Two years ago, I tried on a 3.1 Phillip Lim dress at a local boutique. It was a lightweight wool with a delicate floral print and it gathered in an ingenious knot in the front. I've never had a dress fit better; the pliable fabric draped perfectly around my body. I looked at the price tag—almost $500. It was more than I had ever spent on a single item of clothing before, so with a heavy heart I backed away from the frock. Afterward, I couldn't get the dress out of my head. I went back to that boutique and tried on the same dress four more times before taking the plunge. I had to have that dress, and though it is definitely what they call an "investment piece," I could afford it as a classic that I would keep for years.
Phillip Lim is designing explicitly for women like me. As he told Harper's Bazaar in 2006, the year after he launched his eponymous line, "I'm making clothes that look like they could work in a designer market, but they're for people with day jobs, bills, and other things they want to spend their money on." This is his major innovation—he's managed to make highly stylish designer clothes at a less-than-outrageous price point. While the construction, craft, and attention to detail of 3.1 Phillip Lim are on par with fashion lines like Stella McCartney, Céline, or Chloé, his clothing sells for hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars.
Although the difference may sound arbitrary to those who shop only at the Gap, it's actually a powerful indicator of how fundamentally Lim has reshaped the marketplace. Before Lim and a handful of his peers hit the scene, the midrange price point was dominated by the dowdy, second-tier brands of big name designers—think Calvin Klein's CK line, which was so popular in the late '80s and early '90s. Now Lim has set a benchmark for affordable excellence, and contemporaries like Alexander Wang, Rachel Comey, and Isabel Marant all sell to working women who want to own something truly special.
The 3.1 Phillip Lim line (the 3.1 is a reference to his age—31—when he launched it in 2005) didn't just energize the market; it dominates it. It is sold in more than 400 stores internationally, and Lim—who studied finance at Cal State Long Beach before he went into fashion—is a pragmatic businessman who manages to keep production costs low while never skimping on quality. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year, he gave the following advice to aspiring designers:
Don't be too enamored with just one side of the industry. I have so many friends who are so creative and so special in the way they think, but they don't know how to structure and deliver that energy, so in the end it just dissipates, and nothing gets achieved, the end result never is fulfilled.
Lim has figured out just how to structure and deliver his own creative energy. I wear that gem of a floral dress whenever I want to feel confident, and it was worth every penny.
View a slide show of Lim's designs here.