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Amid a 'Slow and Steady' Rise to Success, Jonathan Cohen Is a Label to Watch

The designer's preference for private appointments over fashion week and knack for innovative print design has helped his namesake brand grow.
A look from the Jonathan Cohen Fall 2017 collection. Photo: Courtesy

A look from the Jonathan Cohen Fall 2017 collection. Photo: Courtesy

Jonathan Cohen is moving on up. Six years after launching his eponymous label, the designer has moved his studio out of his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment and into a shared loft space on Bowery in downtown Manhattan. And while his list of stockists has nearly doubled from 12 to 30 accounts worldwide — including Ikram, Forty Five Ten and, most recently, Maryam Nassir Zadeh — Jonathan Cohen, the label, remains a two-person operation. Suffice it to say, Cohen's successful rise has been slow and steady, and he intends to keep it that way.

"It's very intimate, but we're hanging with the top brands in the world," says Cohen. "We're selling, so it's working for us and I think that's important now with all of the talk that goes on about brands. It's really just doing it the way you feel is right for you."

Aside from a one-time installation and presentation, Cohen opts out of Fashion Week, and holds private appointments, store events and dinners instead. "We kind of decided not to do it," he says of New York Fashion Week. "Our sales are doing really well without it. We've grown ourselves like three times, maybe even more this current season. It just doesn't feel like the right way to allocate our money. For us, it's really about connecting with our clients. I want to do a show one day, but I think there's something about working up to it and really getting to that point."

Celebrity dressing has also put Cohen's designs on the fashion map. So far, his VIP credits include Uzo Aduba for the Emmy Awards, as well as Lupita Nyong'o, Gigi Hadid, Allison Williams and Naomie Harris, among others. "When you're a young designer, a celebrity can become like a billboard for you," he says. "We've been very aware of that."

Jonthan Cohen. Photo: Courtesy

Jonthan Cohen. Photo: Courtesy

When Cohen, who grew up in San Diego, Calif., would go shopping with his mother, who hails from Mexico City, he would always look at the insides of garments, figuring out how they were made. As he got older, he turned to sketching and Japanese animation. "I noticed I'd focus a lot on their clothing of the characters," says Cohen thinking back about his earliest drawings. "At the time I was trying to be creative and figuring it out, I always came back to clothing."

Naturally, Cohen moved to New York City, where he studied fashion design at Parsons and completed internships and work gigs with Oscar de la Renta, Doo.Ri Chung and Ashleigh Verrier. He also met Sarah Leff, his current business partner and other half of his brand, during college. "We always said we wanted to start a company together," says Cohen. "Then after we graduated, like a year after, the job market was really bad. We were freelancing but we weren't really happy at our jobs."

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The two decided to send out Cohen's lookbook from his senior year, and the response from buyers and editors was instant. "We just decided to launch it," he says. "I was lucky that people were really supportive. Even at Oscar, they were like, 'You need to go and do this.'" Of course, starting his own label did come with its challenges, like no-shows for showroom appointments, which Cohen had to learn to not take personally. "We thought in our first season we'd be in all these stores, and it wasn't like that," he says. "We really had to work hard to get to where we are now."

What started as 10 printed dresses has now expanded into a 70-piece collection, ranging from work-ready apparel to evening dresses, all made in New York from original fabrics developed by leading mills in Italy and France. (Blouses range from $495 to $620, while dresses start at $1,095 and gowns can go up to $2,800.) For fall 2017, Cohen expanded into accessories for the first time, which is a category he'd like to explore further. The designer collaborated with George Esquivel on a small range of footwear, including boots and loafers.

A look from the Jonathan Cohen Fall 2017 collection. Photo: Courtesy

A look from the Jonathan Cohen Fall 2017 collection. Photo: Courtesy

At Parsons, Cohen realized his passion for prints and it truly shows in his subversive but elegant work. His latest collection, inspired by his fascination with a friendship between Carolina Herrera and Robert Mapplethorpe, features blurry photos of orchids. In past seasons, Cohen experimented with turning photographs of surfers into a striped pattern and lighting flowers on fire for a floral motif.

His innovations have also evolved into developing his own jacquards and diving into more woven fabrics. Furs have also seen growing interest among his clients; Cohen was surprised that a mink coat, the most expensive item from his Fall 2017 collection at $9,800, has already gotten at least 15 orders.

When asked about what he sees ahead for his namesake, Cohen said he would like to get his collection into a major department store, as well as have a bigger presence abroad, in markets such as Paris and Japan, though he's not in any rush. "Sarah and I have always had a vision of really being a global brand and I think we're slowly doing that," says Cohen. "It's difficult for me to say in a year that could happen because that slow-and-steady approach has really worked for us." Taking his collection directly to consumers online is also being discussed, but all in due time, of course.

See Jonathan Cohen's Fall 2017 collection in the gallery below.

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