Cover Phillip Lim in his art-filled SoHo loft (Photo: Wichmann + Bendtsen for Tatler Hong Kong)

The fashion designer Phillip Lim spent years perfecting the quintessential New York City artist’s loft, but months of confinement have led him to better appreciate the value of self-expression

The fashion designer Phillip Lim moved into his SoHo loft in 2007, originally occupying a one- bedroom flat on the fourth storey of a century-old cast-iron building that is evocative of the quintessentially industrial glam of downtown Manhattan. It’s the kind of place one imagines was previously occupied by all sorts of cool artists in the Seventies and Eighties, when SoHo was the dirt-cheap no-man’s land of New York City lore. On its façade, each storey features six majestic, three-metre-tall arched windows, though Lim’s original flat sadly faced a different direction.

Four years later, when his neighbour offered to sell his street-facing apartment—“an Eighties finance-bro bachelor pad with metal blinds, the bed at a diagonal and one giant TV”, as Lim puts it—the designer snapped it up and combined the two units into a sprawling, light-filled 3,600 sq ft home. The dream loft is the result of an 18-month renovation with architect Joe Nix, the husband of Lim’s senior brand director Maria Vu. “He was just out of school and it was his first commission,” says Lim, who prefers to work with young architects. “The good part is, their minds are so open. I wanted to work with someone who wouldn’t fight me, wouldn’t resist making a home for myself and not in their vision.”

Lim’s vision is all his own, an eclectic mix that feels like an intensely personal collection as opposed to a curated showroom. His eye for design is a natural extension of his career in fashion, but one that has also been carefully cultivated through his enthusiasm for research in other fields.

Off the foyer, its floor done in rich Rose Brescia marble, is an office filled with pieces acquired from various travels, charity shops, local markets and dealers. Built-in shelves display a collection of ceramics, pottery and objects. “Some things are, like, US$5, like that Japanese malachite box,” says Lim. “In the old days, they would make the box look beautiful so it was the equal of the gift inside.” There’s a piece of wood picked up in Coney Island after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and a US$50 vase from a student art show. “Next to it is a marquetry box from 17th-century Japan, which is a bit more expensive,” says Lim.

Above a shagreen desk is Robert Longo’s Study of Z. To the right hangs a yellow Helmut Lang sculpture, just a taste of the art that fills the rest of the expanse. The parlour, drenched in midday light, features white smoked oak floors in a French herringbone pattern, each slat meticulously measured at 31 inches long (a reference to Lim’s brand, 3.1 Phillip Lim). The room is set with a mixture of the unexpected—a vitrine showcases a design of bondage-like leather body armour by the London- based leather worker Úna Burke, a collaborator of the late Alexander McQueen—and the blue chip. A sitting area includes a custom George Nakashima Conoid bench and a 1920s Transat chair by Eileen Gray, as well as an Yves Klein glass coffee table filled with his signature blue pigment. “The colour is always changing depending on the season and humidity,” says Lim, “so it’s alive.” The shades remind him of California, where he grew up.

Likewise, the art is always evolving. A photograph of Patti Smith shot in Coney Island by Steven Sebring is about to be swapped out for a new piece by N Dash, an American visual artist whose work Lim has been collecting since 2010, when she was still a student in Columbia University’s MFA program. He now owns about six of her pieces. “I’m not a collector in that sense of, ‘Let me collect and invest so that I can flip it,’” says Lim when asked what he likes about N Dash, whose profile has risen considerably. “It was just something that I was attracted to.”

Leaning against a wall, two industrial pipes by Lang, the seminal Nineties designer who famously gave up fashion in 2005 and now works as an artist, are painted in a chalky shade of pink inspired by Lang’s friend and mentor Louise Bourgeois and encrusted with clothing remnants from his own archives, which he shredded as an act of disavowal. There are also works by Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

The back of the loft has a more casual, lived-in vibe thanks to an open kitchen and a living room anchored by gigantic twin Shabby Chic white linen couches positioned back-to-back, begging to be flopped upon. “I always say to people, ‘I don’t have other bedrooms; I have a big couch—you can couch surf,’” he says. A practitioner of balance in all facets of life, he installed a black leather Hermès swing to offset the natural ethos of the couches and his flourishing plant collection. “When I first moved here, I was like, ‘I have to live in a loft,’” Lim says. “With lofts you always have that cliché swing.”

