“He’s my top seller, No. 1, absolutely,” says Jen Mankins, who owns Brooklyn’s two Bird boutiques. “It’s easy, not fussy, and”—here Mankins looks awestruck—“it’s designer quality at a contemporary price. My customers go crazy.”
Lim was born in Thailand to Chinese parents. When he was a baby, his parents went briefly to Cambodia, then fled the civil war. “You know The Killing Fields?” Lim says with his typical bluntness one afternoon over Diet Cokes at the Mercer Hotel. “That was our life.” The Lims wound up in Southern California, where his mother worked as a seamstress and his father as a professional poker player. “I think,” Lim says intensely, “I actually learned more from my father.” Shrewd risk-taking has served Lim every bit as much, if not more, than cutting and sewing, as has a sense of style cultivated from youth. “I would direct my mother when she made my clothes,” he says. He liked khakis and denim work shirts, everything simple and clean. “I look at pictures of myself when I was 5 years old and I think that, yes, that is exactly what I like.”
While studying home economics at UC Long Beach and working at Barneys in Orange County, Lim unpacked a box of clothing by the cool, cultish Katayone Adeli and thought, “This I understand.” Lim called and asked for an internship. “They said, ‘Great, bring a portfolio’, and I said, ‘What is that?’ ” But he talked his way into the job and moved into the position of design assistant.
When Adeli moved her business to New York, Lim decided to stay in California. A friend of a friend was in the surfwear business and heard that Lim was unemployed. “He basically said, ‘I’ll back you,’ and I said, ‘Great, but I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and he said, ‘Well, let’s try.’ ” That was in the fall of 2000, and the result was Development: a collection of simple clothes for girls in their twenties—basic colors, easy shapes.
Development was successful, but it was small, and in 2005, Lim’s bosses decided they were interested in the poppy sportswear trend that was defining California style: Juicy Couture, C&C California.
Lim was not.
Lim was bereft.
Enter Wen Zhou.
Wen Zhou can make you feel, in the course of a conversation, instantly lazy. She is small and unmade-up: She wears her hair in a ponytail; she looks more like an undergraduate than the massively successful garmento that she is.
Zhou’s background is similar to Lim’s: Chinese immigrant parents—her mother is a seamstress, her father was a dishwasher. She and Lim often say of one another, “We’re the same people, but one wears a skirt.” Zhou started in fashion selling buttons as a summer job; by the time she was 21, she was CEO of a fabric company, and Development was one of her clients.
“I saw Phillip’s stuff, and I just knew that it was good,” Zhou says. Like Lim, she resists the drippy descriptives of fashion-talk. Pressed, she says only, “I just knew.” When Lim lost his job at Development, Zhou sent him a plane ticket to New York. He arrived on a Thursday. She allowed him one day of misery. “By Friday she said, ‘Okay. That’s enough. I’m tired of you crying,’ ” Lim says. “ ‘Let’s start a company.’ ” On Monday, she put up $750,000 from her fabric business for Lim to get started. She gave him a room in her apartment, told him to have a collection ready in two months, and that he’d best think up a name, stat. Since they were both 31 at the time, and since being successful at a young age was so defining, the label became 3.1 phillip lim.