01 photo editor Jennilee and I went to meet Founder/ Designer of A Détacher Mona Kowalska at her boutique on Mott Street in New York upon her return from Paris Fashion Week. After arriving late due to torrential rain, unavailable taxi cabs, and a complete lack of directional sense, we walked into a soft modern space that was calm and welcoming. The Polish born designer mirrored the mood of her store with her reposeful demure and understated sophistication. I sat down with Mona to chat about being head of Sonia Rykiel’s design studio in Paris, being a man for one season, and her many escapades in Europe before opening her store in New York in 1998.
(Portraits of Mona Kowalska courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe)
You grew up in Warsaw, Poland…How was your childhood?
Very happy…very free. There was no crime. I was always running around the city with my cousin. We moved to Baltimore when I was nine and that was the end of my freedom.
That seems a bit ironic doesn’t it?
Yes, it definitely seems ironic. The happiest part of my childhood was in communist Poland.
What kind of music and fashion were you influenced by as a teen that helped cultivate who you are now?
I was always into clothes. However, I really didn’t get into music until I went to college and was influenced by my boyfriends who listened to bands like the Smiths and New Order.
I grew up in a very normal household. If there was any music playing at all, my family would be listening to Chopin or Polish choral music. My stepfather was much older than my mother and the more dominant one in the house. It was like having two older parents not interested in contemporary music.
I had 3 albums growing up- Parallel Lines, Bringing it All Back Home and a Dave Brubeck album.
I recently read an autobiography by the musician/ artist Patti Smith called ‘Just Kids’. In the book she talks about going to The Philadelphia Museum of Art for the first time on an outing with her family at the tender age of twelve. In the museum she sees a piece by Picasso, and in that particular moment she knew that she was going to be an artist. Was there any poignant times in your life where you realized you were destined to be a fashion designer?
I actually never had that. I approached fashion very practically – clothing was something I could make. I think the artistry came later as I realized the scope and richness of the topic- that it could be a form of self-expression.
I always felt that fashion design was the only things that I could really do. Only with time and experience did I realize how much it suited me.
What is your educational background?
I went to the University of Chicago and got a degree in Political Science. After that, I went to design school in Italy where I lived for 3 years. After that I moved to Paris for 4 years then I moved to New York for a short time, and then I moved back to Italy again, and then back to Paris for another year.
Didn’t you work for various labels in Italy?
Yes, I worked for some small labels after school in Italy before moving to Paris and working for Myrene de Premonville. Four years later, I moved to New York to be with my ex-husband.
Yeah, I was wondering how you ended up back in New York. You also worked in Paris with Sonia Rykiel am I correct?
I did, before I started my own collection. I was the head of her design studio. It was a good learning experience.
I am very hands-on and independent so I am not sure that I am temperamentally well suited for a job which involves so many meetings and individuals in the decision–making process. But I always thought I wanted to work for a big house, so it was good to see what that entailed.
Or maybe, quite simply, the timing wasn’t right. I felt that I still had things to say and make. So that experience really focused me on starting my own collection.
Well it seems to have come in full circle for you where you ended up being here in New York doing what you are doing. Sometimes things are serendipitous. I understand some people don’t believe in that but I do think that you need these experiences to grow… have heartbreaks or whatever…but some how you find your way…
It took me a while to like New York. Only when I started my business did I come to appreciate the independence of spirit that exists here.
When I first moved to Paris, I really felt that I had somehow come home. I never had that in New York- I felt very intimidated by the city.
For work, however, I found Paris a bit depressing and conservative. The obsession with good taste really kills creativity. When I opened my store, I came to appreciate the chaos and the resulting openness of New York.
How did you come up with the name?
It means “to be detached”. It is the most anonymous label; I never considered using my name.
Sonia Rykiel is known for her construction with knits. When I look at your woven products I see the high standard of quality as well. Is there any influence from working there that you took with you into your label?
You know what I liked about Sonia is that she was very practical and modern.
It doesn’t seem that way at all, with the type of personality that she exudes with the public…
Yes, but when you look at her designs, you see that the pockets are low so you never have to bend your arms and that your arms just hang. Everything can be gotten in and out of very quickly. Her very use of knit belies her obsession with comfort and movement.
I guess where we part ways is her devotion to the idea that fashion must be “fun’- that seriousness lies elsewhere.
When I look at your clothes l see architectural ideas within your designs. It is so sculptural and the construction and detailing is well executed that I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of your pieces in a gallery. When I look at your collection I have a feeling it is not about trends but more about design integrity….
I am not particularly interested in trends. I am not as interested in how clothes look; I am more interested in how they feel. To me it’s more about the garment from the inside out. I do all my own pattern making; so when I am making a garment, I have to find something about the design that interests me.
(Photos from the archives courtesy of A Détacher)
Is it hard to do everything, from idea to execution?
It is at times hard. The size of the collection directly reflects how much I can do.
You are unapologetic about your decisions when it comes to designing your collection. Your approach is more carefree. Does this give you more freedom to explore your ideas?
I think what appears carefree from the outside is really a desire to be in control of my process and what I communicate. We try to do everything here; so it is a bit limiting but I like a small collection. I get overwhelmed very easily, so for me it’s kind of a nice balance. It’s also about getting down to the essence of what something is.
So you have creative control over it?
Yes, I think that is what gives the garment the finish. I am taking a problem and solving it. I don’t apply default solutions. I really babysit each garment and try to find a finish and details that not only address the structural needs of the garment but also that they communicate what I am exploring and thinking about at a given moment.
