The first thing you need to know about designer Thomas Monet is that he knows the world of fashion can be sort of silly and self-important. He’s heard all the Zoolander-esque jokes — and goodness knows, probably made a few himself. But the second thing to note about the French designer and founder of Cool T.M, one of this season’s buzziest up-and-coming labels, is his deep professional and personal roots in the industry: for nearly two decades years, it’s been his home and an invaluable creative outlet.
“[Design and styling] is my only way to express myself, so I did it and I do it,” says Monet over Zoom. He’s Zooming with me from his home base in Paris. It’s late in the day his time, and he’s comfortably sitting next to his brand’s in-house model and erstwhile manager Hélène Diap (pictured throughout this shoot) after a long day of the moving his work atelier to a new space. They have the ease of two people who work long hours closely together and frequently break into French to discuss the best English translation to answer to my questions. “Fashion is sometimes so pretentious and stupid,” he continues as she nods. “And I want to say like, ‘OK, so we can do nice and cool stuff, but just relaxed and with humor.’”
Diap chimes in. “We value freedom,” she says.
Freedom is certainly an apt way to describe what Cool T.M offers to one’s wardrobe. Since launching in late 2019, months before the world began its on-again, off-again dance with pandemic-related restrictions, the brand has set itself apart with its playful pieces, and the irreverent outfits they inspire. And then there’s the effortlessly fun way Monet puts his creations together: A tweedy lemon colored skirt suit and music note-covered shirt? Surprisingly chic together. Slinky-silky pajama striped pieces and fishnets? Unexpected yet awesome. The brilliance of it all is that almost every silhouette in the line is simple enough to break up and wear in a more conventional way (house signatures include oversized blazers, colorful hoodies, and silky blouses). But the streetwise artistry of Cool T.M’s shows and look book styling invites fans to try something more adventurous in a delightfully approachable way.
With its anything-goes approach to fashion, Cool T.M pieces don’t fit neatly in any one specific gender box. And Monet doesn’t plan on changing that anytime soon: “From the beginning, when I start to draw [ideas], I think about silhouette, not the body,” he says, pointing out that, while there is separate men’s and women’s sizing on his website, there’s no real stylistic distinction between the two sections. “It's not really important — woman can dress with like men's stuff and be really sexy for me. And it's cooler, of course.” Meanwhile, the Cool T.M dude isn’t afraid to wear his tweedy jacket (an item that continues to sell out) over his pink rainbow hoodie, or a floral granny cardigan paired with a pastel stripe tee.
Monet, of course, did not land on this distinctive aesthetic overnight. A former soccer player from the small town of Auxerre in France, the designer began his long and twisty professional path as a student at Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode (ESMOD), which he attended for a year before accepting a internship (and eventually a job) with Daniel Cremieux, which Monet describes as “the French version of Ralph Lauren.” From there, he jumped to Balmain while it was helmed by legendary designer Christophe Decarnin (also of Paco Rabanne fame) whom he ultimately followed to Faith Connection.
The freewheeling French house, known for its elevated rock ’n roll aesthetic and egalitarian approach to design (while most major brands’ looks are shaped by a single creative director, this one relies on a collective of designers) by many counts suited Monet’s eclectic fashion ethos. “In the beginning, it was really interesting stuff to work on it,” he recalls of his time at the company, citing his own internal lack of purpose for leaving. “But at the end [of my time there], it was like too messy. And I lost the reason why I did my job.” So he decided to take some time off to regroup and remember what he loved most about his career.
One year into his break, Monet began to envision what running his own label might look like, beyond just making interesting clothes. “For me, it was like really important to have something that was not all about fashion, but also business and brand development,” he says. “Because fashion is multidisciplinary. There are things to do: logistics, images, marketing, communication. It's a lot. I think about when I meet people and explain my brand, what do I want them to know?”
One thing that may be less obvious to the outside observer? Just how small Monet’s team is. In addition to his help modeling and around the studio from Diap, the designer relies on three additional employees, two pattern-makers, and a tiny cadre of freelancers and part-timers to pull together a sizable line-up of 100+ designs each season. When I inquire how many collections he produces per year — is pre-fall included? Resort? — he and Diap can barely contain their laughter. Just two, they assure me, that’s more than enough.
“I just continue to think about what I want to do and not what the fashion needs,” he explains. “Because fashion needs nothing — it is huge already.”
Still, Monet has managed to do a lot with limited resources — and, one could posit, infused the industry’s overcrowded space with something interesting and fresh. The rest of the world has noticed. Since releasing its debut collection in January 2020, Cool T.M has grown its retail footprint exponentially (its first season alone garnered orders from 44 stores), grown a celebrity fan base (Gwen Stefani, Gigi Hadid, and Machine Gun Kelly have all worn the clothes), and landed a spot as an 2022 finalist for ANDAM, a French fashion award created to fund and nurture the country’s rising industry talent. While Monet ultimately did not win, he remains focused on what’s most important to him as a designer.
“It's what inspires me all the time. I look at the people, I look at the street, I look at the life and look at the world,” he says. “So for me, I want to come down a little bit and to think more cleverly about what we can do and what we have to do. And to also recenter myself and be more focused about what I want.”
Photographer: Antoine Ferrier