It's a tricky word. Depending on tone & expression, it can be the highest of compliments or the meanest of sneers.
In 2007, Phillip Lim won the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent from the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America). Also nominated that year were Thakoon Panichgul and Kate & Laura Mulleavy, the designers of Rodarte. All of them are still in business; all of them, as a matter of fact, are thriving. Not all of them are "commercial."
The Sisters Mulleavy seem to have no interest whatsoever in being commercial. Their clothing has developed a nearly-cult following among the cutting-edgiest of fashionistas on our two coasts and abroad. My guess is that there are huge swaths of middle America who've never heard of Rodarte, and my other guess is that the Mulleavys don't care. Rodarte has gotten increasingly "design-y" over time. Their work is what we in the biz call "editorial," which means it looks fantastic in photos in W, but is not likely to be something an actual human would wear. (This does not mean it's bad by a long shot -- I think Laura & Kate Mulleavy are hugely talented, I love looking at their stuff.) Their prices, also, are not commercial. Astronomical, more like. Four-figure skirts are not uncommon. And good luck even finding any of it -- quite a lot of googling reveals only a few online portals that carry it, and the "stockists" section on their website is pretty meager.
Thakoon is perhaps a little better-known, although still not exactly a household name. His designs are a lot more accessible, and his prices are slightly lower, but his dresses will still often set you back close to two grand.
Phillip Lim, on the other hand? Well, by the time he won the above-mentioned award, he was in 300 stores, and I'm guessing it's more now. And his most expensive dresses price out at about where Thakoon's start. Phillip Lim? Is commercial. He and his business partner Wen Zhou are determined to keep their production costs down and by doing so keep their clothing more affordable. You will usually find Phillip Lim's clothes in the "Contemporary" or bridge section of a high-end department store. His price tags would look very out of whack hanging with the Lanvins and the Posens and the Proenza Schoulers.
His clothes would not.
You do not have to reinvent the wheel every four months to be a good designer. You just have to make attractive, flattering clothes that have a point of view.
Phillip Lim knows how to do this. He does it really, really well. I'm crazy for the shape of these pants. They're trouser-y and slouchy without being ridiculous. I have one pair of 3.1 slacks of my own and I absolutely adore them. Kate Hepburn would have loved Phillip Lim's pants.
Red patent trench coat? Sign me up. If you don't love that, your heart is made of stone. (Or PVC.)
Season after season, Phillip Lim comes up with a collection of clothes that are somewhere in between basics and thrillers and even in this economy, he is King of the Sell-Through. ("Selling through" means that all the stuff you send to a store gets bought. By actual customers. With real money. Which is a phenomenon that a lot of designers haven't experienced in quite a while.) As much 3.1 as you see on the floor in a Neiman Marcus or Barney's store, there's surprisingly little of it at those outlets. (Random thought: You know what there's always a lot of at the Austin Last Call? Escada. Really blah, dowdy Escada.)
As would this very, very perfect tuxedo. Think how much even sexier that would be on a woman who looked older than 12!
There were bags in this collection, I think for the first time. It will be interesting to see what their price points are -- whether Lim will succumb to the allure of the easy money to be found in the It Bag, or whether he stays true to his ethos of making affordable clothes.
If he does keep the prices reasonable, that bag is going to be really hard for me to resist. That's fantastic.
If he's good enough for Christian Louboutin, who's evidently doing his shoes, he's good enough for me.
This is the second show I've reviewed with a big emphasis on the two-tone, spectator-flavored shoe. I love it. And oh, these are so good.
Helloooooo, nurse!! Good googly-moogly, those are FANTASTIC.
There were a couple of missteps, of course. Remember what I said about women not liking their pants to be too funny-shaped?
I guess technically they're leggings? Maybe? Leggings are HUGE right now in the fashion-y world. Every possible permutation you can imagine are showing up -- sequined, zippered, shredded, leather, lycra, lace... you name it, someone's finding a way to incorporate it into a legging. Whatever these are, I'm not thinking I love them.
And this, while plenty interesting, is a little too familiar.
It's way too much like this and other dresses from Rodarte Fall 08:
Although I do really like it from the back. Lim is a big fan of the exposed zipper.
This next is great from the front and back. Easy, fun, slouchy sequined t-shirt dress from the front:
Sexy double-take maker from the back. This one will sell through, and do it fast. Great dress.
I love the combination of the sequined fabric and the easy-to-wear shape.
More good sequins.
Another shape I love:
This boxy jacket is a bit reminiscent of the 80's, but it's not so extreme it's costume-y. (If you're in your mid-40's like me, the 80's are a time in fashion viewed with cautious fondness.) And again, I really love the shape of those trousers.
There was a whole section of dresses that managed to be really cool and yet really pretty.
I like the combination of fabrics and I just love those crystal pleats -- that's one of my favorite textures.
This one was my favorite:
See what I mean about the leather? Tellin' ya -- it's everywhere.
Lim's clothes do skew a little young, as befits his place in the Contemporary section, but there are always plenty of pieces in every collection that a grow-up can easily work into her wardrobe. Like I said, I have a few bits of 3.1 in my closet and I plan on acquiring some more. I predict a long and successful career for Phillip Lim. I think he will continue to be rewarded for trying to keep real women and their budgets in mind when he makes clothes. His stuff is wearable but hip, well-constructed, and his sizing is reasonable and consistent (it shouldn't matter, but we know that it does, don't we?). He's one of my current favorites, and I live in fear of the day I see a headline telling me that he's being bought by LVMH or the Gucci group.
I continue to plow dutifully through all the runway coverage. It's slow going, but keep checking back here for more!