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Lim climbs the ranks of New York's fashion elite

He may be one of New York's hottest names in contemporary fashion right now, but Phillip Lim's heart is in California's Orange County, where he grew up. Or at least his tummy is.

"I miss all the food in Little Saigon," said the 33-year-old designer, who can count celebs such as Michelle Williams and Kate Hudson as fans of his eponymous 3.1 phillip lim clothing collection. "My mom still lives in Westminster so when I visit, it's a ritual of mine to go to Little Saigon."

Recently, Neiman Marcus at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif., welcomed Lim for a meet-and-greet with fans and a casual showing of his spring collection, which received glowing reviews during the runway shows last fall.

"I've always loved clothes, the possibility of what clothes can do for you," said Lim, who donned a fitted navy blazer over a white button-down shirt, faded jeans and worn brown boots. "I just never realized I could do this for a living."

After launching 3.1 in 2005, Lim has developed a reputation in the industry as a fast-rising star with a knack for tapping into of-the-moment fashion with flattering and wearable proportions. He's been likened to other contemporary heavyweights such as Marc Jacobs and Alber Elbaz for Lanvin.

Lim decided on his career choice after high school. He began majoring in business at Cal State Long Beach, but soon realized it wasn't what he wanted to do. So he switched over to fashion.

"Coming from an Asian background, my mom thought I was crazy," recalled Lim, who is of Chinese descent. "She was a seamstress so she was very disappointed and said, `I can't believe we're sending you to school so you can learn how to sew.' "

Lim moved to Los Angeles and became a design assistant for Katayone Adeli before he co-founded his first label, Development. After five years as head designer, Lim moved to New York to launch his signature line. It wasn't until he moved to the East Coast that his mother finally approved her son's career choice

His first runway show was held last year at New York Fashion Week, and Lim has added handbags and menswear to 3.1. In March, Lim was announced as a nominee for the 2007 Swarovski Awards in the women's wear category from the Council of Fashion Designers of America -- the awards are basically the Oscars of the fashion world.

"I think she's proud now," Lim said of his mother.

Still, she hasn't been to a single runway show, because Lim said he isn't ready for her yet.

"The last time she saw my (designs) she said, `That dress is too short.' "

Lim's legion of devotees might disagree.

At the Neiman Marcus event, fashion mavens wandering around the sprawling department store were eagerly snapping up shift dresses from 3.1's spring line. Some were so busy shopping that they didn't notice right away that the designer himself was standing a few feet away. It didn't take long, though, before several women began approaching Lim to ask him to handpick some pieces.

"I'd like to think that my clothes are made by the people for the people," he said. "I love clothes that are accessible and I know that sounds boring, but there's a beauty in that."

He describes his designs as classic in form but with slight nuances. Unexpected twists and tucks of fabrics have become Lim's trademark, his way of keeping things "interesting and humorous." His spring offerings, for example, come with flirty touches like precious rose appliques, dainty ruffles and floaty silhouettes.

The inspiration? A single white rose and all that it represents: "naivete, innocence, romance, first love."

A white jumper shorts ensemble looked sassy over a black blouse with tiered sleeves ($325), while a billowy strapless frock with rosettes ($625) layered over a simple, heather-gray T-shirt was charming and effortlessly put together. A black blouson dress came with eyelet sleeves ($480), and a button-down blouse featured a mandarin collar with pleated shoulders and crisscross fastenings at the sleeve ($325).

"You can always recognize anything from Phillip Lim. It's always such high quality and unique, not cookie-cutter fashion at all," said Christy Daus, 37, of Anaheim Hills, Calif. "I'm not a petite kind of girl, but most everything he makes fits me and is flattering, which I appreciate."

Despite the increasing amount of adoration and acclaim, Lim said he has many more goals to achieve in order to grow and evolve his brand. He's opening his first freestanding store in New York's SoHo soon and expects to launch a limited edition of Phillip Lim shoes next year.

Said Lim: "It's been amazing, but 3.1 is still a relatively new venture and I hope to one day `arrive' still."

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