story written by Chloe Bensahel
photography by Ned and Aya Rosen
styling by Michael Tucker
hair by Agata
makeup by Sokphalla
model is Melinda from One Model Management
Mona Kowalska is not one of those fashion designers who sit in studios drawing pretty things to be sent out to distant places to be born. Not only does she make all of her patterns, but her small and efficient team of three takes care of all other aspects of the brand, including sales and press. Her atelier is located behind the Nolita store’s glitter-clad back wall, so that she may personally greet any customer who walks through the door. One even has to ring a bell to enter, a sign that one is not simply entering a store but rather a special place. Kowalska’s space, however, is unlike any other in that it is first and foremost personal. A common scene to be found in the store consists of a joyful customer walking in to pick up a custom-wrapped garment and a hug from the designer before strutting back out into the streets of Manhattan.
“I’m not a control freak about that, and it’s kind of interesting to see what people do with the clothes. Things should live outside of your space.”
Ms. Kowalska likes to draw inspiration from her own life for collections. As she explains, there isn’t one set process, as sporadic and unexpected ways of designing can make way for the best of collections. For instance, after finding herself a home, she based a collection on “grandma’s house,” sharing the comfort she found in a home of her own with others. Sharing is an important part of Kowalska’s work, whether it’s with other creative people or with the women dressed in her clothes. She isn’t, however, interested in sharing with everyone, rather with those who truly care. A Détacher doesn’t go looking for customers; customers come looking for A Détacher. In that same vein, A Détacher is not an aspirational brand: it does not prompt women to mold their identities around the brand. An A Détacher garment is one that fits you, just the way you are. In an industry that is constantly encouraging people to “better” themselves via fashion, this feels like a breath of fresh oxygen in a carbon dioxide-saturated world.
Kowalska even describes instances where she has happily altered designs for customers. She explains, “I understand why they like it and why they want it shorter.” Whereas she has in building her brand refused to compromise, she does not expect anything less from her customers. Mona Kowalska operates her business as one might a family, on a personalized level and a human scale. She works with store-orders so as to get only what she needs. Kowalska takes great pride in the fact that her clothes are manufactured her in New York, as opposed to the ubiquitous “Made Elsewhere” business structure that is so common within the industry. When asked about how the industry has shifted since she first began, she explains that this mode of manufacturing has had great impacts on the level of creativity. “It is hard to be creative at a distance.” Kowalska regularly visits her factory, nurturing the same personal relationship with it that she has with her customer base.
“When I first started in the industry, everyone had an in-house atelier. When you had the sample maker there, there were little things that you could tweak. Those are the things that are lost: the last step of refinement. That moves something like a good idea to something that you cherish, that you want to keep.”
Whereas “A Détacher” signifies “to detach” in French, every single part of Kowalska’s process, whether apart or as a whole, retains the same level of personalization and quality. A Détacher is like a good Proust novel: One can let it open, read skipping at random, to find that any one page is as rich and wonderfully constructed as any other in the book. When Mona Kowalska founded her brand, she was very much ahead of her time. The economic recession and digital revolution have created a customer base that is more critical than ever, looking for answers when the rest of the industry is constantly trying to cover its tracks. Kowalska has nothing to hide, as her clothes are only made more beautiful through the process by which they are made, and like good literature, that never goes out of style.