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Sea's Cohabitating Designers on Staying Humble and Focusing on the Customer

Sea's Sean Monahan and Monica Paolini live and work together in the same space, making for a round-the-clock working environment that seems to be paying off. It also doesn't hurt that their clothes are very cute.
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In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Unless you've bought their (very cute) clothes from one of their many retail doors -- Barneys, Steven Alan, Isetan in Tokyo, Shopbop and Net-a-Porter, to name a few -- there's a decent chance you've never heard of the contemporary brand Sea. That's because throughout its seven years in business, designers Sean Monahan and Monica Paolini put nearly 100% of their efforts into the one thing that actually makes money: selling clothes.

At a time when many brands are looking for any and all ways to get their names out there -- collaborations, celebrity dressing, incessant PR pushing, advertising, etc. -- Sea has been banking solely on product, mainly because they've had to.

And while that focus has kept them afloat in an increasingly competitive market, they aren't exactly flying in private jets to take meetings. The doorknob to their Canal Street building was broken when I met them (which I'm only pointing out because it's mentioned in our interview) and their now-beautiful, light-filled loft studio, which they both live and work out of (though they're not currently romantically involved), was once a drug den.

But they're making it work and growing steadily with collections that are consistently cool, wearable, feminine and cute without being too frilly. Read on to find out how these lifelong friends came together to start a fashion line, their flourishing international business (they're big in Japan), being recognized by the CFDA, the launch of an adorable childrenswear collection and what else is next.

How did you guys meet and decide to start a fashion line?

Sean Monahan: We grew up in upstate New York together -- a place called Newburgh, New York -- and we'd known each other since we were kids. Our parents were friends; we'd see each other at picnics and stuff like that. We also went to school together, so we've known each other for a long long time. Then when a company I was working for in Spain sold, I moved back to New York and I was bored and I was helping Monica on her shows.

Monica Paolini: I was working at Betsy Johnson. I was styling her show and Sean came to help me.

Sean: And I thought, 'Oh well I can start a line,' which was obnoxious, and I thought it was going to be much easier than it was. Anyway, I started the line and for three years I did it by myself and it got to a decent place and then Monica came on and made it much better, so for the last three and a half or four years, we've been doing it together. It started to grow really when Monica came.

Monica, what were you doing at Betsey Johnson?

Monica: I was a design director at Betsey Johnson and before that I was at Jill Stuart. Betsey's collection is so different from my personal design aesthetic. She's such a lovely person to work with. You learn so much from her. It's rare that you have a nice day every day in the fashion world, so it was nice to work there, and then you have a desire that you want to make clothes that you want to wear and you get excited about, so starting to work with Sean, helping him out and starting to look at the collection, and seeing how we can make it better and how we can merchandise it better, it was so fun to be able to come full time at Sea.

Where did the name Sea come from?

Sean: It came from one night helping Monica. It was like four in the morning. She was OCD about the run of show and I was writing my name in big letters in a cork board with push pins and I just stopped at A. and I wanted to get a coffee and I came back and was like, 'That's perfect.' I love the sea, also. It seemed like the perfect name.

How did you finance the line in the beginning?

Sean: It was self-funded. Every bit of money I had I just put into that and that was it. We don't have financing or loans from the parents or anything. I think because the line has to sustain itself and fund its own growth, that's shaped the line in the sense that it focused us on the customer. I think it's focused a lot of our energies into sales as opposed to press, especially in the beginning. Because it has to work, seeing as it's how we pay the rent for this place. We have no choice.

Who were some of your early retail supporters? Sean: Barneys is largely responsible for the growth of the brand. They've been -- out of all the retailers I think -- the most supportive and the most interested in growing the brand into a business. And having patience and understanding that it is a new company and it needs time to grow. Shopbop has been really great recently.

What about internationally?

Sean: We have a big business in Japan -- I think we have 100 doors in Japan and we have an agent there and he has a mix of brands -- he does Sacai, Rick Owens, Pierre Hardy and us. He's been really, really great about building the brand in Japan. That's always been a big base for us.

Do you do anything in particular that seems to appeal to Japanese customers?

Monica: We usually have to do leopard for them every season. That was something they're always drawn to.

Sean: We disappointed them this season. We didn't do leopard. The clothes are just honest and easy to wear and I think that works for them. They're not dark or edgy; they're more optimistic I think and that really helps.

You guys have an amazing -- and interesting -- space. How did you find it?

Sean: I was looking for a space big enough to work and live in and when I came here, there were two floors. Before us, it was a factory for growing weed for 15 years, and it was destroyed and sat vacant for months. Canal Street was obviously very different. Everything you could imagine a drug dealer having was in the front part, piled to the ceiling. There were no windows in the front, just big fans and boarded up windows. It was just insane. But I felt like the space was nice so I took it and then for four months, we knocked everything out and just cleaned. I asked the crew to leave just four walls and that's what they did.

Obviously, there's nothing separating your living space from your work space. Do you ever feel like you...

Sean: Can't stop working?

Monica: We do especially as we're growing because we have employees and they come here and sometimes you want to just go home and get away from work.

