Phillip Lim Harnesses the Power of Visibility

The designer expands his reach with a new collaboration alongside an unexpected partner: the Brooklyn Nets NBA team.

Last month, Phillip Lim’s designs showed up in a somewhat unlikely place: on the chest of the Brooklyn Nets’ shooting guard, James Harden. Harden, who is regarded as one of the top scorers in the NBA, peeled away his jacket while walking into Barclays Center—where the team was scheduled to play the Los Angeles Lakers—revealing the insignia Lim created exclusively for the Nets as part of a new merch line, which marks the first time the Chinese-American designer has ever collaborated with a sports team. The design, which depicts a tiger embracing the Nets logo and a basketball, is part of a collection that features t-shirts, crewneck sweatshirts, and hats celebrating the Lunar New Year and the year of the Tiger.

“A collaboration of this nature usually takes teams: you talk to my people and your people talk to my people,” Lim tells me during a Zoom interview from his home in New York City. Instead, his partnership with the Nets blossomed in a much more organic way: while the designer was at dinner with the basketball team’s chief of staff, Katrina Wu. “She asked me, ‘Would you ever want to do something for the Lunar New Year to celebrate with the Nets?’ I took my napkin from the dinner table and just drew,” Lim recalls. “There was no mood board. I just did it right there, while drinking wine.”

Although the NBA might not seem like a go-to for a designer like Lim, whose 3.1 Phillip Lim line has become a red carpet and ready-to-wear runway staple since its inception in 2005, he says the collaboration is much bigger as a concept. It’s a way to bring visibility and understanding to the Asian diasporic community on a global scale. “I’m so used to being in fashion—it’s an impressive audience, but it’s a bit more narrowly focused,” he says. “When you’re dealing with the NBA, that’s a different type of audience that you can bring diversity toward.”

How has the work you’ve done within the AAPI community over the past couple of years coincide with this collaboration with the Brooklyn Nets?

It’s really about being gifted this humongous stage. In sports in particular, the audience is so wide-ranging. It has that power to change minds and make people open to new cultures. I was at the game [celebrating Lunar New Year,] and they were announcing all the players in Chinese as they came out of the locker room. That was such a huge cultural moment, where you have a mega sports fandom being exposed to a different culture. It normalizes things and take them from a novelty space into a general arena. You’ve got to tackle this in all ways—from politics to legislation, to community to culture—to change people’s minds.

Do you feel that, through this collaboration, you are being introduced to a new audience that might not have previously known you or your brand?

Absolutely. It has that kind of reach. I have so many old high school peers that are DMing me, like, Whoa, this is so cool! They don’t even know my brand, or what I do.

What were you looking to for inspiration while designing this project?

I was looking at a lot of Bruce Lee. The way I approached it was: what would Bruce Lee do? For me, he’s always a hero. He’s someone you look up to because he was fearless. He was such a disruptor, even his line of thinking early on was so modern—and it’s still relevant to this day. But also what was amazing about Bruce Lee is, his fan base was so broad. It wasn’t just the AAPI community—it was the Black community, the Latinx community, the white community. He had this challenger spirit.

You were one of the first truly visible Asian-American designers during the mid-aughts. How have you seen the fashion industry change over time, specifically as it pertains to being an Asian designer?

It’s a mixed bag, I have to be very honest with you. I came into this industry in 2005. At one point there was a group of us that descended upon New York, but we did not know each other. We just all landed in the same couple years. People were like, Wow, it’s the Asian invasion. Even that phrase, if you look back now, it’s dramatic. It’s as if we’re coming to take something! We always have been here, but we were, at that moment, in the public eye because we were front-facing for brands, for companies.

But as fashion progressed and became more quote-unquote “open,” it was still selective. And right now, in fashion, people are looking at the one community that is allowed to be “the next community,” replacing another community instead of adding onto it to make a beautiful, colorful community where everyone has a point of view and everyone's relevant and has a special story. Instead, it’s a trend. We have to figure out how fashion stops treating communities as trends.

You’re constantly out and about with the Slaysians, Prabal Gurung, Laura Kim, and Tina Leung. What does that visibility do for a culture or community?

We started as the friend group called the Slaysians and we formed the House of Slay. Our idea was to be unapologetically celebratory of who we are, what we do, the lives we live, and each other. We started the House of Slay to form a fun space where people are included and empowered. And the [signature tag]line is: be your own superhero. If you find that in yourself, then you can inspire others, too—others that look like you, people who look different from what the status quo is, people from all walks of life. It’s important that we use our privilege in our positioning to really amplify this message.

What is some advice you would give to people who are looking to get more involved in their communities, AAPI or otherwise?

I get this question often, because it can be very daunting. We get used to just being an observer, an audience member. When in fact we all have communities, small or large. I would say, just start. Look locally—can you participate? Can you donate your time? Can you amplify through social media? If you have a platform or a microphone, lend it, so we can tell our own stories within work spaces, form groups that support each other, that support a diverse workplace. All these small things really add up to a new way of thinking. Whenever you can use access as an entry point to connect through your story, that it becomes a shared story, and it is normalized.