Jade Lai, Owner of Creatures of Comfort opened her store in fashionable Nolita just last September. Since then in little over 1 year the store has become an outsize addition to downtown New York’s blossoming colony of indie fashion retailers, joining boutiques like Project No. 8, Oak and Opening Ceremony.
The first Creatures of Comfort opened six years ago in West Hollywood, Calif. There, Ms. Lai’s affinity for wearable looks with an understated casual elegance quickly gained a following that included the actors Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst, and the French singer Vanessa Paradis.
But it also had a very strong New York following. “It’s interesting to me that Creatures of Comfort was an L.A. store first, because Jade really nails the new vintage look that I associate with downtown New York and Williamsburg,” said Nicole Phelps, the executive editor at Style.com. “You know the French expression ‘jolie-laide’ — ‘so ugly she’s pretty’? To me, the Creatures of Comfort aesthetic is so un-sexy she’s sexy.”
So when the New York store opened, it was quickly embraced by the natives. “I was so happy to find they had opened up a store in my neighborhood,” said Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who attended the shop’s opening. “The store has a real sense of playful adventure while still maintaining a range of wearability for the everyday cool girl-slash-woman.”
That could describe Ms. Lai herself. Strikingly tall with high eyebrows, Ms. Lai could easily be a model for her own product line. Rather than flaunting the latest trends, her personal style veers toward casual flowing dresses and comfortably loose slacks and tops.
“My closet is filled with variations of identical pieces of clothing,” Ms. Lai said. “I am attracted to understated things that are really well made and timeless.” She adopts a similar approach to the designers she chooses for her store: up-and-coming designers like Rachel Comey, Bernhard Willhelm and Christian Wijnants.
“Jade is adventurous,” said Ms. Comey, a young downtown designer who counts Creatures of Comfort among the first stores to carry her line. “She also has a feminine side that is different from some of the other multibrand boutiques downtown.”
In 2008, Ms. Lai also started her own Creatures of Comfort collection of retro sheer silk tops, loosely draped silk blazers, high-waisted linen slacks and billowy ankle-length dresses in an array of earthy colors.
“Since our clientele are mostly creative types, we try to carry items that inspire curiosity, but which are still super functional,” Ms. Lai said. “I will be drawn to something that is beautiful and functional and that will last in the closet.”
A native of Hong Kong, Ms. Lai came to fashion retail in a roundabout way. Her father is a Hong Kong businessman, Jimmy Lai, who founded Giordano, a giant clothing retailer in Asia, before becoming a media magnate with a fiercely independent magazine called Next.
After attending Otis College in Los Angeles, Ms. Lai pursued a Hollywood career as an art director, before returning to Hong Kong to grudgingly take a job as a buyer with Espirit. It didn’t last.
A year later, Ms. Lai was back in Los Angeles. “I think for most creative people, there is a point in their lives where they have to choose one thing to focus their energy on,” she said. That’s when she decided to open a store.
“I didn’t even think about starting a fashion brand,” she added. “But I thought I could learn about what people wanted to buy.”
It took a while for the shop to catch on. “The first month, the store was pristine, minimal and completely dead,” she said. “We carried a lot of designers that no one had ever heard of yet, so a lot of people just walked in and walked out.”
But she persevered, believing, she said, that there was a void in Los Angeles for independent designers.
The decision to expand to New York grew out of an unusual circumstance. She was spending a lot time in New York during frequent layovers on the way to Denmark, where she was visiting her (now ex-) boyfriend. So why not open another shop, she thought?
The New York store, on Mulberry Street, is impressively spacious, and feels distinctly more upscale than the neighborhood’s scruffier boutiques. The bright, airy space has high ceilings, exposed brick and raw woods, with a small glassed-in courtyard.
For the store’s opening, Ms. Lai commissioned the designers Mary Ping, Confetti System and United Bamboo to create custom pieces. On opening night, which took place during Fashion Week last September, shoppers spilled out onto the sidewalk, mingling awkwardly but happily with revelers at the San Gennaro festival.
In the months since, Ms. Lai has been experimenting with different retail concepts. At the moment, that includes incorporating arts and culture.
She recently hosted an event for United Bamboo’s cat pin-up calendar, curated a photography exhibition by Peter Sutherland that documented a Nepalese workshop and opened a store-within-a-store for Playmountain, a design boutique in Tokyo that features artisanal housewares.
After all, she said, “It gets a little bit dull when it’s just clothes.”