Designer Phillip Lim Doesn't Want To 'Stay In His Lane'
Born in Thailand to parents of Chinese descent, Phillip Lim immigrated to the United States at a young age. Today, he is one of America’s top names in fashion, having experienced widespread success since launching his eponymous brand “3.1 Phillip Lim” in 2005. His designs, praised for their “cool, easy, chic” aesthetic, have been worn by household names like Michelle Obama and Gigi Hadid.
When the media started reporting on the rise in anti-Asian violence earlier this year, many in the fashion industry remained silent on the issue — but not Lim, who has long been an outspoken advocate for marginalized communities. In collaboration with Musa Tariq, CMO of GoFundMe, and others, Lim co-created the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community Fund on GoFundMe to support grassroots AAPI organizations nationwide. One hundred percent of the net proceeds from his New York Tougher Than Ever initiative, a project he initially started with Ruba Abu-Nimah to help underserved communities during the pandemic, are donated to the AAPI fund. In addition to regularly using his social media platforms to draw attention to racial justice issues, he organizes “Doing Something About It: Conversations about Culture, Community and our Collective Power,” a series of online discussions that invites industry leaders to talk about collective actions to help combat racism.
Lim recently spoke with Asia Blog about the changes he wants to see in the fashion industry, the task of bringing awareness to anti-Asian hate, the importance of solidarity, and more. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What was your upbringing like and how has your heritage influenced your experience as a fashion designer?
My family is originally from China, but my parents fled to Cambodia during China's Communist revolution and then again to America to escape the genocide in Cambodia. We came to America when I was a young boy and were placed in Orange County, California. We went straight into a very traditional and suburban lifestyle with the need to quickly assimilate. My mother was a seamstress and I was supposed to be either a business person, doctor, or lawyer — all the credible professions of an immigrant son.
Whenever people ask how my Asian heritage or culture has influenced my work, I always say while the influence isn‘t immediately apparent, it is experienced and felt within the design itself. In all Asian homes, we are taught early on the importance of upholding respect and value, because it is an essential part of our culture. While we are taught to respect elders, family, and people, we are also taught to respect possessions and materials. These core values are strongly intertwined in my design process — hard work mixed with integrity, value, and the intention of creating beautiful, lasting garments. This has garnered a consistent response from my customers. They can’t explain it, but they feel as though it was designed with love and with them in mind. I started 3.1 Phillip Lim nearly 16 years ago. I never imagined where it would lead me and how it has given me the ability to use my voice and platform to create change.
In this current moment, what more can the fashion industry be doing to speak out against anti-Asian hate?
The industry needs a real shift within. While companies and brands continue to speak out, it’s really about the actions that are being taken to create a more diverse space, whether this means hiring Asian creatives, stylists, photographers, models, etc. for shoots; or hiring more Asian decision-makers inside the big companies. This really goes for all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. We cannot start seeing real change until we start gaining representation in places where we can make impactful decisions.
Since you’ve begun using your platform to talk about issues related to race and racism, how have your followers reacted?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are hungry for conversation and being able to unify multiple groups of people — it’s been incredible. I am really proud of what we have been able to do just through social media — it’s been a critical part in amplifying our message and helping bring awareness and education. I’ve received a few less-than positive messages from people suggesting that I stay in my lane as an Asian American fashion designer. To them, my message is: There are no lanes anymore. Everything is interconnected. What is professional is also personal. When we are our authentic selves and commit to doing this work for the greater good, that is where real change comes from.
You recently helped to co-organize a Black and Asian Solidarity Run event in New York with the activist group Running to Protest. What does solidarity mean to you?
Solidarity means coming together for a common cause. It means showing up and standing up for what you believe in, and standing up for injustices that you may not think affect you or your immediate environment. It's acknowledging that they are real and matter to us all. At the end of the day, it’s a way to show up for marginalized communities and help bring strength and light to their message.
I am so proud of this initiative. It was started with myself, Musa Tariq, CMO of GoFundMe, Bing Chen, Robecta Ma, Vinh Long Nguyen, and the amazing team at GoFundMe. We felt a responsibility to establish a centralized platform to donate, raise money, and create a place where vital information could be accessed by anyone who wanted to combat the attacks on our community.
It’s important because it is bringing resources to different grassroots organizations, businesses, and victims directly affected by these hate crimes. The outpouring of support has been amazing and we hope this is just the beginning to creating different initiatives to give back and uplift our AAPI communities.
We hope that this remains a movement, so please visit GoFundMe.com/AAPI to learn more and contribute if you are able to do so.
Who are some of the community leaders that you admire for their work in the fight against anti-Asian hate and racism?
This is a community effort, so I am really inspired by everyone in our community, from the grassroots AAPI organizations, to the leaders in all industries that have been outspoken, and most of all, everyday citizens that continue to live their lives in their own truths. They are all leaders in their own way. They are out there being brave, embracing their culture, and being authentic every day — even when it feels like they are out there alone.