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.
In an industry where creativity is often coupled with the directive to clothe more celebrities, score bigger PR coups and, above all, sell more, it's nice to talk to a designer who isn't hell-bent on taking over the world. Mona Kowalska of A Détacher is one of them. After 16 years in business, A Détacher still operates a single store location and sells to 35 retailers, mostly boutiques. I stopped by Kowalska's cozy, sage-scented shop on Mott Street, the back room of which doubles as her office space, to chat about how the brand has changed since she started it 16 years ago, why she keeps her team so small and what feedback she hears most often from buyers.
Take me back to how you got into fashion. You're from Poland originally.
I’m from Poland. That’s going very far back. I came here when I was a kid. We moved to Baltimore, then I went to the University of Chicago, and I got a B.A. in political science. Then I went to Italy to study fashion design.
I moved to Paris for a year to work for Sonia Rykiel. I’d never worked in a corporate environment like that. You always have friends who have those jobs, and you’re like, “My god, why don’t I have that job?” When I got there it was pretty clear to me that it was a good experience but it just wasn’t my environment.
What kept it from being a good fit?
It’s a lot of meetings with the whole decision-making process. There are a lot of people involved in it. I feel like certain decisions are too slow, certain decisions are too fast. And there are a lot of people intervening on every decision. There’s this thing you [design], and by the end it’s really something kind of unrecognizable. I think what I realized is that I had a lot more to say personally. I was the head of the design studio, and it was more coordinating — you intervened on things — but it wasn’t as creative as I wanted it to be. I moved back here, and I opened the store a year later. It took me a year to write a business plan. I got money together, and I opened it.
How much money did you start the collection with?
Was that enough? It sounds tight.
It was super tight. When I opened the store, I really had $200 in my account. We opened, and after the first weekend of being open, I went out and bought us a stereo because it was, like, very quiet that first weekend. [Laughs] So yeah, definitely. We kind of privileged clothes and privileged the renovation, and that’s all that there was money for. And we did much less then. We didn’t do shoes; it was just a women’s collection.
How big was the first collection relative to what it is today?
It was not so radically different from this number of wovens. We didn’t do our own prints. I feel like people really identify us with prints, but that is a relatively recent development. It was maybe a little bit smaller, but the size of the collection hasn’t really grown so much. It’s always been those two racks [in the store]. It’s always between 15 and 20 shapes, applied differently through different fabrics.
You don't sell to too many stockists. What does your production and inventory management look like each season?
I don’t even know that we manage it, particularly. There is a sense of how many pieces we sell per season, and then you still get it wrong. There are things you think will sell, and they are much more difficult to sell. I wouldn’t say that I am the perfect person here for being able to assess what will sell. I don’t have a perfect sense of the public. I have a sense for what I like, but I don’t know that that extends so much to other people.
That’s so interesting, because it seems like there are a lot of retailers and designers who do put a lot of thought into designing toward what people will buy.
You kind of end up finding people like you, like your clients end up being likeminded. They’re all working and [they're] a lot of creative people. For us it’s more just kind of finding those people. It’s not so much about finding and chasing everybody. I think there are people who have a real sense for trend. I feel like there is a bigger picture in my head, but I wouldn’t say it’s of trends necessarily. Obviously there are things you notice — we’re all affected by what is happening around us.
You’ve talked before about being interested in keeping your business small. How many stores do you sell to?
We have this store, and then we sell to maybe 35 stores worldwide.
How did you accumulate that client roster?
Sometimes we try doing outreach to stores, but I don’t know that we have ever gotten through that way, so we stopped doing it. We’re a tiny team. We don’t have a lot of time to waste. Basically people find us. Generally when people contact us, they’re ready to buy, and they buy. That is the way everyone has kind of come to us.
How big is the team?
Three people full time, four days a week. Another one person who works three days a week. This is as big as we’ve been.
That seems like a lot of work for everyone.
I will come in on Mondays even though the store is closed, but everyone else works four days. I also think that when you come in you’re just ready to work. I really believe in a four day workweek. At this level of national wealth, I think everyone should be working four days a week, and then not on Facebook and not on eBay and Amazon and doing their purchases [on the other days]. Just working four days and then having three days off.
That sounds dreamy. What do you do with those three days?
I believe in one day of idleness. Total idleness, really nothing. Then another day of errands and taking care of things. Then a day for intellectual pursuits. That for me is how the three days should be.
What do intellectual pursuits mean for you?
I’m a big reader, so that tends to be my thing. I go to museums — I’d like to say I go more often than I do, but I tend to be a little lazy. Books are always easy. They’re very evocative for me. They’re very open-ended, so I quite like that. I often think people just assume that I’m visual, but I don’t know how visual a person I am. Sometimes I think I’m more literary than I am visual.
Do you feel like that manifests in your design process?
Maybe in the inspiration. I do like a narrative, and when I see things, I see a circumstance. For the new collection we did this new pair of shoes, and they’re odd for us. I was like, “It’s as if you got up on the wrong side of the bed.” It’s not so much what it looks like; it’s like if I was going to wear those, it’s the day that calls for it.
