When Monse sent models down the makeshift runway at its very first New York Fashion Week show in September, the label already appeared to have everything going for it. Well-known critics from The New York Times, Vogue and New York Magazine sat front row; so too did a handful of the most influential stylists spanning New York and Hollywood. Amal Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker, two women designers would kill to dress, had already worn the clothes.
Gracious and immensely talented, with a tendency to finish each other's sentences, Monse founders Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia aren't two kids out of fashion school — they're seasoned veterans, having spent 12 and six years, respectively, working under the late Oscar de la Renta. It was the technical skills they gained — and the industry connections they built — during those years that enabled such a strong start, says Garcia. "The network you make throughout [your time in another designer's studio] is where you earn people's trust. If you don't have that trust, they won't come buy your collection or put it on celebrities, no matter how good it is."
But Monse's success can't be attributed entirely to its preexisting connections — Kim and Garcia have proven they can hustle, too. Last spring, Kim cold-messaged Sarah Rutson, Net-a-Porter's sought-after vice president of global buying, over LinkedIn. "Laura wanted to cry when she responded," Garcia recalls, chuckling. They showed her a number of sketches, and she responded strongly to the shirts, which became the cornerstone of the first collection. "And now she's our biggest account," Garcia says proudly. "It's not like we compromised our vision or anything. We just went for it, turned the shirt from day to evening, made it exciting for people." She also helped them determine prices for the first collection, which starts at $500 and runs into four-figures for eveningwear — at the middle-lower end of the designer range.
Since their debut, Kim and Garcia have been working, in their words, "nonstop." The pair like to divide and conquer: Kim says she is better at product development and daywear, while Garcia's strengths lie in public relations and gowns. When there's a crisis with one of their factories in Italy, one goes while the other keeps things humming in New York. "I don't know how one person can do it, I don't know how it's possible," says Kim. "We're constantly running around separately."
Though they were both trained at Oscar, there are aesthetic differences between them. "I'm definitely more on the feminine side, and funnily enough she likes things more on the masculine side," says Garcia. "And it's a very good marriage, I think, because instead of tipping on one end rather than the other, it's a blend." When they don't agree on something, they sleep on it.
One of the biggest challenges they've faced is managing sample garments. At Oscar, they developed two of everything — a luxury they can't afford as an upstart. Negotiating with stylists, editors and factories about who gets what can be difficult. Sending a dress for Selena Gomez to wear can generate valuable publicity, but it can also delay delivery to retail partners.
The duo will unveil their fall 2016 collection to buyers and press at the Highline Hotel on Friday evening. And yes, you can expect to see more shirts — though the designers promise it won't be "the whole thrust" of the collection. "We're going to stick to things we really believe in, like stripes, and black and white, and shirts," says Garcia. "I think throughout our collections, what we want to maintain is a sense of ease. If it looks overly complicated or takes five weeks to drape, then we should pass on that idea."
"We like the relaxed look that girls have when they go out," he adds. "Whoever looks like it took them five minutes to get ready is usually the coolest girl in the room."
I asked Kim and Garcia if they were worried Monse would look too much like Oscar. "Yes, we were scared we'd always be Oscar babies, that we couldn't do our own thing," Kim admits. "But people said it wasn't like that."
Update: See the full fall 2016 runway collection below.