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Photo credit Brigitte Lacombe
Interview

Mona Kowalska

01.13.16

We should all be grateful designer Mona Kowalska, ditched her Chicago studies to pursue fashion design in Italy in the 90s. The result is the cult favorite, prints-heavy brand A Détacher. With a stint at Sonia Rykiel, Kowalska soon made her way to New York to develop her own ideas into fashion. At the time, 1998, New York was a different place, and young, independent designers were a fountain of creativity bursting with ambition. Kowalska set up shop downtown, literally, she opened her first store when she launched the brand, her studio is in the back. Her striking and unique designs are all her own, she creates the patterns and develops the prints. What is so refreshing about Kowalska is that she operates to the beat of her own drum; she seeks balance, yet is constantly pushing herself, challenging the brand to stretch further and explore new opportunities.

Interview

The fact that the brand has been in business for 17 years is kind of a feat in itself; can you talk a little bit about the evolution of the brand?

In a funny way I feel like some things have evolved and others have really not evolved. I still work very much in the same way. You know, I still do all of the pattern making and sizing. We just do a lot more now in terms of shoes and the knitwear collection which can get quite important. I keep having to say “no more, no more,” but sometimes you just have one idea and it kind of opens into a lot of pieces. I try to keep the collections small, because we are small and we sell to small boutiques not department stores, so that hasn’t changed.

Are you remaining small by choice?

I don’t know that we’re really a department store brand. If somebody has an affinity for the brand, I am obviously happy to work with them. You know when I started, we didn’t really wholesale at all. I got approached by the Japanese very early, really before I was ready. I wasn’t even thinking about wholesaling; I just wanted to get the store up and running. But then I was like “Oh my god” they’re here now, so that’s when I started wholesaling to Japan before anywhere else. I expanded to the United States over the past 7 years really; it mostly coincides with the shows.

I just interviewed M.Martin and they also started in Japan. They felt that there was something unique about that customer because they understand fashion in completely different way than the US or European consumer. Do you feel the same?

They’re always looking for new brands. I think it’s an extremely open market whereas Europe is very big brand driven.

Are you still selling in Japan?

Yes, and we are selling in Korea now which is a new market for us, but we actually have a lot of Korean clients here so I have a little bit of an idea of the sensibility so it makes sense to me.

Who is the A DÉTACHER woman? Do you derive inspiration from yourself?

There are certainly collections that I have more of an affinity for than others. So I wouldn’t say that every collection is my personal wardrobe. However, I do design things that I like and when things come back it’s usually because I’ve worn the previous one out and I need a new one. So, there is a personal component for sure but I don’t need to wear every piece.

You do your own prints as well?

Yes, more than we used to. I like doing the prints and we’ve done so many nice ones, so every season you want them to be just as nice as the others.

How many collections do you create per year?

I still do 2 collections. We’re probably one of the few brands that does 2 collections, with a store. I just think that there is too much product out there. And I still think that a show is the most exciting way to show a collection. There’s movement and a realness to it that I think is nice. But there are so many shows, and then it becomes hard to convince people to come to your show. The show is not the problem, the amount of product is the problem.

Do you enjoy the format of the show and the process leading up to it?

I do, because I enjoy the collaboration. I collaborate with people here but it’s different because you kind of bring people into your world; it’s less people doing what you’re asking. For instance with the music, I give them a description and then they’ll propose something. I do enjoy it a lot. It also allows me to articulate much more clearly.

Who styles your show?

Haidee Findlay-Levin. Essentially she’s done all 15 shows. We’ve also worked with same people for the music and casting of all the shows, so it’s like a little team. It’s kind of nice that everyone shows up twice a year, and we spend this intense week together. It’s a very comfortable way of doing it.

I feel like the brand has become much more popular in the last 3 to 5 years. How has it changed for you?

In a funny way, I feel that fashion is catching up with us a little bit. It’s not to sound arrogant, but I think there’s more of an interest with this type of clothing. We had a huge a overlap with Marni when it was at its height and I see why that is, but I don’t think we’re exactly that either. I also don’t think there are that many people who do what we do, who dress this particular woman, we’re small. You asked who the customer is, and I do think she’s someone who works and behaves similarly to myself. We’ll get gallery people and art directors but also professors and other working women.

Your clothes don’t take a lot of accessorizing because they speak for themselves, right?

