While being photographed recently at his flagship store on Great Jones Street in New York City, Phillip Lim spoke highly of his barber, Mark Bustos, who provides free haircuts for the homeless in his downtime.
It was evident that the designer admires Bustos and others who are making a meaningful mark on the world. Lim approaches his craft with pride, passion and social purpose. “We are making sure we get things right. That’s the authenticity and integrity of the brand,” said the designer.
Since launching his 3.1 Phillip Lim label 11 years ago, and footwear for the fall ’12 season, Lim has developed a number of core styles that are becoming standout signatures in stores. The label recently opened its third U.S. shop, in Miami, while counting 16 stores worldwide.
“We have the Alexa boot, the Quinn loafer, the Louie mule and the Kyoto boot: Those are four styles that [are all successful],” said Lim. “That’s a good batting average and quite an accomplishment for a very small independent company that’s not backed by a conglomerate.”
The brand’s co-founder and CEO, Wen Zhou, echoed that she is bullish about footwear as the category continues to grow at a fast pace. Shoes now make up 29 percent of the business at retail stores, and Zhou expects to see double-digit growth for the category in 2016.
“It’s a segment that’s exploding right now. We are seeing tremendous growth in our stores, and consumers are calling our shoes by name,” said Zhou. “We approach the category and offering with design integrity. The product has a point of view, and that’s why it’s been so successful.”
International expansion is also high on the agenda for the executive. “We are seeing growth globally,” she said, citing Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan as key markets in Asia. “The U.S., Europe and Asia are my priority.”
Key wholesale accounts include Saks Fifth Avenue, Shopbop, Nordstrom and Lane Crawford, with retail prices for shoes ranging from $450 to $795. Forward by Elyse Walker, an online shopping site founded by stylist Elyse Walker, has been working with the label since the footwear debut in 2012.
“Phillip’s shoes are firmly in rotation in our style closet — they’re everyday classics that complement the female wardrobe. They’re just easy year-round pieces that seem to work with any outfit,” said senior buyer Rebecca Brewer.
Lim spoke candidly with Footwear News about his design philosophy, the importance of adapting to the fast-paced industry and showing your true colors on social media.
How has the shoe category developed this year?
“The latest highlight was the success of our Kyoto boot. We launched several seasons ago, but we’re still getting our feet wet in understanding the category. It was nice to create something that resonated with everyone, including Beyoncé and Kendall Jenner. I was happy with the influence of this cool, effortlessly chic look. The style sold out. It’s crazy how fast the category has moved. We’ve established solid core styles, and as an independent company, that’s quite an achievement. It’s just the beginning.”
How does designing footwear differ from apparel?
“It’s completely different. From a creation side, shoes are like sculptures. Shoes have to make you stand tall, feel proud and feel beautiful. Clothing is a bit more contained, and shoes are a bit more wild. I’ve learned you can’t approach the footwear category like ready-to-wear; it would be unsuccessful. The craft of making a shoe, studying it — it affects people’s physiology. I think that goes back to the idea that the best and most successful shoe is the anti fast-fashion style. We can’t just produce it, copy it. You have to take your time to study the making of the shoes.”
How did you approach the spring ’17 collection?
“The line was an amalgamation of Honky Tonk and Victorian. It was called Midnight at the Victorian Rodeo. I am a huge fan of music, including Patsy [Cline] and Dolly [Parton]; they are my all-time heroes musically. I wanted a sense of nostalgia, but this Victoriana moment that came in was a reflection of what’s happening in pop culture. The idea produced this fun, nostalgic moment that is about good feelings all around. We are always finding a new proportion to push sensuality or look at shoes in a different way. At the end of the day, I’m a classicist. I love classic heels and classic structure, but at the same time, we can’t be boring. You always have to offer a new version of something that’s familiar.”
In a difficult year for department stores and retailers, how are you adapting?
“The word ‘adapting’ is key. The truth is even though you can do everything in your power to dot your i’s and cross your t’s, you’re in an environment that affects you. It’s a domino effect in the industry; you have to stay nimble and adapt. Even with technology, I approach the craft in an old-school way. But at the same time, I’m very curious about technology. How do you use technology to showcase that? I think that goes back to how we adapt — we have to remain true to ourselves. We make beautiful clothes and shoes and ask, ‘How do we do that in a way that’s nimble, fast enough, but not too fast?'”
You recently opened a store at Bal Harbour in Miami. What is the significance of this location?
“People know us for being based in New York as an urban brand. I’m from California and the beach, and I wanted to show a different side — a more sensual side. Miami was a great first location and foray into that climate. Not only is it a local community, it’s a global one that’s quite affluent. The store allows us to flex a different feeling.”
How does your retail strategy extend to international territories?
“For us, it’s about strengthening Asia and Europe. Right now, expansion should be super-calculated and measured. You can expand all you want, but if the world is in flux, you should maybe go back to the basic business foundation of supply and demand. You have to be buoyant with the global stages of the economy. For us, we’re still an independent company that can be nimble. If something happens, we can still adjust and don’t have 10 layers of people we’re reporting to. I hope that comes across in our clothes, in the shoes and the brand messaging that we try to convey.”
What are your thoughts on the buy-now, wear-now moment?
“I don’t see sustainability in that because we have to acknowledge that fashion exists on our planet. You can’t deny global warming, environmental changes, economic changes. How can we think about buy-now, wear-now, when we’re destroying [the creation process]? For my company and me and for the people, we believe in this idea to continue to fight the fight and think of things collectively. We aim to use technology to make things more efficient, but not at the cost of humanity. We believe in what we do and take the time to do it in the best, beautiful, authentic and integral way.”
You’ve collaborated with Target and, more recently, with Maya Lin. How do you decide on the right partner?
“I have a couple of fun ones coming up. It’s not always about a collaboration in the sense of the product. It’s about the audience and vibing with each other. To reach out to new people and a segment that you don’t speak to, that’s fascinating. At the end of the day, it also demystifies the idea of your target audience.”
What have you learned about your audience through social media?
“My handle is @therealphilliplim. It’s appropriately personal. You start to see the man behind the brand. There is a soul there, a company of souls. Marketing and social media and technology have changed the idea of how we do press and think about promoting. I love feedback. If there is a mishap in customer service, if they are unhappy with something, they let you know. It allows you to prove something with the product. Our intent is to serve the consumer, and we can’t do it if we don’t know what’s wrong. Of course we can’t be everything to everybody. It’s more about doing the right thing.”
What industry challenges are you facing?
“Instability is the best part and the worst part. Not only that, but the pace. The industry could literally turn on a dime: You don’t always know what’s around the corner, and for me, that’s exciting. Everyone always wants to be the best, and we want to be authentic. The challenge is how do you make time and create an environment where you can do that. I’m somebody who creates. I need change to understand and reflect the zeitgeist and how it keeps moving.”
Where is the brand headed?
“I’m thinking methodically about opening more brick-and-mortar stores. As we talk about technology and e-commerce, you have to balance that with physicality and tangibility. When everything exists in this space, when everything is visual and clickable, the magic is when someone puts on a piece of clothing, picks up a bag or slips on the shoes and has that ‘aha’ moment. I never want to lose that. I always get feedback: ‘You have the best people working for you, I can stay in stores and never feel rushed or pressured.’ That’s important as a brand message, not only as social messaging, but human messaging. In 2017, I want to think methodically about the way we can continue the brick-and-mortar grassroots efforts.”