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Mr. In-Between

Phillip Lim just won a CFDA award for making pretty clothes at reasonable prices. By fashion standards, that’s a revolution.


Phillip Lim in his garment-district office.  

The tidy desk in Phillip Lim’s garment-district office is cluttered, one June morning, with so many dense, fluffy bouquets that he hasn’t even had a chance to unwrap them all. He gestures at a mound of peonies sent over by a major department store. “They’re courting me.” Lim, whose square jaw and underbite give him a look of preternatural determination, seems delighted but restrained. One can presume that another of the arrangements (the identical peonies, perhaps?) is from Barneys, with whom he is, among the New York department stores, going steady.

The previous night, in a humid lobby at the New York Public Library, Lim had been awarded the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent by the CFDA. In winning, he beat out three massively talented designers, all around his age (33), and stoked the fires of a creative debate that’s at the heart of New York fashion right now. The designers he beat, Thakoon Panichgul and the L.A. sister act of Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte, work in details and frip: dresses that look not unlike the elaborate petals on Lim’s peonies, for example, or an entire skirt done in oily, iridescent peacock feathers. Both make clothing deeply concerned with the art of fashion: exquisite, to be sure, and very expensive.

It says a lot about the state of fashion that the winning young designer is not someone interested in reinventing the wheel but rather in perfecting it to a smooth, easy, uncomplicated ride.

Lim is not deaf to fashion’s artistic whimsies, but he is acutely aware of commerce. That tidy desk is in a sunny corner of a 10,000-square-foot design floor buzzing with an efficiency rare among designers in the “emerging” division. On a wall there are sketches of Lim’s first freestanding shop, which opened with a crowded party early last week: It’s an airy duplex in a fancy part of town, with double-height windows and groovy design.

Fed by a stream of celebrity tabloid culture, fashion television, and Websites, people are madder for fashion at the moment than they’ve ever been, and yet so much fashion is so far out of reach; blame it on the mighty euro, blame it on the brutal economics of small-scale production, but clothes have never cost more. Inexpensive chains led by that Swedish hothouse H&M address the craving with quick knockoffs, but the quality is often lacking, and the clothes too faddish to have much of a shelf life.

Enter Phillip Lim. He’s not a big talker, like other designers can be, about certain movies or style icons or villages in the south of France. He doesn’t wave his hands around or make campy jokes or reference obscure pop bands. When he offers descriptions of what he does, he is blunt and direct. “Classic but twisted,” he’ll say, which is somewhat clichéd fashion-speak for the updating (usually the trimming down) of classic patterns. Lim has been in business only since 2005, but his collection is already in 300 stores. Last season, he did $12 million wholesale—and that was without licenses for sunglasses or perfume or extra-low-price shoes (although he has recently done collaborations with Birkenstock licensee Tatami and the Japanese retailer Uniqlo).

Because here’s what Lim and his business partner, Wen Zhou (more on her below), have figured out: Women want very much to buy capital-F fashion, but they’d like to be able to afford it and, once in it, they’d rather not look absurd, as can happen when shapes expand (volume!) and contract (minis!). The Lim look is simple and directional enough to count as a designer (it often hangs alongside Miu Miu and See by Chloé), but not so complicated that it’s challenging to wear—like a distressed Marc Jacobs cocoon or a narrow, shiny Proenza Schouler corset. In any given Lim collection, there are peacoats, simple silk blouses, and very few patterns. The clothes are not exactly minimalist, but they are not exuberant, either. When they are embellished, it’s tame: a small bow, a slight ruffle, uniform embroidery. And mostly, the price is right: Dresses hover in the $300 to $600 range. This spring, a T-shirt dress covered in appliqué roses came in black and white and cost $495. It sold out almost immediately. Coach creative director Reed Krakoff, who knows quite a bit about mass appeal, says, “Phillip’s clothes are very easy to understand. It sounds logical, but things don’t always come together so well.” Simplicity, it turns out, is not that easy.

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