Mona Kowalska

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Since Mona Kowalska started her own label, A Détacher, I have noticed how remarkably unexpected yet unaffected her clothing designs are. According to Mona, she’s gripped by the “moment when a garment goes from weird, or ground breaking, to classic.” Examples of this metamorphosis include her Fall 2012 knit dress with a poet-like sleeve and high-waisted sweater skirt. Both these garments may pass as normal, but a second glance reveals them to be anything but.

But it wasn’t until after I met Mona in person that I became possessed to own everything she makes. I first scouted her at a threeASFOUR show a couple of seasons ago. Her platinum hair was pulled tightly back. She wore no makeup and, with a powerful subtlety, combined army pants with a refreshingly untrendy shoe and sweater. When I interviewed Mona at her tasteful Brooklyn townhouse, she confirmed my belief that she is one of those rare people who has the magical ability to turn mere flavors of the moment into lifelong treasures.

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A Détacher dress, tights & shoes. 

Mona’s integrity impacts all aspects of her life, from the solidarity that she feels with her employees to the scrupulous hands-on business model with which she runs her Nolita shop. It’s Mona that makes you want her leather choker, her hot pink shaggy pillows, her diamond patterned tights, her version of the Cuban-heeled boot, and a Steven Alan button-down with the collar tucked under.

Whether Mona creates a collection inspired by her grandmother’s underthings or one that reflects upon her recent divorce, chances are that Mona’s heartfelt creations will speak to you as they’ve spoken to me.

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A Détacher dress, tights & shoes.

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A Détacher necklace & dress.

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A Détacher sweater & shoes. 

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Steven Alan shirt, A Détacher skirt, tights & shoes. 

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Elisa: What’s your feeling in general about what’s happening in the world in terms of curation and quality? Are you optimistic? What’s your feeling about how our culture encourages uniqueness and authenticity as opposed to homogeneity?

Mona: You know, I think there is always a narrower audience, but I think it’s a real audience. People are always like, “Oh there’s this backlash.” I don’t know that there’s this big tremendous backlash. I’m not sure I believe that. But I think if you can accept that you’re addressing a smaller audience, you’re fine. I don’t have the ambition to dress everyone in the world. I think that New York is actually the perfect place to maintain a business with integrity. People always ask why I haven’t opened a store in Paris. I think Parisians are much more snobby and conservative. They’re more likely to throw their money towards a major label.

Elisa: Having been a fashion editor and stylist for Conde Nast in the late 80s/early 90s, I feel that there aren’t many places to discover in terms of shopping.

Mona: Exactly, and when I travel I go into the normal places — I just want to see the dish store, the hardware store — because when you go into the fashion places I feel like there is the same stuff everywhere. I feel, also, that as an artist who has my own store I have all of these opinions about how it should feel. I think I’m hard to please.

Elisa: Is there a panic around designing and the pressure of doing a new collection for each season?

Mona: There is always a panic around it. I feel I am always like, “Oh my god, it’s not happening!” because I don’t approach design with a definition, like I’m going to do nautical this season. I’m always waiting for something real to happen, and sometimes it gets very late. This season I asked how close we would have to be to the show for my team to decide that we are pulling old stuff out of the closet and just showing old designs. I’m always thinking about designs. Sometimes I try something in the moment and it just doesn’t work, but then five years later you pick it up and you know what to do. I have to say, I find the whole process pretty elusive.

Elisa: It’s very fluid

Mona: It’s very fluid, and I find it very confrontational because I don’t feel like it’s this comfortable thing.

Elisa: It’s a constant challenge.

Lily: Do you think that if you didn’t have the time pressure it would happen more fluidly?

Mona: Maybe, or maybe it just wouldn’t happen at all.

Elisa: The time pressure could be helpful.

Mona: In a way, I don’t know. At some point you’re just like something’s gotta go out there. For instance, the summer season’s much longer. It is nice, ’cause I drape all my own muslins. I do all my own pattern making. When you have that extra bit of time, you have a little more time to make mistakes. It’s kind of like I can spend a week on this and if it doesn’t work it’s okay. Whereas in winter , you’re so aware of  the time it’s like “Oh my God, I can’t …” You feel like everything’s gotta work. So it gets you a little pent up and sometimes I’m like “Am I being creative or am I doing the same old thing because I’m afraid of it not working?” The difference between five months and seven months is big. If they managed to divide it evenly that would be awesome, because in the winter you have holidays and every time you’re like “Ah, this three day work week.” So it gets a little tight, especially since I’m not handing stuff off to other people.

Elisa: Your clothes are very fresh and new but at the same time they’re also very classic.

