Most of those who come across the small SoHo shop at 262 Mott Street will have no idea that they’re about to enter the HQ of an exceptional small business. Spread across a mere 500 square feet, this is where designer Mona Kowalska runs, plans and orchestrates her internationally renowned label and shop concept A Détacher.
While the front of the shop is dominated by a wide variety of design styles – beautiful objects, heavy knits and Japanese-style silk kimono dresses, the store’s rear wall is covered in large mirrored panels, glistening in the afternoon sun. Not a real wall per se, this visual stumbling block turns out to be a mere partition, separating the shop from A Détacher’s actual epicentre: Mona Kowalska’s busy desk, littered with fabric samples and untold sketches. The surrounding walls display all of the previous 14 years’ sewing patterns and provide a fitting backdrop for Mona’s staff who are checking the upcoming collection’s sample looks to combine them with matching accessories. Moodboards and a model casting summary occupy the remaining space, yet still leave just about enough room for the designer herself.
Her platinum blond hair is tied up in a bun, her dress a dark shade of grey, her feet encased in leather sandals that make their audible mark with heavy wooden heels. Any talk about her oeuvre is accompanied by expansive gestures. “It’s extraordinary that we can run a label from such a tiny studio with so few staff. Two seasons ago, a critic compared my work to that of Alber Elbaz, the designer of French fashion house Lanvin. I would have loved to invite her over to give her an idea of the way we work. While it is flattering to be compared to an international fashion house, it is also quite absurd.”
In a way, it’s easy to follow the critic’s impression. After all, the designer’s work never betrays its small business roots. Every season, A Détacher presents a well-balanced and thoughtful collection using high-quality materials. All designs are clearly structured and every season Mona Kowalska sets out to tackle a new challenge, ranging from elaborate knitting patterns to exacting drapes and cuts worthy of a couturier.
In this, Mona Kowalska remains an exception – and an exceptional designer. Not only due to her aesthetic, influenced by her time at Sonia Rykiel and several Italian labels, but also because she pays less attention to the commercial viability of her designs than to creating a coherent and consistent collection. Her label does not clothe celebrities or invest in high-impact advertising. Instead, all A Détacher communications remain focused on seasonal fashion shows and the label’s tiny store. Long before shops were reimagined as experiential realms, Mona Kowalska’s tiny empire followed in the capable footsteps of early concept stores like Milan’s Corso Como or Colette in Paris to offer a carefully curated collection of clothing, everyday objects and art of her own making supplemented by items she discovers on her travels.
Her own output shows that Mona Kowalska has an exceptionally great feel for materials. “I find myself less interested in the way something looks and more in the way it feels”, she explains. In the same vein, just looking at her A Détacher range is simply not enough. You have to touch and try her clothes in order to understand what she means when she says, “my fashion is sexy from within.” And while the result is never shapeless, it tends to gently caress the curves rather than construct an ideal silhouette – thus putting the going perception of what makes ladieswear “sexy” to the test.