Monse may only be three seasons young, but it can already pack a New York Fashion Week venue. The buzz surrounding designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia and their contemporary label certainly got a boost from last week's announcement that they would be taking over the reigns at Oscar de la Renta (the house that trained them professionally) come fall '17, but their solo project has become its own subject of widespread acclaim. (Selena Gomez, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Amal Clooney have all be seen in the brand's signature alternative shirting). This season, though, is when Kim and Garcia are really finding their footing — at least, that's what they tell us when we stopped by their studio the morning of the show.
The duo's spring 2017 collection featured old and new incarnations of the stripes and off-the-shoulder slanted collars that have made the brand a best-seller. In the span of just a few minutes, the look went goth (with lots of black and gray, intentionally oversized silhouettes, and piercings), glam (with all-embellished everything, à la the "new" Gucci), and professional (with tailored trousers held in place with matching oversized belts). But it's that sensibility for modernity — and a sense for what women are actually wearing — that Kim and Garcia proved they have perfected. They plan to bring that sensibility to their big Oscar de la Renta homecoming next season.
Not that de la Renta's influence was lost at Monse for even a second: Kim and Garcia invoke the late designer often in conversation and largely credit the success at their own label (both critical and commercial) to the mentorship they received from the late designer, who took them both under his wing as interns (it's a story that'll likely be logged in student dream journals for years to come). But what do the designers themselves think of this newfound success and their major journey ahead? Below, we chatted with the pair about their first gigs, the state of New York fashion today, and what people hoping to embark on a career in the industry should know.
When you were starting out in the industry, where did you envision your career going?
Laura Kim: "I actually wasn't expecting much. I wanted to try [to be a designer]. I thought I probably wouldn't get it. When I moved to New York, I thought I was just going to go to college. Everything just happened: Every day, I’ve worked really hard for it, but I didn’t expect to get a job at Oscar de la Renta or to start my own line. I wanted to, but I didn’t think it was possible."
What changed for you?
LK: "Since the first day I got here, I interned: I interned at TSE cashmere, Donna Karan, and Oscar de la Renta...Oscar offered me a job and I said, 'Okay!'"
You both worked your way up at Oscar de la Renta. What do you think made you both such good interns?
LK: "I have no personal life, so I think I gave the job everything. Same for Fernando — we were living in the office. If anyone needed anything, we were there. I think that’s really important, to just be ready to help out and to be available, as opposed to saying, 'I have to leave at 6 p.m.'"
Fernando Garcia: "You need to become dependable. Even if, at first, it’s for grabbing the scissors: You’re the Scissors Guy — and after that, they’ll say, 'Let’s give the Scissors Guy a blouse to drape.' That’s how it is. You need to become dependable for the worst of tasks and you go from there."
What do you look for now when you're hiring interns?
FG: "A yes person; someone who doesn’t think her or his job is just this — that tomorrow it’s going to be grabbing this or picking up that. The attitude of being available for anything it is that you need."
LK: "It’s a gut feeling, too. You want to be with this person 18 hours a day. Oscar hired me to do sketches, but I actually don’t like doing that — I ended up doing sketches and then moved on to something else, because [de la Renta and I] liked each other from the very beginning and had that room to figure it out. You might not do exactly what you’re hired for, but if you like each other, you find a way in that space."
FG: "Alex [Bolen], the CEO at Oscar de la Renta, thought that with my architecture background, I was going to become the handbag designer of the brand. He started giving me those tasks, then I started looking at embroideries for the handbags and became embroidery-obsessed. I did that — and evening and cocktail [design] came with."
LK: "You carve it out."
FG: "You can’t figure someone out so quickly. You have to give them some room. To your point, Laura: Oscar did say, 'If I can’t have lunch with you everyday, we can’t work together.' Personalities have to click."
Fernando, you mentioned that you studied to be an architect. How did you go about gaining the practical skills to be a successful studio employee?
