How Phillip Lim Became an ‘Accidental Activist’

Fashion
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Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.

“An accidental activist.” That’s how Phillip Lim describes himself. Later, he amends this: “I just call myself activated.”

But the “accidental” part, at least, could apply to much of Lim’s life trajectory. He also considers himself to be “an accidental designer,” having never attended fashion school. After moving to New York “on a whim” to hang out with his friend Wen Zhou, who is now his business partner and the chief executive of his brand, he spontaneously created what would become his label of 18 years. “I arrived Friday; Monday morning we started 3.1 Phillip Lim,” he remembers. “I’ve always been like, ‘Why not? Let’s just roll the dice.’ My decisions are made on the fly, but when I do make that commitment, I’m committed.”

On March 10, 2020, “three days before the announcement of a full-blown shutdown,” the designer, who is Chinese-American, made a new kind of commitment: to speak up. He went on CNN to decry “what we were seeing on social media: Asian elders being harassed and targeted and bullied.” When host Brooke Baldwin first asked him to come on her show, he was initially reluctant. “I’m not an activist. I’m not part of the government. I’m kind of removed from this,” he remembers thinking. “However, what I can speak about is who I see being harassed. And he looks like my father, or my uncle, or people I know in my community.” The other thing that compelled him to raise his voice: “The former president was using the highest platform in the land to scapegoat a whole community on a virus that had nothing to do with race.”

los angeles, california march 21 enter caption here attends the fashion trust us awards 2023 at goya studios on march 21, 2023 in los angeles, california photo by charley gallaygetty images for fashion trust us

Lim attends the Fashion Trust US awards ceremony.

Charley Gallay

At first, Lim says, he felt acute imposter syndrome. “People come to me for fashion advice and hemlines, but at that moment in time, I figured that 80 percent of my company was this community. It was the most vulnerable elders: all my seamstresses, my tailors, all the Asian women who work with me…and it was like, ‘What kind of superman or superwoman are we waiting for?’ We must find it in ourselves to be our own superheroes, to figure out how we can take a stand.” With friends, he started the Stop Asian Hate AAPI Community Fund on GoFundMe, which has since raised over $7 million and is still “live and kicking,” he says. “It sparked and ignited a movement.”

Lim’s journey is very much his own, but it also mirrors fashion’s relationship with activism, which, yes, has always existed (look at New York designers’ concerted response to the AIDS crisis), but has undeniably intensified in recent years. Designers are speaking out about issues like racism, abortion rights, and gun control, while weathering “shut up and sing”-style commentary from some customers. As Lim and I talk about how fashion is inherently political, he mentions how much he admires the Telfar bag: “When you carry [it], everyone knows what you’re voting for. It’s such an identifier.”

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A look from the designer’s pre-fall collection.

Courtesy of the designer

For Lim, his awakening was about “having the guts to realize that [3.1 Phillip Lim] is beyond a brand.” Still, at first, “I was concerned about crossing that line between personal and business, using my platform with a brand that has my name on it.” He received a constant flood of messages. Most were positive, but some said things like, “‘Stay in your lane. I love what you do, but I just want to buy it. I don’t need to hear what you’re about,’ or even, ‘This is not really happening. Stop spreading false news.’ The whole mixed bag of what we are dealing with, with media today, was coming at me, too.” But he also heard from young people who admired him: “I always get, ‘Big brother, thank you. You’re very inspiring.’”

Now, he’s changed the way he thinks about speaking his mind. “What you are is what you do,” he says. “3.1 Phillip Lim is an Asian American fashion brand that is here for change.” And he found strength in numbers. With creative director (and ELLE alum) Ruba Abu-Nimah, he started New York, Tougher than ever, a line of minimalist merch that benefits the NYC Thrive Collective and the Immigrant Justice Corps. He created More Than Our Bellies, a food-centric community named after the cookbook he published in 2019. A percentage of the proceeds from his merch sales goes towards combating food insecurity. Lim also has a longtime relationship with Apex for Youth, which works with underserved Asian and immigrant youth in New York City. (Zhou is now on the board of the organization.) One of Lim’s roles is to help the young keynote speaker at the annual gala “feel like a million bucks to deliver this powerhouse of a speech,” via a sartorial transformation.

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Lim (right) with some other members of House of Slay: Prabal Gurung, Laura Kim, and Tina Leung.

Tyler Joe

Lim’s belief in being your own superhero recently became less theoretical. With his friends Prabal Gurung, Laura Kim, Tina Leung, and Ezra William, who became known as the Slaysians, “we came together and were like, ‘We don’t see superheroes who look like us, so why don’t we just create [some]?’” The group embarked on House of Slay, a comic book that portrays the quintet as superheroes. (Lim’s power is that he’s bulletproof.) While it’s exciting to see himself as a character imbued with special powers, “It’s beyond lifting a car or shooting laser beams out of your eyes,” he says. “It’s about showing up, speaking up, volunteering at community centers. It’s about helping an elderly person across the street, making sure that kids are not being bullied, that people who [are being] othered feel included.”

phillip lim

Courtesy of the subject

Lim and Gurung have also ventured onscreen with American Born Chinese, a series based on the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang that hits Disney+ on May 24. “It’s genre-bending, incorporating Chinese mythical gods and goddesses and putting them in a high school in the Valley,” Lim says of the project, which features Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, and Ke Huy Quan. Lim is creating the costume for the recurring character of the Monkey King, which marks his first foray into that field, while Gurung is providing looks for Yeoh’s character, the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin. (The two worked with series costume designer Joy Cretton.) When we speak, Everything Everywhere All at Once has just swept the Oscars, with Yeoh and Quan winning statuettes and Hsu securing a nomination. “Representation is everything and we can never take it for granted,” Lim says. “We have to continue to be vigilant in making sure that we’re in the room telling our own stories.”

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A look from Lim’s pre-fall collection.

Courtesy of the designer

And Lim is finally more comfortable telling his own. “A story like mine, from being just a fashion brand to being an Asian American fashion brand for change, that needs to be told. It is part of the story of evolution, change, inclusion, making spaces for surnames that are not Smith and Williams. It all adds up to big shifts. And it’s not about taking that credit. It’s more about putting a flagpole in the ground.”

It’s appropriate that, since so much of Lim’s philanthropy centers around the city, his recent designs pay tribute to his adopted home. I bring up his “I Heart Nueva York” T-shirt from spring 2013, which went street-style viral before “viral” was really a thing. He tells me he was just looking at archival editions of that shirt on a rack in his studio for his fall 2023 collection, which is heavily inspired by New York City. It’s part of an ode to NYC that began with pre-fall 2023, incorporating embroidered bodega flowers, souvenir T-shirts, and inspirations from the Statue of Liberty to West Side Story.

Growing up chafing against the conformity of Southern California, “feeling different was already such a disconnect. So when I came here, I was like, ‘This is where you’re celebrated. This is where differences are completely amplified, but completely normal.’”

With a grin, he adds that he’s coming up on 19 years here. Now, “I can call myself a New Yorker. Finally.”

Headshot of Véronique Hyland

ELLE Fashion Features Director

Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s Fashion Features Director and the author of the book Dress Code, which was selected as one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year. Her writing has previously appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast Traveler. 

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