Drummers, as a species, are generally granted asylum from the dictates of onstage formal dress. Their counterparts in classical percussion, however, are not so liberated: When Mike Truesdell, then a graduate student in percussion at the Juilliard School, arrived backstage to a fall 2011 solo performance in a t-shirt, he was promptly asked to change. “I am not one for fashion,” he admitted. “Though I think I had some appropriate pants on.” Truesdell donned the audio engineer’s top—“about 18 sizes too big”—and the show went on.
One member of the audience—a fashion designer named Jenny Lai—nevertheless thought Truesdell’s look had potential. Lai, who lives and works next to Juilliard and had made a habit of going to see her friends perform at the school since moving to New York in spring 2011, emailed the percussionist about collaborating. Many months later, Truesdell found that Lai’s note had gone unanswered and rushed to reply. “Having her reach out was actually a relief for me, because I knew somebody who could help me express the music in this new way,” he said.
Their first collaboration, inspired by Truesdell’s upcoming solo marimba and electronics program, yielded a green shirt with layers of hand-cut cotton that “breathed like a crustacean” and delicate wool-blend pants (which later split, and which Truesdell still mourns). Eventually, Truesdell confided in Lai his frustration with the standard all-black requirement for ensemble dress, which had led to him purchasing a succession of expensive and often ill-fitting oxfords that constrained his movements on stage. Lai replied with a solution: the Zipper Shirt, a tailored shirt distinguished by a multicolored zipper down the front, that Truesdell could flaunt even as his large instruments obscured his lower half.
For Truesdell, who was unused to performance garments reflecting his full self, the Zipper Shirt was a revolution. Now years into their collaboration, he said, “I retroactively understand…what fashion is and what it can do for performance… It takes this unbelievable psychology for a musical performer to get up on stage, [and] Jenny’s clothes give you that confidence.”
Popular understanding of classical musicians holds that they are inextricable from their formalwear. So ingrained are these codes that an orchestra relaxing its white tie requirement constitutes national news, the superstar pianist Yuja Wang became a cause célèbre for performing Rachmaninoff in a mini dress, and both The Juilliard School and New England Conservatory use the penguin—inveterately black and white—as a mascot. Amid industry-wide attempts to reform the field’s legacies of racist, gendered, and classist exclusion, a night at the symphony can still resemble a historical reenactment, with musicians playing centuries-old works in identical raiment inspired by their 15th-century peers—who, in their status as service workers within wealthy households, were to show up for work in livery.
As the music historian Leah Broad has written, classical music tiptoes around the reality of the bodies that produce it. Anything performers might do to bring attention to themselves, like Wang’s glitzy dresses, has historically been perceived as distracting. Unlike their high-circulation compatriots in genres such as pop and rock, classical musicians face a certain anonymity beyond mere “Cliffs Notes—like that they ‘happen to be inquisitive with Schumann sonatas,’” according to singer Davóne Tines. Broad writes that, where female performers are concerned, critics and performers alike tend to avoid even mentioning what musicians are wearing on stage, on account of sociopolitical considerations, or because they consider fashion a non-sequitur.
For an expanding cohort of forward-thinking classical musicians hoping to embolden their identities on stage, Lai, whose brand is called NOT, is now the first call. Singer Tines, bassoonist Rebekah Heller, violinist Leila Josefowicz, guitarist JIJI, pianist Sugar Vendil, and flutist Claire Chase are but a few vanguard artists who have recently championed what Lai dubs “performance wear”: clothes designed to facilitate the particular athleticism involved in playing an instrument or singing as a form of self-expression. While Lai, a violist herself, aims to create sartorial solutions that address musicians’ specific movement needs, her designs—inherently formal, in a tribute to the genre’s history, yet laced with subtle wit—disclose no hint of their utilitarian origins. The cutout tops, languid pants, and reconfigurable coats of NOT eschew the rigor of antiquated uniforms in favor of fluidity and fun, allowing musicians to more fully inhabit themselves onstage.
“The world is changing, and every other person that finds Jenny is able to relax inside of their personal style a bit more,” Heller said.
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The building which houses Lai’s atelier is nestled at the heart of New York’s Lincoln Center, so close to the Juilliard School as to seem like a fantastical spare closet. In the building’s lobby, framed prints of musicians by the 20th-century French artist Claude Weisbuch pay homage to the artistic surroundings: muscular line drawings of men playing the violin, sweating and straining in stiff tuxes and tails.
Many floors above, in the NOT studio, the “performance wear” options on Lai’s racks illustrate a vastly more breathable approach to musical dress. Lai holds out the Revolve Trench, which augments the classic trenchcoat design with four panels that can be belted variably to achieve different silhouettes, such that, when the wearer is in motion, whatever is beneath the trench will peek through. Next comes a pair of detachable sleeves in various colors, with which one might accentuate another top. Then a navy tuxedo jacket, which a slyly placed shoelace ties shut.
