As difficult as it is for independent brands to become part of NYC's fashion canon, there are always a few upstart exceptions. And lately, we've noticed a trend of smaller, start-up labels occupying the have-to-have racks inside the Big Apple's coolest retailers. The poster child for this discover-covet-buy routine? Sea, the wearable brainchild of design duo Sean Monahan and Monica Paolini. Though Sea is not a misnomer (we can easily picture the girlish frocks and brightly striped pants peddling a wicker-basket bike by the boardwalk), its breezy wares are also sophisticated enough to become the new uniform of the downtown Manhattanite whose style game mixes comfort and quirk.
Since that's you, we crashed the studio of the BFF design team to find out how they make it work after a lifetime of friendship and six years in the biz. Naturally, we discovered a sophisticated workspace chock-full of the tailored separates Barneys, Shopbop, and Steven Alan can't seem to keep in stock. Also included? Advice from Monahan and Paolini on how to make it in this city (by the Sea).
Photographed by Atisha Paulson
What's the one thing you want our readers to know about you and your line?
Sean: "Mon and I are super grateful to have the chance to work together every day on the
line. We haven’t had a show or a presentation yet, we haven’t really focused on press —
the team at Barneys has been especially supportive and given us the room to grow — but
Sea has really grown organically through the support of the girls that buy it. It’s been a
great six years and we are really thankful to have a customer that supports our business
and buys our clothes season after season because they appreciate the aesthetic."
Monica: Sea T-shirt and pants, Carven heels; Sean: rag & bone T-shirt, Sea jeans, Adidas shoes.
You two have been friends for ages — how does that help or hinder your design
Sean: "I believe the whole company is built on our friendship and our friendship is built
into the collections. I think being friends for so long is helpful because it removes any
filter...we just roll with whatever comes to mind and there is no fear of showing our hand
to each other."
Monica: "There is certainly no filter for Sean. He shows up to work in his pajamas and is
a total roller coaster ride. But, each day ends with a laugh and there’s an honesty in our
friendship that translates into the collection."
How has your aesthetic developed over time? Any old obsessions you can't believe you
once loved and anything you're currently in love with, style-wise?
Monica: "My heel height has definitely been cut down since I started working on Sea.
When I worked for more established designers I rarely left the office, but now I am in and
out of the factory and that’s necessitated a radical change in my shoe collection."
Sean: "Currently I’m very fond of Le Labo Candles — specifically Santal."
What is your most-worn piece this winter?
Sean: "Flannel navy pajamas. It’s not super warm in the loft, and as soon as I wake up
I start working and I don’t see much sense in changing. I suspect our design assistant, Young, believes this is a little pathetic."
Monica: "He suspects correctly but he’s quite right about it not being warm no matter
what temp the heat is on. I’ve been wearing one of our heavy hand-knit striped sweaters to stay warm."
What did you learn from growing up in Newburgh that influences your design?
Sean: "You learn to stay true to yourself. And I think Sea has found it’s aesthetic and customer and we work to stay true to that vision and what our
customer wants from us plays an important part in the design process."
What is the best piece of advice you can give young designers starting out in NYC?
Sean: "To know your aesthetic and keep your focus. And, that production quality and delivery
are just as important, if not more important, than the design process. And, always work
with people you believe in."
Where do you pull most of the inspiration for the line?
Sean: "There’s an image of our customer that we have internalized and that really informs the
line. The collection usually starts with a random idea that strikes us for whatever reason,
and then we start looking for fabrics and developing prints. Once we get those up on a
board the shapes come step by step. On a visit to London I came across a
gryphon and that became the inspiration for the pre-fall collection. The day I got back Mon and I
stopped into Church Street Surplus and we came out with the military idea. So, that’s how the
military green, stripes, and some of the shapes found their way into the collection."
Our Legacy shirt, Sea jeans, Adidas shoes.
What is a typical work day like for the two of you?
Sean: "Wake up, answer emails from Europe and Asia, and then walk over to the boards and start on reviewing the collection and production. Depending on the day we may have
some fittings and a bit of fighting will usually ensue. Kori delivers lunch at 1 p.m.. Then we
may go uptown to the factories. Come back down in the evening and when it’s quiet we
have the space to come up with shapes for the collection."
Where are some of your favorite spots near the studio?
Sean: "Di Palo’s is probably our favorite place in the city, we’ve been going there for 16 years now. Other highlights include Kori, Grand Daisy, and All Good Things for lunch, and La Colombe for coffee. We eat dinner a lot at Peasant and Omen, and Saluggis for Pizza. If it’s a big night out we may pass by Le Baron around the corner."
What is your typical lunch order and where do you get it from?
Sean: "Chicken Cutlet, Porchetta, and Buratta from Di Palos is my favorite without a doubt.
We recently hired two Korean girls, and for the last 10 days straight have ordered from
Kori. Solid place."
Vintage sweater, Sea skirt.
What designers or collections do you admire?
Sean: "I love Sacai. That’s my favorite collection. Our agent in Japan also looks after
Sacai and getting to see the collection in person for the last three years is really inspiring."
Monica: "I love walking into BDDW on Crosby Street. I’m not sure that qualifies, but I love
walking into the store — it transports you into their vision or aesthetic in a comfortable and
What would you be doing if not for designing this collection?
Sean: "I’d wish I could be a basketball player. And Mon, without a doubt, should be a chef. The food she cooks is 100% my favorite."
Sea dress, Sea belt, Carven heels.
What has been the biggest challenge you've faced so far?
Sean: "Cash flow is our biggest challenge at the moment. The company is 100% owned by Mon
and me, and over the last few seasons production has grown quite a bit. Barneys, Shopbop,
and Steven Alan are expanding the business in the US, but in Europe we went to 50+
points of sale over the past two seasons and in Japan we are around 100 points of sale.
Financing the growth in production and the addition of resort and pre-fall has been a bit
of a challenge; luckily our agent in Japan is more like a true partner/friend and helps us
along when we need it."
Getting stocked at the likes of Barneys in NYC is a major accomplishment, what has
been your biggest "I've made it" moment so far?
Sean: "Ha! Haven’t had that yet. But we know what it is — when we have an elevator we’ll know we’ve made it. Right now home base is our loft, which is amazing and huge and I am
always happy to walk into it, but there are five sets of impressively long staircases leading to that happiness."
Sean takes a look at the latest pieces, in a Maison Martin Margiela blazer, a rag & bone T-shirt, and Sea jeans.
What is one thing we'd never see in your collection?
Sean: "It's hard to say never, but skulls. We're not into skulls."
What can we look forward to from you in the seasons to come?
"We’d like to develop a complete look, so hopefully shoes and bags. Barneys gave us the
opportunity to do sleepwear and we launched a little exclusive line in December — it’s
been fun and inspiring to see Sea in a different floor and in a different product.
And, Scoop has given us a space in its row of stores in the West Village — we’re excited
to see how this baby step into retail works. It will be stocked with our resort '13, and we’ll bring some spring summer in later."
Sean: Fendi sweater.