On a slushy Monday afternoon, I took the 6 train downtown to talk to Jade Lai, the founder and designer of Creatures of Comfort, about how the preparations for her runway show were coming along. There were 10 days to go. When I arrived, Lai was standing in front of a mirror barely two paces from the elevator doors, using herself as a fit model and issuing directions to a sewer who was pinning her into a long, brown dress.
Welcome to fashion week!
After a few minutes spent adjusting the waist — it needed to come in slightly — she changed into an oversized men's shirt and trousers to sit down and chat. Lai is not only tall and thin with great taste, but she is also exceptionally chill, even at one of the busiest times of her year.
So, do you usually fit the clothes on yourself?
We have mannequins. A few of us are very tall here with slightly different body shapes. I have broad shoulders and someone else has big hips, so we all kind of try it on to make sure that it kind of would fit.
You've been doing shows for a few years now. Does preparing get easier with each season?
My team has gotten used to putting the show together, so we [got things done] a lot earlier as far as prepping goes. This season we very successfully found a location early, so that was a big relief for us. Now we’re trying to get samples ready. If you were here on Friday we only had five or six things, and then over the weekend we got a lot more. Today we got a huge shipment of sweaters. We’re sewing in the back and doing final fittings.
What’s the concept for this collection?
The concept is the getaway. The idea is kind of a bank robbery/Hawaiian getaway. So there’s the getaway from the robbery, and then there’s the getaway that’s a vacation. It's a lot of menswear, Hawaiian prints, "Bonnie and Clyde."
Talk me through a season. You come up with the concept for the show, and then what?
There’s a lot of research once I come up with an idea. I research old photographs and images and costumes and how things were made, how these stories can all come together. Then there’s a lot of looking at fabrics. I spend at least two weeks every day looking at fabrics. You have to figure out what you’re making, how they fit together. Then you find colors and order fabrics. While you wait for the sample fabric, which takes around two months to come, I start designing silhouettes and working with my pattern maker and sewer making muslin pieces. And then once the real fabric comes — you don’t actually see the fabric [in advance] and it might be a lot thicker — you have to make a lot of corrections. And then you have to piece all of those together, figure out details, lengths and certain elements.
I also work with a sweater designer that comes in at the beginning of the season after I pick out the yarns. We do sketches. We work with a lot of overseas manufacturers that way. It seems like it’s easier with overseas because you do a sketch, send then a tech pack and three weeks later they send a complete product.
Do you drape it yourself, or sketch the designs and hand it off?
I recently hired a designer, so I sketch them, and then I tell her everything I want to do and she re-sketches that and then it goes to the pattern maker. But I still work with the fitting maker.
Because you operate two stores and retail your own products, in addition to other designers', do you feel like you're merchandising in advance when designing a collection?
Yeah. There’s not a lot of time to premeditate what will be produced when we’re putting the show together, but I definitely try to merchandise it so that we know it will be sellable. Because for other buyers, they tend to really buy off the runway, so I try to always figure out what’s sellable. Some pieces we make will never go into the shop because we use very expensive fabrics for big silhouettes. Once I mark it up for wholesale it would be too expensive.
You said you found your venue earlier than usual. When did you lock it in?
End of November. It worked out. Last season we found the perfect venue for our last show. It was so beautiful, and it didn’t work out. I booked it four months ahead, and I was like, "This is it, I know this is it." [But] last minute I had to go to a venue that was boring to me. I wasn’t so happy with last season’s. It’s a whole experience, and if I’m paying so much money and doing a show, I want everything to be perfect.
Location-wise, do you feel an obligation to show where everyone else does?
In the past, especially when I started showing, I tried to stay in the area that I knew all the editors will be in, like Chelsea by Milk [Studios]. But as I’m doing more and more and have been doing this for longer, I think maybe it’s okay for me to find something special. The people that care will come. It’s not like I want the whole village to come. I want the special people who really care about the collection to feel like it’s a special, unique experience.
What's your show budget?
I have an idea as far as how much I pay for the venue, casting, models, stylists, but sometimes I don’t even know so much. I have some sort of budget in mind. It’s a lot. That’s why sponsorship is important. Because it’s a Hawaiian bank robber theme [this season], we looked into surveillance companies and Hawaiian airlines and macadamia nuts. We try to find companies that make sense to pair up with and help with promoting.
