Not founder and designer Jenny Lai could never be average. It wasn’t an option. The daughter of first-generation immigrants was raised in California, playing classical music — viola and piano — surrounded by singing, dancing, music and theater.
She went to a music-focused high school for two years then fell hard for fashion, and switched to an art school, followed by the Rhode Island School of Design.
“I continued to love music through college, and a lot of my friends are musicians and dancers,” Lai said. “My studio is right next to the Juilliard School of Music.”
It’s no surprise that Lai’s passion for music and dance landed her next to Lincoln Center and Juilliard’s 850 elite undergraduate and graduate students. “I started designing for contemporary classical soloist dancers,” Lai said. “That’s become the other half of my business. I enjoy having the balance of producing the ready-to-wear collections and doing the custom designs.”
For Lai, getting dressed always seemed like another kind of performance, a silent one that’s acted out everyday. Like a stage, there can be a rush of adrenaline when stepping into a special garment. Fashion’s ability to adapt and change to the wearer’s needs always intrigued Lai, who launches this afternoon on notaligne.com VIV, a 3-D animated film that follows the birth of a Not best-selling, red, one-sleeve top as if it were a living organism.
“We started with paper that has one of my designs on it, and is crumpled up,” Lai said. “It morphs into rough-textured muslin, then those pieces start tearing apart like jellyfish representing ideas that I threw away.”
The object evolves into shiny red fabric and morphs into a sleeve of the final garment. “We used original music by a percussionist. It’s atmospheric like you’re in a jungle and there’s these all of these sounds coming up,” Lai said.
She said the amount of time she spends on each custom collaboration and the revenue she realizes varies depending on the project. Lai is also an independent consultant, trained under Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf; Boudicca’s, Zowie Broach and Brian Kirby; Bibhu Mohapatra, and Carla Fernandez, among others, on apparel product development and creative identity.
She’s made significant decisions about her own brand in the last year. “I stopped doing a seasonal collection, and started doing men’s wear and rolling out styles on a more organic timeline,” she said. “A lot of brands have been making a transition and do a few styles a month, but I’m not keeping to a very strict schedule. I want to give myself the flexibility to produce styles or reproduce existing popular styles in different fabrics or colorways and be able to work on projects.
“When I started the brand, I was always trying to do something new, but I realized that I wasn’t getting a chance to appreciate — or take advantage of — the time I put into the styles. It took me a while to come around to that mentality.”
Lai is also not selling to wholesale accounts anymore. “I’m doing Flying Solo,” she said, referring to the SoHo retailer that features emerging designers. “I work there once a week,” she said. “It’s a really good platform for me where people can discover the brand and I can connect with a lot of customers. I’ve thought a lot about my own store, but I’m more interested in finding new forms of storytelling.”