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NOT the Norm

NOT the Norm

One afternoon when teaching in the women’s division of Rikers Island – the jam-packed jail complex on an isolated islet just outside New York City – Jenny Lai 10 AP got a crash course on how to make striking shades of eye-shadow by blending toothpaste, ink and powdered Kool-Aid. That afternoon the Manhattan-based fashion designer came to see one of her most closely held beliefs fully affirmed: the desire for adornment is universal.

“I started volunteering in the prison to share my love of art and design in a truly meaningful way,” Lai explains. “It’s easy to forget that fashion is a form of expression that’s personal and powerful to everyone. But art and style are important tools that build a sense of identity and promote self-expression.”

The recent RISD grad leveraged that awareness in launching NOT, a womenswear clothing company known for combining artistry and functionality to provide clients with a “living wardrobe.” In October she visited campus to share her start-up story at Entrepreneur Mindshare, a conference/networking event organized by RISD’s Career Center.

Inspired by music and dance, the designer makes exquisite garments out of seemingly unmixable materials, combining layers of delicate tulle, thick wool jersey and shellacked duct tape into wearable work that embodies a sense of movement and fluidity. Many of the pieces emanating from her one-bedroom apartment – which doubles as an ever-revolving apparel studio/consultation space/art gallery – look androgynous.

“Dressing is a performance that we choose to engage with on an everyday basis – only the practice isn’t loud,” notes Lai. “As an introspective person, I like this medium. It’s a silent form of communication.”

Last spring when Lai designed an avant-garde costume for formally trained ballet dancer Mary Ellen Beaudreau, she first focused on her feet, analyzing the dancer’s footwear. Beaudreau, an experimental choreographer educated at the Juilliard School, needed a garment to wear for the debut performance of One Moment, a dance inspired by her interviews with professional ballet dancers who felt trapped in the microcosm of the professional arts world. Using hundreds of discarded pointe shoes, Lai constructed the costume as a flesh-colored unitard. She then attached three outer harnesses to the costume’s body.

“These types of garments have to be durable – and obviously move well since dancers exert so much energy,” Lai says. “It was a great opportunity to create living theater through costume.”

Always ready to jump at new opportunities, Lai is traveling to South Africa this winter, where she plans to document the local street dance culture in the South African townships surrounding Cape Town and Johannesburg. Armed with a camera and a keen eye, she plans to deepen her knowledge of international style. She'll also be collaborating with South African designers at the helm of fashion collectives now amassing heaps of recognition for their bold colors and distinctive patterns.

“I want to know what will happen when my clothing is woven into another culture. Will it feel like it belongs there? Or will it feel misplaced?” Lai says before taking a moment to ruminate on her upcoming trip. “I want to play with those ideas to push my own artistic process. I’ve found you’ve got to be in a constant state of stimulation to remain creative.”

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