[The budget] is not, like, $100,000. We’re still a small company. When we do a production run we have to front all this money to produce then we have to wait for it to sell in the store. It’s stressful. The designers we work with always need to get paid at the same time and we’re paying for that.
What's a producer's role in all of this?
She basically deals with location. Basically what she does is make sure the show happens. She communicates with the location people, the lighting, once I have music figured out she comes up with a schedule, the seating, making sure everybody has everything they need for the show like monitors and headphones. Working with my team as far as how many dressers we need, backstage coordinator, craft service.
Right, all the stuff that needs to be there. Then what does your PR team do?
They distribute invites and make sure editors and VIPs get invited. Seating charts. Check-ins at front of house.
When are you casting it?
My casting this season is Saturday, Sunday and Monday, so a few days before the show. You can’t cast too early because the girls aren’t in town. Then we have to do looks — so Thursday and Friday it’s me and my stylist putting our looks together. Then we cast the girls, and then do fittings two days before the show.
Are you doing sales yourself at this point, too, or are you working on the collection entirely?
I don’t really do the day-to-day anymore. I have an operations manager, so she oversees it. I have meetings with every department all the time, but my focus is really on design now. I have a meeting with [the sales team], so they brief me on what’s going on.
When did you separate the two?
Pretty recently. I was still very on top of things until the past two or three seasons when we seriously started showing the collection. I kind of am easing out of buying for the store as well.
What changed that made you make that transition?
It’s a lot of work. And I get more excited making the collection than I do looking at others'. There are still designers I’m still very excited to see, especially European ones and some New York designers, like Mona [Kowalska, of A Détacher] for example, who is still very fresh and interesting. But after a while I think a lot of things sort of start looking the same.
For your own brand, what's the sales breakdown between wholesale and what you sell in your own store?
I think it fluctuates. We have two stores and an online store, and we’ll potentially be opening a new store this year. We’re not in any department stores, but we’re hoping to get bigger accounts because they can support our production. But we're our own biggest buyer of our brand. I’d say that 30 to 40 percent is from other stores, and then the rest is ours.
When you were buying, did you let your own line dictate how you bought from other brands?
Not so much at the beginning, but now that the collection is bigger, yeah. There are definitely designers I love whom I work with, but I’m trying to find things that won’t compete so much with our own line. I’m afraid that once we’re mostly Creatures of Comfort people won't want to come to the store.
What are your thoughts on doing resort and pre-fall?
We haven’t started doing those seasons, but we are thinking about maybe doing resort. I don’t really believe in pre-fall because as a retailer I know pre-fall is really... it’s still really hot and people are still buying for summer. People really ship in June/July, so it doesn’t make sense; it’s really early, but then people still want to [buy] summer and bathing suits.
I don’t think that’s a very important collection, but I could see how resort makes sense because resort drops around November, so people are getting ready for vacation or a lot of people are doing 'buy now, wear now,' so maybe it’s colder stuff. It can sit in the store for longer. It comes in store at the end of November and then you don’t have to put it on sale until the end of May, so I think for buyers it’s a lot for their buck. They break for summer sale in May, and because resort is lighter stuff they can keep it on the floor for longer.
To what extent do you design toward what's going to sell really well?
I feel like everybody designs that way. You’re not in art school anymore. Even before doing the collection, we know what our customer wants and who our women are. I do definitely design certain things, like a bestselling dress — something that can look good on every body type. It doesn't have to be anything that’s trite, but we think about all the different kinds of woman that can wear it. Usually something simple is the right thing.
What have you learned sells best for you?
Big, baggy things. Pants have been starting to sell really well. We do a lot of high-waisted things, so it flatters a lot of bodies.
When do the stress points fall in your year?
The stress points are now-ish and January, February, because that’s when everyone wants to ship their new season, then also August.
Do you get social at all during fashion week?
I don’t know. I feel like I need to train myself to be more social. But I’m old, you know? I just want to read and take naps. I do get more social, I guess, because a lot of my friends are in town and I have to see them — a lot of my L.A. friends especially.