has deer horns, rabbit eyes, fish scales, and breathes fire, because it has to make any environment work for it, like I have to," he says of his tattoo, just one of the many body art pieces that make up the creative map of his life.
His growing tattoo collection started when he moved to New York and, today, it covers his back and arms, each piece filled with a personal and meaningful story of when his life changed direction or veered off-course in some way.
Lim has had a unique experience in his journey as a fashion designer. Starting out as a business student at university, he went against his parents' wishes and dropped out to pursue a degree in home economics. He learned creative crafts, such as sewing and design. After getting his degree, he did an internship, followed by an assistant position at a design house. He then moved forward to co-found and design for the label Development.
At age 31 - hence the name 3.1 Phillip Lim - he relocated to New York and set out to build his eponymous collection, a line of exquisite designer clothing that hit a more affordable price point than what was on the market. With business partner and present CEO Wen Zhou, they carved out a new niche in the contemporary designer market, filling a major retail sweet spot.
Lim designed luxurious wardrobe staples, such as romantic dresses, silk blouses, tailored pants and outerwear, that retailed for hundreds of US dollars rather than the luxury market's usual thousands. He saw no need for women to have to sacrifice elegance for price.
"I have always had this awareness and appreciation for clothes and the transformative property they can bring. Clothing is the one neutraliser which is available for everyone. No matter what socio-economic background you come from, clothing is available."
Chic women of all ages immediately began to sport his youthful, wearable frocks and separates at red carpet events and casual lunches alike. His clothing is practical, confident, functional and injected with just the right amount of cool. His collections were well received on the runways and, with an arsenal of understated yet unique wardrobe staples, they were a hit with retailers as well.
His talents were lauded right off the heels of his 2005 debut collections and, in the years that followed, he won numerous awards. His brand now includes women's, men's, outerwear, children's, shoes, handbags and accessories.
Every year, he leads the designs for 14 collections - seven ready-to-wear and seven accessories collections. Today, the Phillip Lim brand can be found at 435 retail locations in more than 50 countries. The brand has flagship stores in New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing and Seoul.
The 3.1 Phillip Lim spring 2014 runway show during New York Fashion Week was held in a vast warehouse in Manhattan's Chelsea neighbourhood. Mellow tribal beats filled a room shrouded in a light fog and carpeted in crystal rock salt. The effect was ethereal, serene and peaceful. Lim showed 39 looks in a range of muted colours with pops of iridescent blue, green and gold. Channelling geode formations and raw landscapes and terrains, his colourful prints were captivating on silk, jacquard and scuba leather separates and dresses.
Lim falls into a thriving group of successful young Asian American designers. When asked about his contemporaries, he speaks more about their similar thought processes rather than their ethnic backgrounds. "This generation of designers is about how to make creativity work and to set an example and break free from what you are supposed to do, to see that there is more than that."
His ambitious work ethic is likely an outcome of his upbringing. Lim was born the youngest of six children to Chinese parents in Thailand in 1973. After immigrating to Orange County, California, he watched his mother work 18 hours a day as a seamstress. His attachment to clothing and interest in style came at an early age.
Lim has managed to see double-digit growth since year one, with projected revenues of US$70 million this year in the United States alone, all while staying self-owned and uninfluenced by bottom line pressure.
"I started to design clothes because it was natural and instinctual. I always had this vision in my head, and to this day I do the same thing," he says while fiddling with the buckle of a new bicycle friendly bag design, which he is personally road-testing.
"The whole idea is to never have a process. I have an innate way of doing things, but I am always open to inspiration and influence. The moment you try to structure things you lose the magic."
The designer has also built a strong digital footprint - something that is crucial for brands today - boasting more than 83,000 Facebook fans, 140,000 Instagram followers and 32,000 Twitter followers. "We're not so driven by social media. What we try to put out is relevance," he says.
In today's generation of over-sharers, Lim believes in a more thoughtful approach to sharing inspiration and information. "Some things need to be kept to yourself. We ask ourselves before sharing, 'What is the purpose?' [Sharing] needs to be inspiring while telling a story."
The brand has also built a Tumblr page called The Wall, which houses crisp, creative, inspirational images that indirectly reflect the 3.1 Phillip Lim lifestyle. Lim is keenly aware that as a designer building a global brand, every image he shares is a representation of his brand. "We are in the business of visual aesthetics, and social media has to also be [in line] with that."
Lim is collaborating with US$80 billion American mega retailer Target. He has designed more than 100 items of men's and women's clothing, bags, shoes, and travel and lifestyle accessories for the chain. The collection also features mass-market versions of the brand's most coveted items.
With all the momentum the brand has had over the past eight years, Lim continues to run his privately owned business based on intuition, creativity and staying true to himself. "You need to identify what you love, and constantly pursue a better version of it." And you have to know what you don't want. The rest, you will figure out." Samantha Lim
Debuted first women’s ready-to-wear collection in New York
Awarded Women’s Designer in “Rising Star” category by Fashion Group International
Nominated for the prestigious Fashion Fund Award by the CFDA and Vogue
Awarded the 2007 CFDA Swarovski Award for Women’s Wear
Opened first freestanding 3.1 Phillip Lim New York shop
Launched menswear collection in New York
Opened Seoul Fashion Week and opened fourth and largest store in Cheongdam-dong area of Seoul
Invited to present spring/summer 2011 collection at Dongbianmen Watch Tower of the Forbidden City Wall in Beijing in celebration of the brand’s fifth anniversary
Launched fully evolved accessories collection
Awarded the 2012 CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear
Opens first store in Sanlitun, Beijing