Why it makes sense:
1. I grew up on DIY.
To save money, my mother became very crafty and had us participating in all of her schemes. My siblings and I would make bookmarks by laminating the autumn leaves in our front yard, stamp our own brown wrapping paper, decorate plain cake after plain cake with bows and sliced fruit for our next door neighbors, and make Thank You cards using the wrapping paper sample pad from our school fundraising sales. To this day, I love making something out of nothing.
2. I fell in love early.
In middle school, I started going to an after school sewing class in a woman’s home. I looked forward to those days so much! I first learned how to make scrunchies and stuffed animals, then I upgraded into buying simple patterns from Joann’s, choosing my own fabric, and making my own clothes. I still remember the first garment I made, it was a pair of pajamas in white cotton fleece with chinese symbols on it and a drawstring. I was so proud of it, I even wore it to school! Once I got my own sewing machine in my room, I started to improvise my own designs. But before knowing how to make closures (like how I began running as a baby before I could barely walk), I tried every other way to get a piece of cloth on my body as soon as possible. That resulted in some pretty scandalous lace up tops and velcro-ed midriff tanks which I’d hide under a jacket at the breakfast table.
3. I had to do it all.
My mother was a piano and kindermusic teacher, so my siblings and I grew up filling the house with music. But it didn’t end there. At any point, I would be practicing three instruments a day (piano, viola, pipa) along with attending a dance or theatre class, preparing for a chinese speech competition or composing a trio inspired by a jellyfish sting! One summer, my mom informed us that we, the Lai Trio, would be putting together an entire program to perform at a local festival. We composed the music, rehearsed them with friends, designed and created the program on large poster boards, made a water color painting which we printed onto the shirts we wore, and composed the speeches to introduce each act. Who knew that ten years later, I would be combining all of these skills into building my own brand! When I moved back to New York in April 2011, I prepared to present to the world my first collection. I was fully engrossed in every part of the process, from producing the collection to designing the lookbook, creating the video to conceiving of the presentation. It was one of the most exciting times for me, to begin everything from scratch but to feel capable of tackling it all.
4. I know what discipline means.
When I was a kid, my mother made me write down my hourly schedule every morning. My sister recently found one we had written back in the day, and it shocked me! I had forgotten how we partitioned our day out to the minute! (Apparently we had seven minutes allotted in between finishing at the piano bench and picking up the viola bow). I also attribute my discipline to learning music at an early age. Practicing music is an incredible way to learn patience, creativity, endurance, and discipline. Although to be honest, I think my childhood schedule has also ingrained a certain distracted, multi-tasking nature in me…
My siblings and I left home at an early age. My sister and I moved to boarding school at the time we reached 14. I truly am so glad that that I began living on my own and developing my own thoughts and interests at an early age. I left the country for the first time without my family when I was 10; I remember having to be accompanied on and off the airplane by a stewardess because I was under age. Living, learning, and traveling on my own meant I had to be disciplined, self-motivated, and independent at an early age. I find now that all of these are necessary qualities in being my own boss.
5. I am a performer between the loud and quiet.
Although I made my way through childhood singing dancing plucking performing, I still found myself continuously moving towards the more quiet performance of visual arts. I tend to like to be away from the crowd and I interact best with people one on one. I prefer to travel alone to feel that no one in the world knows where I am and I am free to follow any of my whims. When I discovered clothing, I realized that it was the perfect performance for me. Dressing for myself is entirely personal and intimate; yet at the same time, it is my way of speaking with the rest of the world without saying a word. I think a fashion designer is very much this way- a person that is behind the scenes conjuring up something that can contain all of the expression exploding inside. I will always be a bit envious of performers who can put their emotion on their face and their body in that very moment; but in my natural way of enjoying anonymity, I will quietly create over here what I hope you will enjoy over there.
Photo: NOT SS12 banner top over striped machine-knit skirt