If you ever have the privilege of chatting up Jade Lai, who owns the bicoastal cult fashion emporium Creatures of Comfort, don’t be surprised if she tells you that, after returning from a trip to Morocco last year with no less than 15 carpets in tow, she was struck by the notion that she could totally see herself in the rug business. And when this is followed by the revelation that she’s looking to expand the Creatures of Comfort brand to encompass food, or that she’s been taking pottery classes, or that she hopes to run a bed and breakfast sometime soon, resist the urge to raise an eyebrow — these may sound like the ramblings of a dilettante, but make no mistake, Lai is both hyper-creative and legitimately driven. Consider, for example, the year she spent working as a product developer for Esprit in her native Hong Kong: She took the job after having graduated with an architecture degree, freelanced as a graphic designer, and started her own stationery line in L.A., but proceeded to become so good at it that she could eventually identify a fabric’s contents by touch alone — a useful skill for someone who now designs Creatures of Comfort’s in-house fashion line, and one that would certainly come in handy for any aspiring carpet slinger.
To some degree, Lai opened the first Creatures of Comfort in West Hollywood six years ago because it seemed like the only tent big enough to hold her multifarious interests. Despite the fact that she quickly became known as the go-to for emerging clothing brands like Mociun and Rachel Comey, “I didn’t intend for it to be so fashion-focused at first,” she admits. “I knew it would start out carrying clothes, but I also designed the space and the furniture, invited my friends to build it, and did the graphics myself. It was an outlet for me to do all the things I wanted to do.” Early on, Lai began eyeing the three-story building next door — owned by an older gentleman who ran a framing service out of its ground floor — and dreamed of taking it over and turning CoC into a multi-disciplinary lifestyle shop in the vein of Bless or Margaret Howell. She’d been obsessively reading design magazines, for one, and wanted to stock more of the objects she loved. Strangely enough, it was New York that ultimately offered her that opportunity.
Despite the obvious economic drawbacks, Lai spent years looking for a larger space in downtown Manhattan than the one she had in L.A., hoping she could open a sister store with room to do more than just sell clothing. Two years ago she found one that was big enough to encompass both a store and a small gallery, a space where she could host rotating art shows and creative collaborations like the pop-up shop she devised in partnership with the Japanese design boutique Playmountain. Recently, the storefront held a temporary bookshop courtesy of the indie imprint Textfield, and Lai took it as an opportunity to learn more about publishing and printing presses. “In a way, the gallery is my own form of schooling,” she says. “I’m still constantly finding new things I want to learn about.” Meanwhile, Sight Unseen interviewed Lai about eight of her current and most-enduring interests, and they’re presented in the slideshow at right.
As design-store owner Dave Alhadeff sees it, there’s a distinction between the kinds of craftspeople he is and isn’t interested in: The latter make objects primarily to show off their manual skills, while the former are motivated by a larger concept, a wish to make tangible some abstract artistic meaning. Carving toothpicks into forest animals? Skills. Carving porcelain into vases so mind-bogglingly intricate they appear to be made by machine? Concept. A subtle difference, but one that helps it seem slightly less absurd to picture Alhadeff — who runs The Future Perfect, one of New York’s most well-respected purveyors of contemporary design — roaming the aisles of a Westchester craft fair, chatting up potters and glassblowers. Concept, he explains, is what builds a bridge between pure craft and design.
To a certain kind of customer, it makes sense to drop half a grand on a Proenza Schouler necklace made from climbing rope or a hundred bucks on a T-shirt by Comme des Garçons: You’re paying for the craftsmanship of a couture brand and you’re buying the cachet of a label that normally retails for several times those amounts. But what of a sweatshirt — created by someone with no design training, no seasonal runway presentation, and no global retail empire — that sells for $198? That’s the conundrum that faced former Ron Herman buyer Nina Garduno when she started Free City more than a decade ago.
If style is a sore subject for the up-and-coming interior designer Rafael de Cardenas, who bristles at the suggestion that he might have one, a therapist would likely lay the blame on his mother. A Polish-Swiss former fashion PR agent — who with his Cuban father moved the family to New York City when de Cardenas was six — she was constantly redecorating, stripping the house bare every time her tastes changed. “She’s into one thing carried throughout, she can’t mix and match,” says de Cardenas. “So once it’s something new, everything’s gotta go. There was an Armani Casa phase, and now it’s all Native American, with blankets and sand-covered vases from Taos. It scared me away from design to a degree.” After spending most of his childhood wanting to be a doctor, he eventually went to RISD to study fashion and painting, and ended up heading the menswear department at Calvin Klein for three years. But although he admits that interiors were something he never put any thought into back then, design began exerting its slow pull.