Jade Lai Dresses Hollywood's Smart Girls in Normcore Chic
By Ashley W. Simpson
Designer Jade Lai has never been shy about taking the wheel. First the Hong Kong native uprooted herself to attend Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Then in 2005, she launched her West Hollywood store, Creatures of Comfort, filled with new vintage style clothes and fashion-forward accessories from Rachel Comey, Karen Walker, and Acne—followed five years later by a thriving Nolita outpost. Along the way, she introduced an in-house line of sophisticated separates for women more keen on intellectual allure than outré street-style affectations. Now Hollywood smart girls Miranda July, Michelle Williams, Kristen Wiig, and Rashida Jones—as well as intelligentsia from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon—are among the merry band that wears Creatures of Comfort. It was a chicer “normcore”— sold in 26 hip ports of call in addition to Lai’s stores—that took hold well before that much-aligned neologism started getting tossed around. So it’s only mildly surprising to find Lai steering the Clipper City, an old-school 158-foot sailboat carrying an assortment of creative friends, up New York’s Hudson River one crisp summer evening. The expedition is the designer’s way of feting her 2014 fall/winter runway debut, inspired by the kitschy classic board game turned 1985 movie Clue.
“We have really big jackets, bookish plaids, and blood reds,” says Lai, now seated at the back of the boat, mulled wine in hand (and a trained captain back at the helm). “I design for a woman who is very confident and strong and has character.” One such acolyte, Caitlin Rider, a publicist for the art-book publisher Taschen, dressed in a Creatures of Comfort sweeping black cashmere skirt and washed silk top— printed, of course, with candlesticks and revolvers— has her own theory: “I think Jade saw Mrs. Peacock and Miss Scarlet as representative of these female archetypes. She has this wonderful way of taking something that could be campy and transcending that.”
That signature wit is in full effect on board. There’s a waifish boy playing classical—and undeniably eerie—ballads on a piano by the rigging. Actress and poet Alex Butler is sitting for a wire-haired fortune-teller, who is reading not hands but lipstick prints on napkins. And stylist Sabina Schreder and photo producer Natalie Bertaux—cozy in roomy plaid shirtdresses—are helping themselves to littleneck clams and scallop crudo as they huddle against the wind. These women make for a Creatures of Comfort tableau vivant, epitomizing a certain mind-set that Lai knows how to outfit. “I feel like a lot of the time I design the collection for people who I know around me,” Lai says as the guests mill about, upping the ante with Macallan-drenched oyster shots. “It’s not supersexy, and it’s not for the commercial public. It’s for a woman who does her own thing.” This woman is drawn to a certain kind of well-cut basic: a swinging, cloud-blue coat with unfinished seams, made of butter-soft cashmere; flatform shoes created in collaboration with LD Tuttle that read more grown intellectual than try-hard ironic cool. Every piece is at once so simple yet tweaked so subtly (washed pure silks, sculptural silhouettes, just-oversized-enough sizing on the knits) as to be utterly luxurious.
As the night cools, the company moves closer to the center of the ship, bundling up in cozy navy blankets that just happen to complement Lai’s stormy palette. Butler and Rider are debating the veracity of their fortunes (questionable) while Wren designer Melissa Coker (who won a Cannes Gold Lion for her viral sensation “First Kiss” video) helps herself to “murder-mystery pie” (strawberry rhubarb). “Everyone here I’ve known in different capacities over the years,” Lai says. “It’s not so much about what people do, but everyone is doing something that they love.” Of course, the nature of what they do—in Lai’s case, creating a polished uniform that embodies the combination of authenticity and luxury of smart urban women who live by their own terms—doesn’t hurt.