I remember at your spring show you had the best programs, with a poetic little line about each girl.
I always do the show notes. I start it early because it’s not something you’re going to write the day before the show. I start jotting them down as I'm working on the collection. It’s fun to do. It introduces this other way of thinking about clothes — more in terms of our motivations and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Sometimes we’re not even aware of them, but they’re definitely there, whether it’s a certain nostalgia or a personal tick.
To me, it also says more about the collection than when a designer uses vague words like "effortless" or "feminine" in the program notes.
Often you’ll see someone saying that it’s effortless and it’s got 12 zippers and six buckles, and it’s like, that’s a word that actually means something! Effortless is kind of the absence of all those things. A lot of these go-to descriptions don’t actually mean much. It’s more just aspirational than real.
What do you get out of presenting during Fashion Week?
It makes me articulate what I’m doing much more clearly, so that’s not a bad thing, having to articulate it to myself. And then I have to be able to say all those things to everyone who collaborates on the show, and it really does make a difference because there are those seasons where things are fuzzier in my head. Everything is harder in those seasons when you can't really say it. The music, the type of girl; [when you articulate it] you get to the hair faster, you get everywhere faster.
I think I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I say that I don’t take pleasure so much in the work, but I do like a perfect thing at the end.
You said something interesting at your show in September, which is that you didn’t want to make pants. And because you’re not beholden to many buyers, you don't have to make the pants.
If a theme doesn’t present those things, I try not to force it too much. Just because when I do, I will waste an inordinate amount of time. So it’s probably better not to. And you know, no one said, "Where are the pants?" You know what I mean? We sell to boutiques. It’s not like they’re going to buy a million pieces anyway, so there’s more than enough for people to choose from. We don’t sell to department stores, and we don’t have the buyers that come with that. So because of who buys the collection we can operate that way.
So nobody's ever said, "We love these skirts, but what we'd really love is a pair of pants."
People love the thing that sold really well last season. They're like, "Do you have that?" And we’re like, "No, we have new things." It’s not the thing that they don’t see and don’t know. They'll ask you for the thing they sold already. That is a hard aspect [of selling]. I find it very hard to bring back things. There are some things that I feel are timeless, but they’re very simple, like a pencil skirt.
People do really well with our ponchos, but we did those early and now people are expecting to come here and find a poncho. That was for those collections! I find that when we pull some occasional something out of the archives, it never fits. It was done in a different moment.
How would you like to see A Détacher evolve in the future?
I wish this part was clearer for me. Obviously I would like to sell more. Relatively speaking, we don’t sell very much. I would be open to collaborations. I would love to do things like that — I think we’d be good at it. Even consulting on things. In the store, I would like to privilege home a little more, because we’ve always done objects for the home. We are moving into a new space. It should happen at the beginning of next year, I hope by the next collection we will be in a new space.
That's a big change!
It is a big change. We’ve been here 16 years. When I used to come in here, I’d see the store and walk in and think it’s so beautiful. And now I have to say, I don’t see it. I just go to the back and start working. When [the space is] fresh you’re more conscious of it, so it’s nice to sometimes reengage with those things. It's not good to not see things.
For people who want to start a small business or brand, what do you think they should keep in mind?
I think the most important thing is knowing why you’re in it and always privileging that. If you’re in it for the money — and that’s totally fine, you can do things for whatever motivation — go after the money. Figure out how to do that. If you are interested in the textile part, figure out your personal thing. I have a small team, and part of that is that I don’t want to become a manager of people. I don’t want to be the boss; I want my role to always be design. Once you have a bigger company, your name might be on it, but the reality is, between all your other things, you’re probably at the point where you have a studio and you've delegated a lot of the design to other people.
Try to set up a company that privileges what you enjoy. Delegate the things you’re not good at would be another piece of advice.
What do you delegate?
Organization. I am not the most politic person. I can be too fiery or too much of a pushover, so definitely it’s good to put some people between you and [inbound] requests. It gives you time. So I think knowing yourself is the main thing.
Have you ever had interest from investors or other people who think you should turn your business into something larger scale?
Sometimes people ask, "Don’t you want to get bigger?" And the thing is, if we were bigger, you probably wouldn’t shop here. If we were big, maybe we wouldn’t be able to do this particular thing. We'd have to water it down. I think that there is a lot of growth [potential] for us — there are so many places we don’t sell, there are a ton of people we can still reach within what we do. But I think that my thing is a small collection. There are people who appreciate what we do, and that's better than going after the people who don’t shop here. I think people should wear what they want to wear. Everyone should. I always find those world domination things so bizarre.
Well, you did study political science.
[Laughs] I think we have this idea that somehow it can just grow and stay the same. The size of something matters. We have at times dealt with showrooms and they say the collection should be twice as big. For the boutiques we sell to who choose six styles, we should show them more? So much work should be discarded so they can pick six styles? I’ll discard it beforehand. People design a lot of landfill. I don’t want to do that. I think there are a lot of things out there that could go from the rack to the garbage. They don’t have a long life; they get to the garbage really fast.
This interview has been edited and condensed.