During Wen Zhou's hardscrabble childhood in Ningbo, China, luxury meant the egg she was allowed on each birthday. "I came from a town that had no plumbing, no heat," she says. "We were simply looking to survive." In 1985, Zhou, her parents and her sister moved into a tenement apartment in New York City's Chinatown. She was 12 and spoke no English. Her father found work in restaurants, and her mother sewed in a garment factory. Not the expected background for a burgeoning fashion mogul. But that's exactly what Zhou became. At 35, Zhou is one of the most respected leaders in the business. And 3.1 Phillip Lim, the New York label she launched with the eponymous designer in 2005, is a nearly $50 million company, making clothes for women, men and kids, along with sunglasses and leather accessories. As president and CEO, Zhou oversees 65 employees. The collection is sold in 400 boutiques in 45 countries and in four freestanding stores, including one opening this month in Seoul. Future stores are planned for Japan, China and Europe.
Designer Lim has found success in balancing classic wardrobe staples with the unexpected details of high fashion. But the magic of the clothes might be the price: most sell for less than $500. "Phillip and I are from a similar background," Zhou says. "We never had a lot of money for clothes, but we wanted to look good. We felt it in our gut." The team's vision raised the bar in the long-dormant bridge business, as entry-level designer clothes are called. "When we started, the younger market was flooded with femmie, girlie clothes, and the bridge market was dying. We knew we wanted to be in that market. We wanted to shop in the designer market but at contemporary prices," says Zhou, whose decision to produce the clothes in China means prices are kept to one-third of their European-made counterparts'. Today, luxury has a new meaning for Zhou. The 3.1 label helped change consumers' perception of the word. "We make a luxurious product," she says. "It just doesn't come with the standard luxury price tag."
Zhou has always worked. At 13, she cleaned seams and packed boxes in the factory alongside her mother. "I made 7 cents a garment," she says with pride. Later, with money from after-school jobs, she paid for classes in marketing and business at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology. After landing her first full-time position, cutting swatches for a textile manufacturer, she was promoted to sales. At 21, she started a business selling fabric and, at 26, another for offshore clothing production. "She has great instincts and wisdom for a young leader," says former Barneys CEO Howard Socol, who was instrumental in the brand's early success.
Fashion was an obvious choice. "The thing I remember from childhood is the soothing sound of my mother's sewing machine putting me to sleep. It's nostalgic to me," she says. Zhou feels no resentment about her early hardships. "I wanted to do better." And she has. She makes sure her Chinese labor force has clean factories, minimum wage and insurance. "No one should be hungry," she says. Luxury, indeed.