Ones to Watch: For Jenny Lai of NOT, Curiosity is Key
Jenny Lai has operated her Upper West Side studio for eight years, designing clothing under her brand NOT that prioritizes movement and function. Her garments are utilitarian through and through, created for both professional performers as well as people moving about in their daily lives. What brings these two seemingly separate groups of people together? A constant pursuit of fresh curiosity and discovery. It’s the underlying focus of the brand, and it should come as no surprise that everyone notices NOT: “People always get stopped on the street when they’re wearing something of mine…I think there’s a lot of little secrets in the clothes.”
In preparation for her open studio on June 6, we’re uncovering just a few of those secrets with Lai. NOT has also released a special zine & videos in collaboration with photographer and artist Andrew Boyle, print designer Margaret Sampson, and model Anthony Lyons; check it out in the slideshow above. Visit NOT in person at their open studio on Thursday, June 6, from 6:30-8:30 by RSVP-ing to [email protected]
Are you getting ready for the open studio?
Yes! I am. So I’ve been cleaning up and we’ll have to go to my store to pick up some of the inventory that I’ll have for the open studio.
Cool. Can you tell me a little bit about what your studio looks like — what environment you work in?
Definitely! My studio is in a residential building and I have a little shop and studio set up in the front so it’s sort of this hallway that comes in and I have two hanging racks, that kind of form a little shop, so I’ll display different collections there. And then, as you go inside that becomes the working space so I have two rooms and two large standing tables and my three industrial sewing machines, and an ironing board and a bunch of fabric rolls and paper in that space.
How long have you been working there?
Oh wow. That’s great. So I’ve noticed your brand has a lot of references to performance and being active in clothing — could you talk about that a little bit more?
Yeah, sure. I’m a musician, started off playing a lot of classical music, so I was really focused on viola and piano. In high school I went to a music high school, and all my friends were musicians. I ended up going to an arts high school, so there I switched to visual arts, but was still playing a lot of music and still definitely surrounded by musicians and dancers. So that’s always been my community. As I got more into design and as I started my collection it was just very natural for me to want to work with musicians and dancers and to help them design for stage because I felt like I had such a innate understanding of what was involved and what it’s like to be a performer. So I think maybe about a year into starting the brand I starting doing this project on the side and doing custom designs for individuals or companies for stage.
I just naturally think about movement a lot with my design because of my background and because of my interest in performance. And so I’m very hands-on when I’m designing everything. I make all the patterns and all the prototypes in my studio here and I’m always, like, trying things on and everything has evolved a lot as I’m working through designs. There’s definitely this quality of movement and transformation that I think everyone relates specifically to my designs.
When you’re designing for somebody who’s literally a performer versus somebody who, you know, is just going through their day-to-day life, who doesn’t usually have an activity in mind, are those different thought processes? How do you think about each different person?
Well I think when it comes to Ready-to-wear and to my collection, it’s always about comfort. And comfort doesn’t you know, mean sweatpants…it goes all the way through to the type of fabric that I’m choosing as well as the fit and the way that fabrics move as you’re walking and sometimes it’s more about, like, exaggerating the way that you’re moving. I like to have that extra material or openings that can open up and show parts of your body or your legs when you’re walking, things like that. So, I think that the comfort and versatility in the ready-to-wear is something I really think about.
When it comes to a performer, with dancers in particular, durability is really important. I think about the structures of a material or places that really need to have reinforced stitching and things like that. With musicians I find it really interesting because they’re also actually very athletic, just in a different way. They sweat a lot as well, there’s a lot of endurance, they’re under the lights, some of the violinists I’m working with, they might be performing a piece for 45 minutes straight. So it is a lot of athleticism, and we think about the breathability of the fabric a lot, things that won’t show sweat stains, even, for example, with the violinists because of the asymmetry of how they’re holding their instruments — one arm is more pressed to their body than the other so we tend to make the arm holes a little lower so there’s a little bit more space. We have to consider very specific details when it comes to musicians, which I find really fascinating and why I really like working one-on-one with them.
For the zine and this particular collection, how did you guys work together on that?
Andy has such a talent for portraiture and capturing people and making people feel comfortable behind the camera. So I’m excited to work with him again and also this model that had walked for me for NYFW — Anthony Lyons. I was really excited to put the two of them together in the same place and, I’ve been following what Andy has been experimenting with, with the motion collages and the DIY hand cut and pasted quality of his animations, and also the way that he’s combining the 2D and 3D and digital and handmade animation in this very unexpected way. So we decided to do this shoot with Anthony and center it around the concept of my men’s collection, which was based around the two original prints created from nitrile-coated rubber gloves.
When all of that creative process is over and somebody encounters your clothing for the first time or puts something on, how do you want them to feel?
Curiosity is always my main goal. I want someone to see it hanging on the hanger and ask themselves, “What is that?”, “How would this look on me?” Those are the type of garments that I’m most drawn to when I’m out shopping or discovering things. So, that’s really the leading emotion that I want people to have with my designs. Because a lot of my pieces are very drapey, very sculptural, and sometimes look a bit abstract, it’s hard to see how they really look on the hanger. So I’m always encouraging people to try things on, because they really transform when they’re on the body. So yeah, I think curiosity and storytelling are key. People always get stopped on the street when they’re wearing something of mine… I think there’s a lot of little secrets in the clothes. It is a kind of language that the wearer learns. There’s this very subtle and intimate hidden pleasure to wearing these clothes.
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