All photos are from lookbooks courtesy of Jenny Lai.
For most of mainstream American design history, Asian American fashion designers were the exception, not the norm. But now that is changing. From Jason Wu’s meteoric rise when First Lady Michelle Obama chose to wear his design at the Inaugural Ball, names like Alexander Wang and Thakoonare regularly featured in the pages of fashion magazines.
For up-and-coming designer Jenny Lai, these trailblazers are designers to admire, but not to follow. Lai prefers to dance to the tune of her own viola.
Based in New York City, Hyphen caught Lai as she prepares to enter the Asian market with her brand, NOT. In her first season, her clothes sold in two stores in downtown New York, and she recently launched a second collection. Lai received so much feedback that her clothes would do well in Asia, she decided to take a trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong to do some store research, meet people in the industry, and get a better idea of the Asian fashion scene.
Due to her busy travel schedule, our interview was conducted first through email. We met for a Skype chat after she was back in New York, where my computer resolutely refused to do any sort of video streaming, only transmitting a series of awkward frozen expressions (Lai was cheerfully unfazed.) Below is an edited interview compiled from our email exchanges and Skype conversation.
As an Asian American who grew up in California and studied in Rhode Island, did it surprise you to move towards the Asian market?
Well, honestly, I've always thought my designs would be geared more towards the European and Asian markets, and less towards American. The American consumer is much more conservative, and I think American fashion gears towards either a business or sportswear look. I've always been more interested conceptually in the work by English/Scandinavian/Belgian designers and Japanese designers, and, of course, would also hope that my work is identified in that direction.
One thing that has surprised me are comments that my work has a particular "Asian" feeling. Yes, I am Asian American. My parents are first-generation immigrants from Taiwan, I speak Mandarin in the family, visit relatives in Taiwan, was brought up with the strict Chinese mentality, et cetera . But I never imagined that my aesthetic had a particular Chinese flair.
Lately, I have been getting more and more comments that my work would do well in Asia. Maybe part of it has to do with my last lookbook with Japanese models, which lends it to be viewed in that way. And in terms of proportion, I can totally see it. Proportion is a huge factor. For example, Scandinavians are usually very tall, and you can see how designs that come from those countries are suited for that proportion. Likewise, I always create on a very hands-on level, so I'm constantly trying things on myself -- I'm 5'3 and 100 lbs. And as soon as I put it on a 5'8” model, suddenly the proportions are all wrong!
How was your trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong?
It was really, really good! Because it was not your typical visit, where you go see your family and, you know, go eat. It was pretty exciting for me to see Taiwan and Hong Kong in a different light. I met with lots of people in the industry: general managers, marketing people. I showed them my work, and they gave me really good advice about how my work fits into the Asian market.
So, how does it fit into the Asian market?
Well, I’ve been asking myself, “Can I see my own clothes fitting here or not?” The Taiwanese consumer market is behind that of Hong Kong and New York. Like there are some hip stores, but I wonder how well it will survive. I’m not convinced my pieces will do well, but it’s all very different. I’m thinking about attending some trade shows in Shanghai because I think my clothing is a very, very niche market. The detail and quality is more subtle than my Asian counterparts.
Do you see yourself moving to Asia to continue your work?
I don’t think so. I might do production and sourcing work in Asia, but I feel like New York is my home. Here is where I gather my inspiration and keep moving at my best.
What inspires your designs?
Visceral experience. I truly believe that clothing has the possibility to heighten your awareness, your response to life. To become more conscious of weight, exposure, comfort/discomfort, confusion, all of this can bring you excitement.
So what are your thoughts on the future for Asian American fashion designers?
Actually, in the last five years or so, there have been very prominent Asian American designers in New York: Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Thakoon. Which has been kind of surprising! I think there’s a lot of promise for Asian American designers now.
Are there any you admire or look up to?
Well, I’m not particularly in love with any Asian American designers. I admire how Alexander Wang has been so successful and covered the sporty and luxury market in such a short time. But if there’s anyone whose career I’d like to emulate, I guess I would say someone like Issey Miyake. He’s got lots of lines that are all very different. He explores technology. He’s largely retired now, but look at what he’s done with the company over time. To have a company grow and have a strong identity that survives without you is amazing.
All right, last question: what’s one thing about you that may surprise people?
[laughs] I really wish I could rap.
If you’re in New York City, you can check out Jenny Lai’s collection for yourself. NOT is currently being sold at the End of the Century, 237 Eldridge St, Lower East Side. As for the rapping -- you’ll just have to ask her yourself!