Left of Center

How the Brooklyn collective Saenai cuts against the grain. By Gabriel Bell
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"It's something usually referred to in the Japanese language as 'different' or 'out of the ordinary,'" says Jay Escobara, attempting to translate the name of his Brooklyn-based design collective, Saenai. "It could even have a strongly negative meaning, like 'fucked up.'"
You may not need to be a linguist to find these connotations all over Saenai's cunningly out of step designs, but you will have to pay attention. Seemingly conventional at first brush, a closer look reveals that every one of the slightly grungy street looks created by longtime partners and friends Escobara, Mark Gabriel, and Nobu Wantanabe is just a little off, a little "fucked up."
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Follow the pleat along the front of what seems to be a plaid shirt, and you'll find that the row of buttons lines the side to an unexpected hood. Admire a loosely constructed vest from their most recent summer collection long enough, and you'll discover it's actually a shirt. From their unconventional stitching and blocking to the group's beautifully off-kilter take on the gray and black banded shirt currently dominating our sidewalks, Saenai's clothes for men and women offer welcome distractions and knowing winks for those who keep their eyes open.
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Says Gabriel of the trio's initial intentions when they banded together over a decade ago, "We wanted to bring in a breath of fresh air into art and fashion—something for people to take in and enjoy in any way." Intended as more of a conceptual art project than a market-ready clothing line, Saenai's stable of troupes on familiar forms is more than just a parade of a few well-planned "gotchas" and sleeveless Ts.
"Our initial idea was to transgress the idea of modern design and modern art," says Escobara. "Art is a little bit more global and a little bit easier to spread around than fashion. Some people just totally consider themselves non-stylish. But with art, it's a little more acceptable and accessible."
All this may seem a touch heady, considering that Saenai's goods appear positively utilitarian compared to the gallery-ready designs of, say, Chalayan. Stepping out of the world of such salon favorites, however, and onto the street, one can quickly see how Saenai's tiny cuts against the grain provide quick moments of humor and wonder. As the world becomes ever more fashionable and style is now the rule rather than the exception, Saenai's deconstructed coats, reconsidered shirts, and cross-pollinated forms demand double-takes—the highest sidewalk compliment.
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"We're not reinventing the world, by any means," says Escobara. Indeed, Saenai's extremely wearable designs probably won't blow your wardrobe apart. If you're lucky, though, they might just fuck it up a little.
Saenai is available in New York at Still Life, 77 Orchard Street, 212-575-9704; in Los Angeles at Scout, 7920 West 3rd Street, 323-658-8684. For more information, go to www.saenai.com
How the Brooklyn collective Saenai cuts against the grain.
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