Thirty minutes before his show, Phillip Lim sits alone in the empty stands. He has already told me, half jokingly, that he has never been to one of his own shows. "I see the pictures and video afterward," he says. So this is the closest he'll get to seeing the room, feeling the vibe. Of all the stages in a season, from concept to creation to presentation, this tiny window is the only part Lim doesn't love. "I hate it," he says, "the waiting."
Soon, nearly six hundred people will stream into Moynihan Station, a former post-office building a stone's throw from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. Thirty-nine models will dash from the hair and makeup tables into the dressing tent and emerge ninety seconds later, fully dressed, to line up single file behind a white curtain at the edge of the show space. But if Lim is nervous, I can't tell. Maybe it's the Californian in him. A distinctly Pacific calm breezes about the Orange County native, though that could just be the truckload of pink rock salt that covers the runway nearby. Amid this fog of dust and what should be chaos, Lim is confident, easy—you might even say Zen. (His preferred gift for friends is a book on wabi-sabi, a Zen Buddhism school of aesthetics that chimes with his own instincts.)
The calm demeanor belies just how big the stakes have become for Lim, professionally. Now in its eighth year of business, the company is projecting $85 million in revenue for 2013. New opportunities and new collaborations are knocking: NARS, with which he's launching a nail polish, and Target, which this fall debuted his capsule collection. (The result of five years of courtship by the retailer, it earned Lim the first congratulatory call he ever received from his mother.) Though he may act cool, his business is unequivocally hot.
Backstage, some two dozen dressers are finalizing the looks. The collection this season resembles the wardrobe of a new Swiss Family Robinson as imagined by Michel Gondry. The idea, Lim tells me, was to depict an order of flying nuns shipwrecked on some Atlantean isle where, over time, the survivor tribe's habits, deconstructed and adapted to the environs, would reflect the volcanic landscape around them. Leather dresses gleam with the iridescence of a Mexican cenote. Organza bomber jackets are woven with geode patterns. Their clothing appears to be rusting in a postapocalyptic sun.
It was a year into business before Lim began presenting, and the season following that, in September 2006, when he moved to the runway. Quietly at first, and then less so, his show has become a tent pole of a crowded New York fashion week, one of the highlights and must-sees of an increasingly busy schedule. It draws key editors in chief, retailers, and a sizable amount of international interest at a time when, globally, New York City's fashion influence is still lagging behind that of its European peers. Suzy Menkes of the International New York Times, Natalie Massenet of Net-a-Porter, and Angelica Cheung of Vogue China all sit in the front row.
Yet it remains hard to place exactly where Lim fits in the fashion zodiac. The fanfare is quieter than the breathless adoration that attends industry darlings like Proenza Schouler or Rodarte, and Lim doesn't have the identifiable cheering section of Hollywood alterna-stars.
In fashion lingo, Lim's designs are termed more "accessible" or "commercial" than many of his counterparts'—that is, they are crafted, and priced, to be easier to purchase and wear down Broadway. They are intended not for occasions or red carpets, but for donning every day. Implicit in this argument, often framed even in praise of his popularity, is that he is a lesser artist. The word wearability hangs out there as if it were an accusation.
Lim's supporters in the world of retail say he's pioneering a new kind of style that bridges the fashion and commercial worlds. "It's not designer, and it's not contemporary—he transcends age, he transcends lifestyle," says Joseph Boitano, a top executive at Saks Fifth Avenue. "He's really set the standard for a new area of business, this new young talent—think of J.W. Anderson and Alexander Wang."
"The irony of this brand," Lim says, "is that people think we are commercial. But I want to change c-o-m-m-e-r-c-i-a-l to c-o-m-m-u-n-i-c-a-t-i-o-n." Minutes later, from somewhere behind the runway, fog begins to billow, the music starts, and the assembled masses go silent, awaiting Lim's communiqué.
In the fall of 2004, on the very day he walked away from Development, the contemporary line he created from the ground up in Los Angeles, Lim got a call from his friend Wen Zhou. Zhou, an investor with experience managing fashion brands, told Lim she wanted to help him start his own line. Despite his past background—an apprenticeship-turned-job at the L.A. atelier of Katayone Adeli, followed by the creation of Development—he was unsure he wanted to take the leap. But Zhou was persuasive. She re-mortgaged her Manhattan home to raise $750,000 in capital to seed the start-up, which they called 3.1 Phillip Lim, a nod to their shared age, 31, at the time.
