Designer Jonathan Cohen On Why He's Pausing His Runway Collection To Focus On New Ideas
At the end of 2019, designer Jonathan Cohen decided to dive into his archive of deadstock fabric, creating limited edition items that would be sold on his website out of upcycled fabric scraps. He could not have known then, but this creative side project has become central to his business in the midst of Covid-19. With the decision not to produce the clothing from his Fall/Winter 2020 runway show, and to skip a Spring/Summer 2020 season all together, Jonathan Cohen The Studio is a chance to explore other sustainable and more personal ways to work during these times.
"We've been wanting to restructure things and change the timeline of how we deliver our clothing and how we present it," Cohen explains during a Zoom call in August. The pace from collection to collection had kept Cohen and his business partner Sarah Leff from ever feeling like the timing was right to change their delivery schedule. But, as COVID-19 disrupted their plans — with retail orders put on hold and factories shutting down — the duo decided it was time to do things differently. "Once we made that decision it took off a little bit of pressure," he explains. They quickly moved out of their studio space on Bowery in NYC, putting their clothes, desks, and means of production into storage. "Paying the rent didn't make sense. We made really quick decisions on how to financially keep it going and save money."
In the midst of this pause for Cohen and Leff, the duo considered how to run a clothing line in the midst of a global pandemic and how to think more holistically about their business as they waited to resume their ready-to-wear collections. The Studio served as a jumping off point.
The designer's cheerful custom prints — florals and jacquards — have long been a signature of the brand, and the flexibility to use some of these older fabrics in new ways meant they could work with what they already had sitting around. "We could continue to take those textiles we have and continue that project so we're not producing new textiles," Cohen says. "Factories were closed, our mills were closed so we knew we would focus on that and do the look drops and that. And then we came up with this concept that really took off for us, I was really blown away."
The Studio began as a collection of limited edition sustainable clothing items. However, it has quickly expanded into new categories including masks, hair accessories, and pillows. The Studio lives exclusively on Cohen's e-commerce site, becoming part of a larger ecosystem that lives there and includes Cohen's other projects, like a collaboration with flip flops brand Tidal. While Cohen's ready-to-wear line is sold by boutiques and department stores, preventing him from controlling prices or timing, The Studio's model allows him to design to his own schedule, control his own production cycle and reduce waste, while also connecting him to customers.
Focusing on projects that live exclusively on his own website have also allowed Cohen to add in a more philanthropic element to his work. In April, Cohen also launched a project called Our Flower Shop on the site, digital bouquets that can be sent via text or email with a portion of proceeds going to charities including The Bail Project, Covid At The Border, and A Common Thread.
"It's this beautiful bouquet and you don't have to worry about deliveries or anything and aside from raising money, you are sending it back and forth with people creating this dialogue," Cohen says. "I remember there was this bouquet that was to someone's mom and it was like 'I'm so glad we can have these conversations with each other' ... she wrote that on the card. It felt like this really great way of how do we still maintain our community and grow a community in this age of Zoom and being distant from each other."
Now, for his latest launch within The Studio, Cohen has turned to collaborators and friends like milliner Gigi Burris and tailor Antony Vallon to create items from the aforementioned deadstock fabric that fit into the modern lifestyle and needs of Cohen's customers. When The Studio initially launched, it was a way to not only reduce waste, but to create a product that Cohen could sell directly to consumers without competition or input from their traditional retail partners. "It was important for us to never discount or outdate a textile that was developed," Leff says. "Just because it went down a runway in Fall 2018 doesn't mean it should be half off four months later. No less work went into that textile at full price then discount."
Over the years, Cohen's team has accumulated a deep archive of custom prints that now can be repurposed and mixed together in re-imagined ways for use in The Studio collection. "It allows us these smaller pieces at different price points and, also, they're great pieces for the home which obviously we're all thinking about," adds Cohen. "Even the scrunchies are great for a Zoom call." With the idea of returning to an office on indefinite hold, Cohen is looking to these small everyday items as ways to bring a little extra elegance and comfort to your routine and wardrobe.
Even face masks have gotten a luxury touch thank to Cohen. "If we're going to wear face masks it should be part of a style," he explains. "We worked with our pattern maker who does all of our really couture pieces." Adds Leff, "It's applying the art of a $10,000 dress to the scale of your mask because it's something you're wearing every day. When you're dressed up you don't want to wear a $10 mask, if you're actually getting dressed up to go somewhere and you're putting on jewelry, why not make the mask part of it."
Come spring, Cohen will be back to producing his label, but with a few thoughtful tweaks including smaller timed-out releases over the season. "Of course my first passion is always going to be ready-to-wear, it’s what I live and breathe," he explains. "But it’s been nice to re-assess it and approach it in a different way. I never thought I’d like doing these drop-type shipments, but I really love it and it’s a cool way to work. That’s why we started The Studio, to test things out, drop things when we wanted to, and not have to wait for a gatekeeper. Let’s take some ownership and find ways to live our lives."
While in the future, Cohen will be able to produce his more traditional ready-to-wear collection and the sustainable, upcycled pieces of The Studio in tandem, for now, Cohen is using the once secondary project as a way of experimenting with both design and the way his business is run.
Below, shop the latest from Jonathan Cohen The Studio.
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