I like idea of the process of ‘making’ from idea to execution. Getting to the end result is a thought-provoking journey within itself. I think that it’s really great that you the designer, has touched the garments that you are selling before the product makes it into the stores. I guess that is the beauty of having a small collection that you have more a hands on experience with your designs compared to others who don’t have the time to inspect their garments before the merchandise is shipped.
Yes we try to do everything. Sometimes our patterns are odd so I end up grading them as well because no one else can do it. I do all the sizing after too.
We work with a great factory. And we have worked with one factory that is awesome for 12 years. We didn’t start out with a level of complication. I think our things looks deceivingly simple but to make them is quite complicated.
When you are making the pattern you are actually addressing everything. How do I want the neck to be finished? What if it twists? What does the inside of the garment look like? What does the outside of the garment look like? What’s the shape of the pocket and so forth…
I think making a garment look simple with quality in mind must be the hardest thing to do. Is it a constant battle for you to find the fine line to create a piece that is not over designed but still comes across as a luxury product? It must be hard making the perfect white t-shirt.
I think restraint is hard. When you start draping something, there is a gesture in it. But then you have to turn it into something finished and reproducible. A lot can get lost here.
Half the battle is keeping the freshness of the original moment – when the garment seemed perfect- not over-finishing but also not under-finishing it.
I read that you consider yourself more of a curator than a designer?
I think fashion is such a deep topic. You touch upon human psychology, on construction and architecture, on art, on sociology… It’s quite vast and I enjoy it. I don’t need to reinvent myself.
I actually came to your shop this week to check it out while you were in Paris and got stuck for an hour looking at different objects and nick-knacks in your store. I noticed some objects are sold under your label but others are just placed in your store because they are a good representation of A Détacher. I like that the prices vary but your specific taste does not change.It’s really thoughtful balance. It makes the store welcoming and unpretentious.
Having objects and having pricing vary was a choice. I don’t like the idea that things that are nice are necessarily expensive. I wanted to create a dialogue about form and function and the power and importance of objects in our lives. I didn’t want price to be part of the equation.
How long have you been open? How did you find this space?
I have been here 14 years. It is the only space we have ever had. Our studio is in the back, which you are welcome to see. It functions as a real studio. It’s tiny back there.
The S/S13 collection was a tad sexier compared to your past collections…
I don’t think we are sexy or not sexy. I am always intrigued by these lines. Is it on trend? Is it off trend? Is it sexy? Or not sexy? I think our designs are always attentive to the body. Sometimes the designs are not as revealing, it’s more implied body rather then an explicit body. But the body is always there and we don’t ignore it. Most people who wear my clothes actually feel sexy in them and I think that is more important than if a garment is more revealing. I think the most important thing is how you feel in the garment that you are wearing. If you feel sexy, then you are sexy. When is a person who doesn’t feel sexy-sexy?
Sexy has never been a focus for me… I enjoy nostalgia as a topic in my collection and it’s something that people should talk about when it comes to looking at my designs. Last summer collection was called Grandma’s House, it was inspired by the idea of your grandmother as your first fashion influence- the person who brings older things into your life, ideas from the past, and your first exposure to vintage. I think everyone shares that and can understand the nostalgia. But for someone to look at that collection and say it’s not sexy, well… It’s about an emotional attachment to the clothing, that is more interesting than showing more leg.
It’s funny how the opinions vary about your collection depending on the who is writing the review in the press. A critic recently said that your collection was the Lanvin of New York, which I think is so flattering.
It’s nice when people can compare our collection to a brand like that; we are operating at such radically different scales.
Do you have inspirations that motivate you with every collection?
I do…I think its easier if you do. The collection from S/S13 was based on early pictures of Japan. When I came upon this amazing orange fabric which was Teflon I started thinking about nature and artifice, which made me think of Japan. I had a book of early photographs of Japan, which I had bought a long time ago and ignored. I started looking at this book and found a focus to everything.
The next collection after that, I was thinking of folklore and futurism. I wanted to specifically focus on the brutalism of folklore and futurism.
Brutalism, in what way?
The brutality of the shapes and colors and even fabrics. I wanted to find a common ground between these two seemingly opposing threads. It wasn’t easy because I had this real idea about how the end result should feel. It was a very elusive collection.
Did you make those patterns on the knits and fabrics yourself on the Japanese inspired collection?
The dress print came from a Victorian print that we modified. It’s beautiful. We didn’t work off of kimono prints. I don’t like to copy things. I like getting to the idea of something. It is more about getting the weight right or the feel right. When you look at traditional Japanese dress, the variety lies in the exquisiteness of fabric and décor and not the construction.
So the construction is simpler in this collection. The shoulder detailing was designed to erase the shoulder by creating a wide silhouette. The traditional kimono really erases the shoulder. We didn’t want to re-do a kimono because really a kimono is already perfect- gorgeous and hand made. I don’t think I can make that better or more contemporary.
We tried to add depth and richness with the rope details, the prints, the damask, and the obi- like details.
As a buyer of your clothing, I see this cohesiveness within your brand from collection to collection. The brand to me always has a minimal aesthetic, with beautiful simple details yet the design stays true to the nature of the garment. Do you believe that your clothing speaks a language?
I think we are pretty consistent. I can show you old look books. I have always done what I do. Sometimes you wish you could be someone else just to be more interesting, less boring to yourself. You think to yourself, “Am I making the same things over and over again?”
I think it would be cool to be a man for one season.