 

Much of the furniture is Scandinavian—Lim favours Modernlink, a shop on Bond Street in New York City—yet nothing feels contrived. He puts this down to human touch and energy. Anyone who closely follows Lim’s career or his Instagram account knows that he is a disciple of mindfulness and being present in everything he does, down to his furniture. “The way you display everything, the way things sit, the way things are next to each other too—there is a natural law,” says Lim. “It’s about honouring everything and giving it respect.” He paraphrases Nakashima’s design philosophy, put forth in his book, The Soul of a Tree: A Master Woodworker’s Reflections: “Basically he’s like, ‘I am taking down this majestic soul. The least I could do is return it into another state where it would outlast the tree itself, into beautiful works of art that people would never discard.’”

Yet for all of Lim’s effort and attention to detail—not to mention money—put into this masterful domicile, as irony would have it, it wasn’t until Covid-19 forced New York City into a lockdown that he had a chance to really live there and enjoy it. “I would just be at work all day,” says Lim. “It was like that was my real home. Then here I’d be asleep at night, and that was it.”

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Grounded in quarantine like everyone else in the city last year, Lim converted his dining room, separated from the main parlour by a Nero Marquina marble partition, into his workstation. The table is surrounded by original Marcel Breuer Cesca cane chairs, and behind a custom birch wall is a convertible bar. The energy in the space proved inspiring for Lim, who had been re-evaluating and moving away from the unrelenting pace of the fashion machine even before the pandemic forced the entire industry to reset. “We have literally done more in this time period than ever, but in a way that is more efficient and more purposeful,” he says.

 

Lim and his business partner in 3.1 Phillip Lim, Wen Zhou, rethought the business, downsizing their office space and converting the basement of its Great Jones Street store into a makeshift headquarters. Last November, they launched Live Free, a capsule of essential clothing of the chic, minimalist work and athleisure variety that has a chemical-free, antibacterial surface treatment. It is sold exclusively through 3.1 Phillip Lim’s website and stores.

Separate from the 3.1 brand, Lim took time to nurture a few personal passions. Responding to the tragedies of the last year, Lim created “New York. Tougher Than Ever”, a capsule of limited-edition, screen-printed logo sweatshirts and T-shirts, in collaboration with the creative director Ruba Abu-Nimah, with 100 per cent of proceeds going to charities, including Thrive Collective and Immigrant Justice Corps. In September, they launched “Beirut. Tougher Than Ever”, with net proceeds donated to the Lebanese Red Cross and the Slow Factory Foundation to help communities affected by last year’s explosion in the port of Beirut

Then there’s More Than Our Bellies, a platform that began two years ago with a cookbook of Lim’s personal recipes, many passed down from his mother. It’s a beautiful book, designed and art-directed with the photographer Viviane Sassen, with whom Lim has worked on several fashion campaigns. “It sold out in five days,” Lim says of the original release. Last October, he launched @MoreThanOurBellies on Instagram, a place to share recipes, inspirations and future projects and collaborations outside fashion.

Far from a professional chef, but a very impressive amateur, Lim got into cooking four years ago, basically because he missed his mom. “I grew up in my mom’s house, which is so traditional. Everything is natural foods and yummy aromas,” he says. “I got to the point where I was kind of building my own prison [professionally] and everything felt detached. That’s when I just flipped the switch and was like, ‘No, I’m going to find my way to crawl back and reattach.’”

The Instagram feed is full of food porn posts, uplifting messages and instructional, amusing videos. One features Lim and his friend, peer and fellow professional-grade amateur chef Laura Kim, the co-creative director of Oscar de la Renta and Monse, making pâté chaud. One of his goals is to evolve More Than Our Bellies into a marketplace to showcase local makers of books and artisanal, rare things. Another is to grow it into an anti-hunger charity. “There’s no plan,” Lim says. “I’m just having fun and exploring another side that just has nothing to do with fashion.”

To a great extent, being home, at a remove from the grind of the seasonal calendar has nurtured Lim’s new creative outlook. If he wasn’t before, he is certainly sympathetic now to all the corporate slaves who pleaded for WFH benefits pre-pandemic. “What's been great about working and being productive from here is that I understand more what makes me happy,” Lim says. “A framework is very important, but having freedom within that framework is even more important.”

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