That first collection, for Fall 2005, presented only a matter of weeks later, was immediately picked up by the likes of Barneys and Nordstrom, and generated an impressive $1.8 million in revenue, a number that has swelled in pace with the critical fanfare. In 2007, Lim earned the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Swarovski award for womenswear, and then, as the company expanded, set out to explore the realms of menswear and accessories. Another Swarovski award, for menswear, followed in 2012. In June, Lim achieved the trifecta: the CFDA trophy for accessories designer of the year, a recognition, in part, for his world-conquering double-zipped Pashli satchel. At press time, Lim has seven stores across the U.S. and Asia, with a London store slated to open this winter, and a second New York City store planned for next spring.
Through it all, Lim has grown—both in footprint and personnel—until, two years ago, having outgrown a series of spaces, Lim and Zhou moved into a spacious, sunlit office with a whitewashed 5,000-square-foot studio in Hudson Square. In September, Lim gathered his trusted collaborators—including Nancy Rohde, who has styled all of his shows since 2010, and Daniel Peddle, his longtime casting director—to turn the Spring collection into a runway show. The team has an easy, well-oiled patter, even as droves of models begin to crowd the space. Lim has a specific idea of what he wants. "They have a presence," he says of his models. "But they are so gentle in person, so fresh. You see her eyes? They smile." On cue, 16-year-old Emma Waldo, fresh-faced and glinty-eyed, walks across the white-floor workspace for his approval. Lim nods and keeps nodding like he has just recognized his song on the radio. "I'm building a tribe," he says.
Two days before the show, Lim's team is in the middle of sequencing the looks, teasing out subtle affinities between them. Rohde and Lim are riffing, introducing a theme, a run of shapes, or a color motif, then transitioning to another. "The collection moves," Lim says. "It is a cat-and-mouse game, watching the idea grow and then striking 'This is it.' "
At the venue the night before the show, while several tons of salt are spread onto a NASA-silver tarp, Lim takes in the space, listens to Sebastien Perrin's soundtrack, likes the warming sound of the drumming, wants more salt, asks for the curtains surrounding the arena to be changed. There is a torrent of options, but Lim makes unalterable decisions with a nod and moves on to the next one, even up until the morning of the show, when it is clear that the lights are too cold for a summery collection. Lim asks for gels to be put in each of the many dozen spotlights, a job that may take hours and could delay the show. "Are we in the Bahamas or the North Pole?" he cracks. "Let's do it."
Then, in a blink, the show is over. It has come off without incident and, despite the gels, without delay. For all the money invested in its production—somewhere between $500,000 and $700,000, when the receipts are all tallied—it lasted less than eight minutes. "Right after the show," he says, "a big gauge for me is how everyone feels. If the team feels good about themselves, they're going to carry it on, to sales, to press, to production, to operation." Soon, the cycle will begin again.
As the company grows—it broke the 100-employee mark this year—so does the pressure to deliver. "What's at stake is, quite literally, tomorrow," Lim says. "There is a big part of this collection that needs to keep this company going. Or else there will be nothing."
But for now, there is plenty. Dotted with personal as well as professional achievements, 2013 has been a big year for Lim. On September 16, he celebrated his 40th birthday with his closest friends and a few tequilas. (He has a passion for, and a semi-earnest belief in, the healing powers of agave nectar.) He is renovating his Manhattan apartment and pruning years' worth of possessions ("a big deal for a Virgo") in the process. He has recently acquired a vacation cottage on the water in Southampton. "A big-boy buy," Lim calls it, "bringing Cali to me."
He has reached a point at which not just California, but the world is coming to him. Six months ago he added two key members to his creative team: two young designers who, in a move that would have seemed inconceivable only a few years back, left the hallowed halls of Balenciaga to join him.
If he had previously been laboring just outside of the spotlight's glare, those days may be behind him—even if, as he freely admits, his runaway success has been driven more by the thousands of devotees and Lim fans around the world than necessarily by the high-fashion powers-that-be that prefer to think they direct the spotlight's beam. Lim's runway shows on Style.com routinely draw more eyes than many of his higher-profile counterparts. And if the fashion industry's highest echelons have been slower to embrace a designer who is plainspoken about his collections and less concerned with hauteur and mandarin pronouncements about art and exclusivity, they, too, are coming around. Lim, ever calm, refuses to play the designer-as-dictator role. "When I look at art," he says, "it can't be just irony or a pose. We don't have an 'F-you.' It's an embrace. We try to make it so that the people who embrace it, embrace it even more."
This is the tribe. You are welcome to join.