What happens when Nars, France’s makeup “provocateur”, meets Phillip Lim, American fashion’s boy next door? A range of elegant yet risque nail lacquers.
As far as collaborations go, French cosmetics house Nars scores top marks on the cool count. Who can beat its tie-up with the late, great pop icon Andy Warhol, or king of surreal fashion photography Guy Bourdin?
The 20-year-old beauty brand has always been slightly left field, making its mark with bold modern colours and products that tease with provocative names like Orgasm, Deep Throat, and Striptease. At first glance then, the choice of its latest partner seems a tad surprising. Not because Phillip Lim isn’t one of the leading names in the global fashion industry today (his recent collaboration with Target took all of 10 minutes to sell out – in small and medium sizes – across the US), but because the brand of creativity that distinguishes him is so resolutely down-to-earth. The boy next door among fellow CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) winners like Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler, his muses aren’t chic New York It girls or Hollywood starlets. They are his mother Hannah and business partner Wen Zhou – the women at the core of his vision – whom Lim calls “the heroines who live among us every day”.
Matriarch Lim was a refugee from Cambodia who escaped with her husband and six kids in a boat. She ended up working 18-hour days as a seamstress in a factory in Orange County, California. And though a generation younger, Wen Zhou rose from the same hardscrabble background – cleaning seams and packing boxes in a garment factory from 13. She co-founded 3.1 Phillip Lim with her long-time designer friend at the age of 31 (geddit, 31?) with $750,000 of her own cash. In 2009, she was named by Time magazine as one of 12 most innovative entrepreneurs in fashion. Lim astutely sums up their humble start: “We didn’t come from heritage, we didn’t come from working for famous people. It was just this desire to create clothes that were beautiful but accessible.”
The ease of Lim’s clothes and soft-spoken manner belie his own rocky path into the fashion fold. After graduating from California State University, he worked in the back rooms of Barneys Beverly Hills – packing clothes –before eventually securing a position at Katayone Adeli (he found her number in the Yellow Pages). Toil, practicality and not breaking the bank to buy a dress is therefore a deep-rooted philosophy that has informed not only his aesthetic, but every step taken in building the critically feted, multi-million-dollar business. This sensibility is apparent in his reasonable price tags, as well as his first foray into beauty.
For 14 seasons, Nars has been the only cosmetics house Lim has trusted to create the makeup looks for his runway shows. “I’m attracted to everything about Nars,” he says. “The packaging, the graphics, and the sense of luxury that isn’t too ostentatious.” Now, Nars is returning the compliment, inviting Lim to stamp his personal aesthetic on its products.
This month, nine limited edition nail lacquers by 3.1 Phillip Lim for Nars hit the stores. From Dark Room (a raw indigo denim) to Hell-Bent (a powerful red inspired by vintage bento boxes), the shades are moody, sexy, classic and deeply covetable. “I call them colours that exist in the shadows,” shares the designer. “At first glance, you see one colour in the daylight and at night, you see another colour. It also depends on what you wear. They are very transitional and very adaptable.”
The ingenuity of his designs lies in this multiplicity. His best-selling 31 Hour bag, a sleek yet surprisingly roomy zip-top carry-all, “is for the girl who lives, works and plays 31 hours worth each day”. The same balance of beauty and practicality applies to his signature Pashli satchel. “It goes back to the lifestyle of the Phillip Lim girl. She is real, she wears things from day to night and day to day.”
The complexity of the Phillip Lim girl – sweet, real, and steely – is what keeps her, and the colour palette of this latest collaboration, intriguing. “They’re not what you would typically find because they’re not true colours,” he says. “They’re actually colours that blend and appear to people as different tones in different situations; they always have such a dynamic quality.”
Two of his favourites are Anarchy and Gold Viper. The first is a hue he describes as angora. “It isn’t really a nude, it’s not ivory, it’s something in between; it’s reality, but a dirty reality.” The second is a shimmery shade of champagne. “It’s like an accessory, like jewellery, but it’s not silver and it’s not gold – it’s right in between. It works with silver and gold. If you wear it with silver, then it brings out the silver champagne shade, if you wear it with gold, then the gold will pop.”
“The strongest type of communication is conveyed without words, I know I tend to speak with my hands and I think women do too,” says Lim. It explains why he chose to focus on nail polishes. “For me, I imagine this woman, an enigmatic figure that everyone is curious about. Nails provide a snapshot from afar, but then close up you see all the finer details: clothes, jewellery and accessories.”
It also illuminates why his modestly elegant creations are such a hit worldwide, with over 400 retailers across the globe. “I want my work to speak for me. There are different types of designers: the revolutionary ones, and the evolutionary ones. I’m in the second camp; I never want to make a statement. I’m not looking to make a statement, I’m looking to evolve ideas.” It’s an attitude and thinking that is, in fact, also quintessentially Nars. Thoughtful, easy, and quietly provocative – now that’s a modern view of sexy.
This feature first appeared in the September 2014 issue of Female magazine