Tina Chai originally intended to be a lawyer. But after slogging through an uninspiring stint as a paralegal, she traded contract filing for photo shoots, landing a job at Glamour, which paved the way to Vogue’s hallowed halls, where she worked for nearly five years. After a decade as a freelance stylist, Chai has cultivated an array of clients, working for glossies like i-D, styling shows ranging from Band of Outsiders to Lela Rose, and consulting for such retail brands as Theory and LOFT.
But it’s the industry’s wide scope that she loves most. “One of the really amazing things about fashion is that it allows you to act out your fantasies,” she says. “I can be all the things I’m not: I can dress like a sailor, even though I get horribly sick at sea; I can wear something really sporty, even though I’m the most uncoordinated person on the planet.” In other words, she may not be a lawyer as she had once planned, but she can still dress the part (albeit in green Prada Mary Janes). We talked to Chai about her tomboy style, Fashion Week favorites, and admittedly packed closet.
How did you get your start in fashion?
First I had an internship at Mirabella magazine, and I hated it. Then I went to work for a law firm as a paralegal, and I hated that even more. I sent my resume to Condé Nast and landed a job working at Glamour. It was great, but I told myself that if I wasn’t at Vogue by the time I was 25, I would do something else. Right before I turned 25, I became a fashion assistant at Vogue.
How did you get involved with LOFT?
They approached me to reinterpret their fall collection, along with stylists like Kate Young and Joanne Blades. I love the current collection — it’s super-feminine and so fresh.
You also styled the Band of Outsiders show earlier this month. Any favorite pieces?
Scott Sternberg just launched the Girl collection. It’s full of these long chiffon dresses and beautiful floral prints.
Who are your favorite designers?
Marc Jacobs, Comme des Garçons, Band of Outsiders, Balenciaga, and Celine.
How would you describe your personal style?
I’m a cross between a tomboy and a really girly girl. Sometimes I wear this pair of men’s cement worker’s pants that I stole from my cousin with a blazer and a button-down; sometimes I’ll wear a vintage Victorian lace dress.
What’s the first designer item you ever bought?
I think it was a simple spaghetti-strap Comme des Garçons dress, which I bought myself as a treat for my birthday. That, and a pair of green Prada Mary Janes. I was obsessed; they were amazing.
Where do you like to shop in New York?
Marc Jacobs, A.P.C., Marni, Barneys, Comme des Garçons, Steven Alan, and De Vera. And I love John Derian: They always have really beautiful scarves.
What trends are you appreciating right now?
I’m really into the new minimalism; I thought Calvin Klein’s spring show was really beautiful. And I loved Marc Jacobs’s spring collection. There’s something about his clothes that just makes me want to own them. There must be the fashion equivalent of crack in his shows.
Any current trends you’re ready to see retired?
As soon as I think I’m over something, it starts looking fresh again. You can say you think miniskirts look vulgar, but then you’ll see some really cute girl wearing one in the East Village and it looks just right.
What are you saving up to buy?
I saw this Celine coat in Tokyo that I’m obsessed with: it’s navy blue and double-breasted, with a mens-y feel. Also, Dean Harris twisted gold hoops.
What should every woman have in her closet?
A great pair of heels always makes you feel better, no matter what else you’re wearing. I have a pair of Alaïa ankle boots and every time I wear them, people tell me I look like I’ve lost weight. The shoes actually do make me feel skinnier; I should probably wear them every day.
What about men?
Men, if you only invest in one thing, invest in a well-tailored jacket. It’s so much better to have one that’s just right than five that don’t fit.
What’s something you never leave the house without?
I’m so forgetful, I should probably stick to the basics. I leave the house without my keys or my wallet all the time. I have a Comme des Garçons pouch — when I remember to take it with me, that’s my lifeline.