He may have taken over the running of Wardrobe from his father Lim Jit Jun, a traditional menswear tailor, but Lim Fang Heng refuses to remain rooted in the past. And while charting his own route has not been easy, it has paid off — Wardrobe has gained a well-deserved reputation as an independent, creative brand steeped in the timeless principles of quality tailoring.
We meet the younger Lim at the brand’s two-storey boutique in Bangsar Baru, right before its first autumn/winter 2019 trunk show. Comprising 36 looks, the collection — themed Hidden Depths — was unveiled at this year’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, and two weeks later, at the boutique for the brand’s legion of loyal fans to enjoy.
“Hidden Depths emphasises the many different layers that men have that contribute to their overall appeal,” says Lim, who is Wardrobe’s CEO. “My creative vision of this collection kicked in when I started working on the designs. By the third and fourth styles, the image started to come to me — gentlemanly looks inspired by our customers who may subscribe to a formal dress code but at the back of their mind, there is a voice that says, ‘Where’s the rock ‘n’ roll?’ or ‘I love tattoos’ or even ‘I want to be a chef’. While these men excel in their corporate jobs, there is that inner voice, or inner rebel, let’s say.
“I was also inspired by the younger generation of men who are now into streetwear but will eventually need to transition to more sombre suits. That transition is very clear in my mind and I know what they will eventually look for.”
Only a few of the 36 looks comprise full suits and tuxedos; the rest are semi-casual ensembles with a strong street vibe. Lim was able to stylistically innovate in a very narrow space — one that traditionally does not allow for much transformation. “In menswear, not much has changed, outside of fabric development. From what was declared a suit 200 years ago to what exists today, it’s pretty much the same, except for very minute changes. Fifty years from now, the form will likely still be the same. So, fashion houses play with cut, silhouette and accessories like patterned bowties — that’s how you update the look.”
Formalwear is not often trend-driven and for good reason — sartorial guidelines when it comes to suits are hard to break. The luxe streetwear trend is the only one that Lim has used as his inspiration, applying it to the brand’s Savile Row sensibilities to create ensembles that are youthful, fun and stylish.
Placing equal import on sartorial flair and relaxed styles, the collection is unorthodox and displays boyish irreverence without compromising on its very adult aesthetic. Each piece is cut from 100% wool and wool blends from renowned English fabric mill, Standeven; 100% cotton constructions from Thomas Mason in Italy; and Wardrobe’s own line of fabrics. The collection employs a variation of bold and classic looks to allow the transition from boardrooms to business class, and come in muted tones of deep blues, cream and earth with verdant greens, fleeting robust reds and contrasting gingham and black.
When he was conceptualising Hidden Depths with his team, Lim looked no further than Wardrobe’s existing customer base to work out the kind of buyer he was targeting. “They wear suits and tuxedos but enjoy experimenting and dress well even when they are dressed down in sneakers and T-shirts. I think this is very much a representation of the well-dressed gentleman of today,” he muses.
“What we also need to consider is that while the idea of a suit hasn’t changed, its interpretation has. Some rules have been relaxed, although some should ideally be retained. For example, a jacket should always fit perfectly regardless of the silhouette, which is a rule that should always apply, but you don’t need to wear it as part of a suit anymore — it would look very good with jeans too.”
Men can also express their individuality in the smaller details that make up a suit, many of which have become almost mainstream ideas — quirky cufflinks, unusual prints and themes on neckties, eschewing a tie for a bold pocket square, or even interesting buttons to complete one’s suit. On the day of the show, Lim is wearing a simple, elegant blue suit that shows the purity of its tailoring and construction, his trousers boasting an interesting detail — there is a buckle that holds the waist in place, doing away with his need for a belt. “I’ve always felt that it (a belt) interferes with the overall look,” he says. “And now, it (the buckle) is something a lot of our customers ask for after they’ve seen it on me.”
Wardrobe has been doing fairly well in a retail environment that has been challenging of late. The business has expanded to four shops as well as a private tailoring division called Privato. “However, we are focused on what we want to do. Firstly, we need to focus on quality of service to customers and to look for ways for the product to fit better. For example, we’ve been doing a lot of research on improving the curvature of a jacket across the shoulder, which can make it more comfortable. It may seem like a small thing but those are the little things that matter.” The buckle of his trousers comes to mind — that something that is so subtle, or unnoticeable, can make a difference.
While it may seem like a good suit would always be in demand, Lim cannot afford to rely on return customers to grow the business. The trunk show is one good way of showcasing what Wardrobe can do, and to an audience that may not have been exposed to the brand before. The key, Lim says, is treading carefully — as Wardrobe is a privately held business with no access to the deep pockets of generous investors, there is a need to be careful with every decision he makes. Establishing a digital presence is a good example of this.
“My role as CEO is to bring new ideas to the company but also — because of the market environment and shareholders’ opinions — hold them back. We need to balance our appetite for risk and the demographic we are reaching. I am a big fan of going digital but when you look at who our customers are, it may not be for us. There’s a limit to how much they are willing to spend online — if it’s RM5,000, they would want to come here, get measured by our master tailors, touch the fabric and enjoy the human interaction aspect of the whole exchange.”
But Wardrobe also stocks a healthy range of accessories, from neckties to tuxedo buttons and even small leather goods. Surely that would sell online? “I have thought long and hard about this, going back and forth on the pros and cons. It needs to be really carefully thought through, and I think it needs to feel right for Wardrobe to do — I don’t want to get on the digital bandwagon for the wrong reasons.”
It is almost show time and the models are lined up for Lim to give them a final once over. He has learnt a lot from this experience — the idea of distilling the kinds of styles that represent what the Wardrobe brand can create for its clients. “Hopefully, we get more invitations to present our brand in the future. That being said, I like the idea of curating a certain number of looks for a runway show so customers can come to us — this lets them see what we can do for them. I am excited to do this because we’ve never done this before. It’s a big investment but I do think it’s worth it.”
This article first appeared on July 8, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.