Sean: We have a place uptown too, but I hate it uptown, so I stay mostly here and then the employees come. I like the employees but then sometimes it gets a little too much. But we're growing so unfortunately Mon and I have to work so much because we do basically everything: The sales here in New York, the shipping here, the production here. We thought that as production got larger and larger, our lives were going to get easier, but...

Monica: It's the same.

What have you found to be the biggest challenge in growing your business?

Sean: Cash flow is difficult, even when your production gets larger. It's a good problem to have, but you have to fund that production, so cash flow is an issue. And it's a really competitive market. Also, department stores mark down a little bit earlier, and it's a challenge just keeping up with the cadence of the collections; now that we do six deliveries a year, it's a lot of work.

Plus, strange things happen, like with Russia and Ukraine right now. Russia's our fourth-largest market. We have six stores in the Ukaine and in Russia I think we have 14 or 15. It's such a dynamic business, there's so many things that can go wrong it's crazy.

Monica: Everything that you think can go wrong actually does go wrong.

Sean: The biggest constraint is the constraint on our lives because we have to work so much. So that's the biggest problem I think. The time demand is incredible.

Monica: You're just so stressed because you're trying so hard to get your product into stores on time and then you're trying to design another collection and trying to make it as good as it can be, better than the last, but also making sure that it sells.

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Sean: Now [retailers] send sell-through reports on Sundays and it's like, 'Come on man, Sunday?'

Monica: Since we sell the line ourselves, we get so much feedback from the buyers which is so helpful for how we're designing it, but hearing, 'Oh that's not selling,' both good news and bad news, it wears on you.

Who are you guys designing for?

Monica: I always keep in mind what I like to wear.

Sean: I think Mon was the inspiration for the line in the beginning, her style and her aesthetic. We want to be reliable for our customer, whether she's studying or working or going out, we want her to feel confident that we're going to deliver something that makes her feel special and happy and comfortable. We hope the girl is optimistic...

Monica: Modestly provocative.

Any plans to expand into other categories beyond apparel?

Sean: Right now, it's just ready to wear. We've done a bag collection, but we haven't shown anyone yet and it's just a matter of timing. We hired this girl from Japan to come and help up expand the brand into different areas. We're doing a denim program for Japan, too because our Japanese agent wants us to do denim. We have ideas for some bags and some shoes but there's just not enough time to do it correctly.

Monica: We did a children's line.

Sean: We started [children's] because the Bon Marché in Paris is making us -- not making us -- they asked us to do a kids line, so we're doing a kids line that's for pre-fall and fall. I think we're going to sell that also in our little shop-in-shop space in Isetan. And we'll show it to Barneys next week.

What about opening a store?

Sean: We like the idea of having a store to start, but we don't even have a doorknob on the front door. It's really step by step.

We definitely wouldn't mind having a little store, maybe with the showroom in the back or something where we can see the customer directly and see how she responds.

You guys have never shown at fashion week. Any particular reason?

Monica: I think in the beginning when we first started, we didn't have the financing and in order to do it we wanted to do it well. We wanted to keep focusing on a sellable collection that would do well in stores.

Sean: It was just never something that was a priority. Maybe it's good for supporting the brand and supporting the stores. That's why we'd do it, if it helped generate press.

Do you have a signature piece that you carry over from season to season?

Monica: We always try to do really easy dresses. Something that's easy to just throw on so you don't have to think too much in the morning but you feel good when you look at yourself.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own line?

Sean: Do what you believe and feel comfortable with. I think it's very important that what you do is authentic. It helps. It makes you feel comfortable with yourself and happy and makes the work better and more reliable and consistent.

Monica: Sometimes when you're first starting out it's trying to keep yourself small.

Sean: It all needs to be edited, even though we're really bad editors, I recommend being edited. I think that's the hardest part.

What is you're co-working relationship like?

Sean: Fighting. Lots of fighting.

Monica: We fight so much. But we've known each other for so many years, it's totally fine to scream one second and laugh the next. But we both design and we do everything together. He likes things more masculine, more modern. I think we're a good balance together. He pushes me and I push him and it helps us a lot. Otherwise, sometimes you think that's okay the way it is, but if someone else pushes you further, it helps the collection to get better.

What would you say is the biggest lesson you've learned?

Monica: Not hiring a lot of people, not having a lot of overhead has really helped us, because sometimes your sales are good, but sometimes they're just okay.

Sean: Be humble in what you're doing.

Monica: Because you're not always on top.

Sean: Keep your focus on the bigger picture and don't get caught up in the little things every day. And also the biggest lesson for me is how small the world is. I was just in London and Paris -- it's cool when you see girls wearing the clothes there, and then we have a lot of doors in Russia which is unbelievable to me because the clothes are kind of happy and frilly and girly, and then in Japan which is a big market for us, but when I was growing up in Newburgh I never thought we'd be walking the streets in Japan and see the clothes and how many stores we're in and the fact that they basically pay our rent, it's a strange concept. I think the world unfolds and life unfolds if you let it.

Has there ever been a milestone or moment that made you feel like you've made it?

Sean: The doorknob. It's when we get that doorknob. Then I'll feel like we've made it.

Monica: We got into the CFDA last year. That was such a huge honor. I never would have thought that ever because we feel so small. We're in this apartment. But that was really nice.

Sean: It's nice to be recognized for what you're doing.