FG: "I knew nothing of sewing or draping — and I’m still learning — but I was obsessed with fashion. I followed it since I was a kid, I was drawing on napkins at dinner tables. I knew exactly what was going on in that world, so I think that's what Oscar responded to when I first met him and showed him my doodles. Then, I started to learn how to drape from Laura, because Oscar was very responsive to her way of working — which was very visual and easy to understand, as opposed to sketching, which was my way. I adapted [to that] and we became an inseparable team for that reason. We just kept making things that made him smile."
Most famously, Laura, you messaged Sarah Rutson of Net-A-Porter on LinkedIn to get the introduction — and it worked. What do you think it was about your note that got her to respond?
FG: "Laura wrote a really heartfelt, short email describing where we came from, what we were thinking of doing, and whether or not she would be interested in seeing some sketches. Same with me: I typed out an email to Kate Young saying, 'I don’t know if you're interested in seeing this.' But she made time, so I went to her studio and showed her some doodles, and she said, 'Let’s work on it.'"
LK: "Both of us approach this outreach with respect for what the other person is doing, too. [Rutson] told me she gets emails every day from designers — but she felt ours was a little more respectful, and she connected right away."
Now that you're in a position where people are reaching out to you for advice or opportunities, what catches your eye?
FG: "We have a team that we grew with since the very beginning and we’re not able to expand anymore. But more than that, if the people that we trust hear someone they trust that is looking for something, that’s how I see an entrance first. If Kate’s assistant emails me a résumé, I know that this person approves of it, so I'm going to be okay with it."
What was the best piece of advice de la Renta ever gave you?
LK: "Have fun."
FG: "It’s twofold. First, you can never go home upset at each other — because we’d even argue with [Oscar] over designs. Then, also, to listen to everyone: Everyone has a point of view and everyone can be a customer, so there’s no wrong opinion. We apply that to how we work here."
LK: "And he constantly challenged himself. He was 80 years old and he would ask, 'What’s new? What’s the most fresh?'"
FG: "Always. Never having too much of an ego to admit to adapt to the times."
You left the brand shortly after the designer passed away, after both having risen up in the ranks and building strong reputations within the house. How do you decide when it’s a good time to move on from a job?
LK: "We loved working there, but we both knew it’s not our DNA — we’re not Oscar. I told Fernando that we needed to figure out who we are before we get too old. We actually interviewed in a lot of different places, but we didn’t feel like leaving Oscar for that. Why would you leave a job that you love for something that’s just okay?"
What kind of questions were you asking yourselves when you began thinking of leaving your steady jobs to strike it out on your own?
FG: "It was a risk. Laura was a lot more confident than I was because of her experience. However, we went about it intelligently. Laura developed a business plan for three years, to know how much we were going to spend, hypothetically, every single day. We spent much more, but we made much more than that. That gave us the ground to start from. We bought affordable fabrics and were careful to make things we knew would be sellable and exciting. We grew from there and took it day by day."
There's a lot of considerations when you're running your own business that don't exactly come up during the design process. How did you go about learning the ins and outs of building a company when you're used to the creative work?
FG: "[De la Renta] always approached the runway as a business. It wasn’t a fantasy, in the most respectful way — he wanted every single thing on that runway to sell. We never thought of [Monse] as being something no one would ever wear. So we applied the idea of the real woman and making money off of the clothes every single time. We had that training [from de la Renta], too, to be a proper merchandiser when you’re designing or to think about the budget of the year so you’re not killing it on one collection and you can’t spend on the next one. All those things were always in the back of our minds — Laura, especially, but myself, too."
Do you think that "business-first" perspective is often lacking in fashion?
FG: "I kept looking at magazines when I was growing up [that featured] these houses with endless budgets, like Alexander McQueen and Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga — those were the people I looked up to when I was thinking of joining the industry. So I walked into Oscar thinking it was this dreamland of draping and cutting and spending endless amounts of money."
LK: "Oscar was very smart about development costs, because it was his own money."
FG: "And he taught me that — and grounded me — immediately. That’s something I wish every single student went through, because it keeps you alive if your business is afloat."
LK: "You can really burn so much money from development, because you’re just being an artist, but by the next season, you don’t have the budget to do that. Then, your CEO comes in and stares at you the whole season."
FG: "There’s nothing more embarrassing in today’s world than seeing a designer fired because they couldn’t figure out how to sell clothes. That’s something that I’m proud both Laura and I learned not to do."