These are dignified yet liberated garments that invite a sense of play. “There’s a part of me that respects the restraints and likes the formality and the expectations” within classical music, Lai told me. “I’m always trying to find a balance between something that’s recognizable and something that allows the unrecognizable to happen.”
Beneath Lai’s friendly demeanor lies an impishness that courses through her designs and extends to the cheeky furnishings in her apartment. Above her piano is one of her own sculptures: tan pantyhose, layered over wire in jagged shapes and framed in a wood box, a meshy tribute to a Piazzolla score. A portion of her foyer covered with silvery glyphs, designed by the artist Ross Schaner, is in fact a word search comprised of movement verbs, alluding to the importance of motion within Lai’s design philosophy.
Lai grew up in California sketching fantastical gowns and red carpet garb on napkins and notepads. Eventually, she began to design clothes for the wedding gigs she played with the trio she had formed with her siblings, where Lai was the violist. Noting her daughter’s design interests, Lai’s mother enrolled Lai in group sewing classes, then in private lessons with a local costume designer, Dena May King (later King-Taylor). Eventually, Lai’s viola studies gave way to a fine arts focus at the Walnut Hill School of the Arts, then at the Rhode Island School of Design, which Lai followed with various design internships before starting NOT in 2011. Still, Lai said, the “performative aspect of clothing has always been a part of my vocabulary.” In “From Within,” a Truesdell-Lai collaboration from June, Lai designed a shirt that is performed upon, whose front charts a noisy cartography—lagoons of slinky safety pins, forests of noisy zippers—that Truesdell manipulates in his composition of the same name.
The name NOT refers not only to Lai’s interest in skirting expectations, but also to the importance of negative, or in-between, space within art—the rests between notes in music, or the space between clothing and the body that shifts as the wearer moves. In her design consultations, Lai—aided by her own musical background—takes the wearer’s specific movement needs as a starting point. For a recent commission by bassoonist Heller of a sculptural outfit to be paired with a piece by Felipe Lara, Lai was cautious to exclude anything that might vibrate against the instrument, and ensured room to attach harnesses and electronics. For toy pianists, Lai has created pants in which the musicians could freely sit on the ground in order to play, and which weren’t too baggy such that the instrument was obscured. For violinists, flutists, and other standing players, Lai checks for freedom at the back and the arms. Tines, the singer, was inspired to reach out to Lai after seeing a performance by violinist Josefowicz, in which Josefowicz was wearing NOT—an outfit he observed to be “purpose-built and also chic…[and] made for the particular action of a performer.” One commissioned blazer, with a lining of watercolor silk, felt like “being hugged by a garden,” though “the main thing was that I was free to move.”
Lai names Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto, designers whose clothes take after poetry in their suggestiveness and flow, as influences. In her own designs, for not only musicians but also dancers and, recently, puppets, Lai likes to turn conventional structures askew, particularly through asymmetry. “When the clothing is already not in balance”—reflecting the necessarily asymmetric body wearing it—”you have the freedom to not feel like you have to be a certain way,” she said.
The fluidity of Lai’s approach extends to her designs’ free approach to gender. Heller, who said she avoids wearing gowns and other conventional gendered stage wear, found power and structure to support recent conducting gigs in NOT’s Interlock Coat. And yet “no one would ever read me as masculine in that coat,” she said.
“Everyone commented on it,” Heller added. “It is an example of how clothing can really fill a need.”
Lai is aware that her designs—often custom and priced accordingly, and bearing a clear artistic signature—are not for everyone. Yet, for those who take to them, the benefits are immediately intelligible. While NOT garments are functional in any setting, on stage is where they become transformative, the ties and drapes and cutouts crafting their own tacit counterpoint beside the musician in motion.
In the popular ‘80s illustrated children’s book The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, author Karla Kuskin follows the musicians of the New York Philharmonic as they decrypt the ties, pantyhose, and cumerbunds of concert uniforms en route to performance time. But for performers rejecting these staid concert norms, the question of what to wear is no longer so simple. As Tines described it: “Am I doing this for self-expression? Am I garnering sexual attention? Or am I allowed to wear this as my own form of self-preservation—or am I engaging the reality that the critic is going to pay more attention to that, and that is me using this as a tool? Or am I just trapped in this place of trying to figure out who I am in the prescribed roles of gender and sexuality?”
Still, Heller said, classical musicians “need to be more generous about inviting people into their experience” via visual elements such as dress. Even acknowledging, as performers in other genres do, that audiences care about the way performances look is essential to nudging the field out of its habits.
Left to his own devices, Truesdell admits he throws on the same outfit every day—black jeans, a black t-shirt (or a collared shirt, if he’s teaching), and a black baseball cap. But, “if it’s concert time, I’m wearing 100 percent Jenny Lai clothes,” he said. “I’m not messing around.” ¶
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