It’s obvious to many that Jenny Lai grew up in California by how much she smiles! Designer of NOT, Jenny has been designing and making clothing since she was 12. But even before that, she was performing all kinds of musical and theatrical skits with her musically talented family. This hybrid of design and performance is clear in her clothing, and she challenges herself to design clothing that inspires people to feel curious and excited to get dressed every day. Catch a glimpse for yourself of the playful dressing ethos behind the brand with her new app, #notonthestreets. We catch up with Jenny as she shares her inspirations behind NOT and an exclusive look at her first men’s collection.
In addition to ready-to-wear, you create performance-wear for musicians and dancers. What’s that like?
Classical music has always been a big part of my life, and it’s one of my greatest pleasures to get to work with incredibly talented and inspiring performers. Working with these clients involves delving deep into their world, who they are, the vision of what they’re trying to create and how they want to represent themselves, and then on my part, hopefully inspiring in them the sense that anything is possible. It’s a very personal experience, and I love that the final garments are part of a live performance that combines many different senses.
Fun Fact: the Zipper Shirt for men that I’m launching on Kickstarter was actually originally designed for a percussionist.
You’re launching a collection of men’s zipper shirts this summer. What inspired you to design menswear?
NOT’s style has always leaned towards androgyny as I prefer clothing that is not overtly gendered. I’ve been designing for guys in music/dance for a few years already and am always hearing from them how hard it is to find something unique. In some ways, it’s when I see men taking fashion risks that gives me a bigger jolt of excitement than when women do; it was also the fantastic menswear style that brought me to Johannesburg, South Africa a few years back to do a creative project.
Tell us about your creative process.
My creative process often begins with an exploration into a specific function or movement - for example, the flipping or twisting of something, the manner in which a body can enter a garment, the desire to turn something inside out. I write a lot in the beginning to figure out my thoughts, I make very rough sketches, and then a lot of the creation process happens while I’m actually making prototypes, trying them on, transforming them on the body. The longer that I design, the more urgently I feel that I only have an interest in realizing designs that I don’t know the outcome of.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I go out in New York a lot - to puppet shows in the lower east side and new music concerts in living rooms to art museums and documentary festivals. I love to travel and see the world with new eyes. But I rarely pinpoint my inspiration to specific external sources, they are usually a nugget of an idea that has burrowed itself into my consciousness.
What do you love most about what you do?
Definitely the ability to make my own schedule and to have every day be different.
Any recommendations for must-see performances in NYC?
So many. Labapalooza at St. Ann’s Warehouse is lots of fun, check out the amazing programming at BAM, the Dance on Camera film festival at Lincoln Center Film Society and the Architecture and Design film festival.
Fashion icon? Long time fashion icons - Yohji, Rei, Issey, Vivienne Westwood. Pop icons - recently been really digging Christine & the Queens and Harry Styles ;)
Best advice? Tackle whatever makes you feel uncomfortable.
One skill I’d like to have? Dance hip hop.
Favorite item in my closet? My “dinosaur” jacket in a bubbly blue/gray knit that I bought in Milan off the street.
Styling tip? Play with proportions.
First thing I do when I wake up? On a good day - putting on my running clothes!
Last thing I do before bed? Usually just straight up passing out.
Favorite Covry frames? Dorado Moonlight all the way!
Photography: Farhat Sikder