The pace of fashion is a topic that has come up a lot when we talk about the high turnover rate in higher-up positions at fashion houses — especially in the last couple of years, when we've seen so many creative director switch-ups. What do you make of all this movement in the upper echelons of labels?
LK: "A lot of times, the CEO and the designers don’t work together. It's like they’re in very different worlds — the CEOs do the numbers and the designers do the shows — but it can’t be like that anymore. The world is changing so fast that you can’t put a rule like that separating those roles. Business and fashion have to merge to survive, especially in the luxury market. Every day, you need to come up with a new idea of how to sell your product in the market. It’s different and it’s changing so fast that you can’t separate yourself like that."
What does success mean to you?
FG: "Being able to go home happy."
LK: "I don’t think I’ll ever feel successful. I’d be like, 'Hm, I can do more.' We joke around that when we’re 80, we’re still going to think we can do a little more."
FG: "Oscar was always like that, too, we learned from that."
You two are now returning to the house where you built your careers — but it's also one of the legacy brands of New York fashion. Now that many of the people who started these companies are no longer at their helm, what do you make of the state of the industry here?
FG: "Oscar was led by a man who always kept up with the times — that’s why it’s lasted so long. The brands that are relevant in New York are the ones lead by forward-thinkers, like Calvin Klein. We’re honored to keep the wheel moving for him."
Since you’re going to start balancing two design gigs, how do you see yourself moving de la Renta’s legacy forward while also creating your own at Monse?
FG: "We’re going to apply some of the lessons we learned while out [of Oscar de la Renta]. There’s no 'mom and pop' to protect you while you’re out: You need to roll up your sleeves and solve problems on your own. You learn a lot about shipping and logistics and accounting that you never even dreamed you would hear about. You mature and you have a different perspective and more respect for everybody on the team."
LK: "Customers accept challenges. If we had stayed [at Oscar de la Renta] after he passed away, we wouldn’t be able to push the house to an aggressive, younger look. We’re not going to make it downtown, but we're more open to making changes, making it fresher and a little bit more our way while still keeping [the legacy]. When we were there, he was very open to all ideas."
FG: "He always welcomed things that made him uncomfortable."
I think that’s something you even did in your first collection at Monse: You took something as familiar as a striped button-down and you played with a concept that was already known. What sort of challenges did you face starting Monse that you think will help you moving forward?
FG: "We approached Monse in a practical way. We didn’t want to do a 'dreamy' first collection — it was about being for today’s woman, so we went to the people that we respect the most in the industry, like Rutson and Young, and we tapped into what they want to see in the world. They’re out there living it — they’re not stuck in a design studio. They work really hard. These hardworking women are who we want to dress. We took all of that and applied it to the first collection and it came out how it came out. We needed affordable fabric to hit the right price point, because we were a no-name brand, so we played with shirts. Stripes are photogenic and Young loved it. Those are lessons we didn’t realize we were applying, but we did.”
The industry has changed a lot since you started out as interns — even since you launched your own label a few seasons ago. As designers, what would you say has been the biggest shift you've noticed?
LK: “Online business really changed for me as a consumer. I wake up in the morning and I get Net-A-Porter’s email with what’s new today; then, I click on Monse and see what’s sold so far. I check the sizes, because you can tell if someone’s returned something, and I think, Oh, that didn’t fit. You can check on your performance in real time — whereas before, you had to wait three months. "
FG: "What’s really complementary of today’s market is that our online business with Net-A-Porter is the one that’s performing the best for us. I think we’re responding to the client that is the most modern — and that’s the best news to hear. You’re adapting to the world. You’re reacting to the changes and the new customer is responding. It’s not the young customer — it’s the new customer."
That’s an interesting distinction. What do you think the difference is between the new customer and the millennial customer, another category that eludes retailers?
FG: "We’re not catering to millennials. We’re catering to the customer that lives online."
LK: "My generation — and even the next one — they know what’s going on. They don’t have to be told what to look at by salespeople. Everyone's so aware, because of social media, that they don’t need to go to stores — and most likely don’t have time to go to stores. There are better things you can do."