Mona: I don’t think I’m classic. I’m interested in the point where something becomes a classic, when something veers from being new and weird to being classic. There have been a ton of pieces that had everyone thinking they were groundbreaking for five minutes and now they’ve become the most classic things. So even if an idea is weird, it’s kind of normal. Some pieces I design have one sleeve, but the balance is so perfect that you really can’t consider it a weird thing. In the end you’re like, “Of course this has one sleeve.” I think in a funny way that that’s the most transgressive, because it’s the stuff that people accept.

Lily: Did you ever have the motivation to dress more people or were you always comfortable with having a niche audience?

Mona: I go both ways. Sometimes I feel like I don’t understand why we don’t sell more and then there are other times when I understand why we don’t sell more. I feel like the people who need to find us eventually find us. I’m not a numbers person. If everything is working out financially, if we can pay our bills, and everyone’s compensated, then everything’s okay and I try not to make it such a numbers game. I don’t want to analyze the numbers. I don’t want to involve business people either because what if somebody came in and said I have to make jeans in China?

Elisa: Is there anything that happened to you that you would say was a failure or something that became a springboard for you — where you really learned and it made you stronger?

Mona: I would say working for Rykiel was very interesting for me.

Elisa: When was that?

Mona: Right before I started my store — two years before.

Elisa: When did you start your store?

Mona: I’ve had the store for fourteen years, so like sixteen or seventeen years ago. A friend of mine spoke to them about me for a position as a design director and so I flew to Paris.

Elisa: Was it surreal?

Mona: Well, I don’t think I interview well in English. I get too nervous. But in Paris I felt like I’m just this French lady getting a job. I got there and I immediately felt that it wasn’t for me. I am a hands-on person and at first when I got there I would try to work in my way. I would go to the atelier and I’d ask them to prepare half muslins so I could look at them, but it was never appreciated because you’re not supposed to do that — intervene in their normal process — at a corporation.

Elisa: To be an individual thinker is not what they’re looking for.

Mona: No, that is not what they’re looking for. When I came back I wrote my business plan and I felt that I wanted to have my own store and environment. I had never done pattern making before, but at Rykiel I had worked very closely with the pattern maker, so I had a real sense of it. When I opened my store, people were saying that I should be doing runway shows, but I didn’t have enough money. If I had done a show right away, I would have gone out of business in a year. I always think, you can’t run your business with your ego. There’s creative and there’s pragmatic, and you’ve got to make those two things work. My one rule is don’t work with people you dread. Like, the person you’re going to dread picking up the phone to call, don’t work with that person.

Ramona: Work with people that give you joy.

Elisa: That’s good advice.

Mona: I’ve done it. I remember we worked with a furrier. He was straight from the Russian Gulag. I told him, “You didn’t make this fur right,” and he was like, “What do you mean?” I just felt I couldn’t work with him. If we can’t find a good furrier, we don’t need to do fur. We can just do something else.

Elisa: Just be nimble. Go to the next thing. So for your next collection what adjectives would you use to describe it?

Mona: It’s travel and camouflage. I love to travel, it’s like my one thing, so it’s like this psychological camouflage. What you take with you, how you fit in, how you don’t fit in. There’ll be a certain aspect of layering and practicality. I like these kinds of topics sometimes because they touch upon a lot of structural and emotional aspects. I’m always interested in the emotional aspect of clothing.

Elisa: Yeah, ’cause with traveling you almost kind of reinvent yourself.

Mona: Reinvent. Exactly, or you can be that person who is super rigid.

Ramona: Yeah, you can’t change at all.

Mona: So it’s interesting, and clothing always has this funny role in the creation of the self. It’s very psychological.

Elisa: And it’s very soulful. What fascinates me about clothing is how it’s the vision, taste, and experiences of a person.

Mona: Yeah. When I separated from my husband, I did this collection called The Dead Husband Collection. I’m not in therapy, analyzing what’s going on. I remember my ex-husband stopped by the store and I was like, “Oh let me just show you the collection. It’s the dead husband collection.” When I said The Dead Husband he was like “Oh my god, that’s me!” And I had a moment of recognition where I felt, oh this is actually a reflection of what’s going on in my life right now. Whatever’s going on in my life gets out somehow.

Elisa: So what have you been reading?

Mona: I read “The Volcano Lover” by Susan Sontag. It’s the last book I read that I really enjoyed. I have not read all of Susan Sontag, but the prose was very interesting — weirdly stilted but interesting. It was simple, poetic, and complex at the same time.

  • Brandon Acton-bond

    Phenomenal designer… Really appreciate Mona’s humble and pragmatic approach to design and business. Wish more were like her….

  • Cathy

    I love her.

  • http://twitter.com/DeSmitten Christina DeSmet

    Mona is my favorite designer, thank you so much for this in depth interview!

  • Cate

    So eloquently spoken