Detaching with Mona Kowalska

Achingly hip New York-based fashion label A Détacher is often referred to as having been kept ‘deliberately small’, but it’s a description that irks its Polish-born founder, Mona Kowalska. “I did nothing to maintain my business as a small business,” says the designer via a video call from the Big Apple. “I didn’t want to become a manager of people, I wanted to remain a designer and stay as close to that as possible. Doing that automatically meant a much smaller collection. There is all this romanticism around a small business, that it has more integrity, but I always sort of resented how much romance people attributed to it. A small business is difficult.”


Mona has been meticulous in her hands-on approach, from personally sourcing the materials to the sketching to the stitching. Her humility and understated offerings have earned her what The New Yorker describes as an “almost cult-like clientele” of creative women. “You know, I made all the wrong decisions, but I made them right, and I made it work,” she continues with a wry smile. “It was an experiment.”


I made all the wrong decisions, but I made them right, and I made it work.”


And it’s an experiment that’ll soon come to end with Mona set to step away from the industry and close her Mulberry Street Studio in a matter of months, possibly permanently.


“I’ve done this for 21 years, so it was a very difficult decision,” she says. “I love what I do, I love the people that I’ve worked with, the travel that it affords me. It was a difficult decision, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I want to explore my options.”


A beacon of morality in a most cynical of industries, Mona Kowalska is famously thoughtful—and political. I wonder if her retreat is in part down to exasperation. She has previously expressed concerns about environmental impacts, and tells me that all fashion is now ‘fast fashion’. The big companies have “consolidated their power”, their “gazillion collections” making it evermore difficult for smaller-scale enterprises. Sustainable design, she says, is good design. She laments fashion’s lack of self-reflection: “The way the industry operates fits perfectly with a Trump presidency. It’s mirroring its times which I think is a real shame.”


Mona moved to the US with her mother aged nine, having been born and raised in the communist Polish capital of Warsaw. I enquire as to how her upbringing shaped her outlook and she admits probably much more than she realised. “Of course that system does not function perfectly, but I do have a sense of how we are all interrelated,” she says. “That sense of co-dependency and cooperativeness.”


Fashion appears to have escaped any major #MeToo moments (so far). I ask Mona about the general treatment of women within the industry and issues around equality. The situation, she says, is not good: “Take a look at any magazine spread about ten up and coming designers and it will be eight men and two women. And it has been that way for 30 years. Yet, go to any fashion school and the students will be 80 percent female.”


Why do you think that is?

“I think we are taught to be too modest. And you know, modesty is not an asset in this industry. It’s the people that are brash and arrogant that to succeed. But throughout the history of fashion, with the likes of Coco Chanel, it has been women who have been the most influential. Women have had a greater impact on how women dress. Look at Phoebe Philo. Women are the biggest innovators, yet are somehow sidelined. I don’t understand it. Maybe we need to get involved more in storytelling.”


Mona’s mother too was a clothesmaker, in one of Poland’s state-run factories.


“I always felt like I could do it,” she says. “I just grew up around clothes and so it was natural to think about them.”


I ask Mona if her strong work ethic was instilled by her mother, and she says that she was raised to be “extremely independent”, essentially the other side of the same coin. I also wonder if her hands-on approach means she can be somewhat of a control freak.


“I can be! But I think I also know when to let go. There’s always something you’ll be working on and there’s that moment where you just have to stop and admit that it’s not working, that it’s a bad idea. I think I’m pretty good at that moment.”


Symbolically, it was during such a moment, making a jacket, that Mona decided the time was right for her to take that break. “I just thought, ‘Okay, if you’re experiencing your creativity as a deficit, then you’re probably working in the wrong medium.’ That jacket made me feel like it was time to move on.”


There’s a factory in Peru where Mona has sourced her knitwear for the past 18 years. She has visited it regularly, and sends them pictures of all the finished designs, all of which, she says proudly, they remember. She has built trust and friendships with the workers and severing such ties she says has been the hardest part of her decision to call it quits. Looking back, however, I suggest it must be extremely satisfying to know that she did, to misquote Sinatra, do it her way.


“Absolutely. There’s so much I feel proud of. I’m just so proud of this business, I really am. But, you know, in some ways, I hope that the best is yet to come.”


Photos: Judith Linn