Getting dressed in the morning is a performance. You move your body in tune with your garments — an arm here, a leg there. Depending on your tidiness level, this can often be a literal dance around your bedroom, narrowly avoiding piles of clothing on the floor. It's this process that interests designer Jenny Lai. The physical act of clothes-meeting-body inspired and continues to inspire her brand NOT.
Lai founded NOT in 2011, a year after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design. The name comes from the concept of negative space — something she was quite familiar with from her time at art school. "When we’re trying to define something that we’re drawing, we’ll look at the space that’s created around it, rather than the object itself," Lai explains. So she decided to do that same thing, but with clothing: Navigate the negative space that exists between a garment and a body through fashion design.
Performance has long been a part of Lai's life. She grew up onstage, playing the violin and the piano, dancing, acting, and doing public speaking. Movement and transformation were top of mind when Lai decided to launch her line. It wasn't until a year and a half in, though, that the concept began to take shape in her collection. “From the beginning, I was always interested in function, but I was thinking more within clothing itself, such as the different types of closures and where a garment opens and closes," Lai says. This switch coincided with Lai's first foray into custom performance wear for musicians and dancers. Once she saw how her clothing moved onstage, something clicked: "NOT's garments take on a completely different life when they're off the hanger and on the body," she says. Prices for the conceptual, yet wearable pieces roughly range from $200 to $700.
In September, Lai released NOT Signatures, a capsule collection that brings together pieces from seasons past that have resonated with customers and are representative of the brand's mission. Consider it an edit of NOT's staples: "Each of these styles demonstrates NOT's explorations in the physical experience of dressing," Lai explains. The overlapping fabrics, sculptural draping, and unconventional closures all encourage the wearer to take ownership and really interact with the garment. The goal, according to Lai, is to never stop learning from the garment: "They can be pieces that over many years, they’ll still discover something new, some different aspect of it, or some new way to wear it. It’s evolving along with you.”
There's also a timelessness to the silhouettes, and it's not just because the pieces are photographed in black and white. Lai designed these pieces with comfort and adaptability in mind; these Signature items are meant to be worn to the grocery store or to a concert, working in conjunction with the rest of your wardrobe. This versatility is most noticeable in the lookbook ahead. NOT's Signature collection comes to life on a wide range of bodies; an assorted cast of creatives pulled from Lai's own network. On set, each model was asked to choose randomly from a pre-determined list of movement verbs and emotion adjectives, to then perform simultaneously. The result? Dynamic imagery, infectious energy, and NOT as it's meant to be seen — in movement.
Ahead, check out a selection from NOT's Signature lookbook, along with the words that caption each shot, as well as more from Lai about NOT's DNA.