I think I create for someone who is busy and doesn’t have the most time to devote to this so she buys things that she knows will work. You can wear them for a long time, and then next season buy something else that coordinates with earlier pieces from my collections. I have customers that say “My whole closet is full of your stuff,” but they will have shopped with me for years; it’s not something that happens in five minutes. So I’m a little bit that person too. I want to look good, but I’m kind of lazy about it. I don’t want a store with a ton of merchandise. I don’t want to go through a million racks and go from store to store.

When a new store approaches you about carrying your collection, do you go through a sort of vetting process to see if they’re a good fit for you?

We do a little bit, but we’re pretty open. If someone is incredibly difficult, I won’t necessarily work with them. I do think that in working together it should be pleasant. There should be a respect, so occasionally we’ll part ways with someone I’m not so charmed by.

How do you feel about social media? Has it had a positive effect on your brand?

We do so little of it, that I wouldn’t even know. We Instagram a tiny bit. I like Instagram at the moment of the shows because you see all of the images from the runway. We’re backstage and never get to see them, and they’re more atmospheric. But otherwise, Instagram is a bit of a mystery to me. We as consumers are marketed to a lot and it can be a bit intense.

Do you ever feel pressured to grow the business?

I do, even from myself. Though it’s taken me a long time, and I have made more peace with my choices. Just the fact that when you choose certain things, you don’t get some things, but you get other things. People ask why I don’t do resort or many other collections, and they’ll say to just take old patterns but everything takes time. By essentially proposing something we’ve already done and repackaging it, it’s not really such an interesting exercise. We have a small audience, and people have what they have. There will always be people who tell you how to do things, but I feel that we’ve established ourselves enough.

So pre-collections aren’t on the horizon at all?

Do we need summer things arriving in the store in mid-December? Not really. I think it’s kind of absurd. We just sold a bathing suit today, and I understand that being one item we could keep year round or even a basic sandal. But other than that, I don’t think it needs to be a whole separate collection.

Do you ever collaborate with artists for special collections?

We haven’t, but they way I work is very labor intensive. What I do in-house, like pattern making, most people have done elsewhere. They will have a knitwear designer, and someone else to do their prints, and a shoe designer. Where as we do all of that with a tiny team. I enjoy it, and I never want to become a manager of people, so I never want to outsource. That’s the good stuff. You can’t tell other people what to do because they don’t see what you see. It’s not arrogance, and it’s nice to collaborate, but I like to do those things.

How large is the team?

It’s three people and one person who works in the store on the weekends. It’s tiny.

It’s amazing you still do all of the grading and pattern making.

It’s a lot. So we limit ourselves to 18 patterns a season. We physically reach a point where we can make them but we can’t grade more than that. Everything has to maintain a certain manageability. I throw out things and try to pick the best versions of each design which helps me to be very critical and reductive.

When do your start working on pieces for the next season? Does your work ever overlap because of how time consuming it can be?

Right now we are working on next season which is Fall/Winter 2016. We’ve mostly finished footwear and knitwear, and the drafted patterns should be arriving soon and we’ve started draping. Winter is the most demanding collection because of the heavier focus on knitwear, whereas summer lends more to accessories.

Where is your knitwear made?

It’s made in Peru which is also where we create the shoes, handbags and some home accessories. I go and observe techniques three times a year. It’s an incredibly agreeable place to work. There’s only an hour time difference, so it’s easy to work there.

I would love to know your thoughts on the industry as a whole, and the burn out which seems to be occurring with designers such as Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz. Do you have a positive view of the industry?

I find nothing shocking about those two particular situations. Alber Elbaz was there for 14 years, so he had a nice run. When you have a contract it either gets renewed or it doesn’t; his was not a tenured position. It’s hard to stay on top forever. I think that we’re working more at an Internet pace than a store pace. The Internet is so voracious, and it needs so much content that we are creating all of these clothes to create content for the Internet. We can’t consume this much. Most people have so much that they’re reselling their things. I think it would be nice if there was more thoughtfulness about that. I think everyone is dissatisfied and sees that there is a problem, but people still do 4-6 collections a year. People who have been designing for less than 5 years will still do all of those things and complain about the amount of product while creating more product than they’re even inspired to make.

You do need time to process things. It takes time to fix a design, then something else happens and the collection goes in a whole different direction. All of those things take time, and then you get to the end and think you did the best that you could. It’s not so easy to feel that. I don’t think everyone needs that and motivations are different. Just figure out why you’re doing it.

Is there any advice you would give a new designer?

It’s a lot work, so just figure out what role you want it to have in your life. I travel and take time off. You need to take care of yourself properly because you’re going to be working a lot. You need to find the time to read, spend time with friends and create a full life for yourself.

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