Desk Side: In the Studio With Jonathan Cohen

Ahead of his Fall 2020 show, take a peek inside Jonathan Cohen's workspace.
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We're bringing back Desk Side, our column in which we visit the workspaces of some of our favorite fashion and beauty creatives to get the scoop on what's inspiring them right now.

When we visit Jonathan Cohen at his studio — a second-floor walk-up on the Bowery in downtown Manhattan — he and his business partner, Sarah Leff, were winding down after a somewhat stressful morning, having chased down a delivery truck that held a package they'd been expecting. (They were successful.) They've been doing this since 2011, but, Cohen says: "FedEx stressed us out then — that hasn't changed."

The team is in preparation mode for its Fall 2020 show during New York Fashion Week — happening today at noon, right near Jonathan Cohen HQ. Though the brand is celebrating nine years in business this year, this season marks its third proper runway. And, having just launched The Studio, its e-commerce platform for pieces made from leftover fabric straps, Cohen is still finding new ways to tell stories through the label that bears his name. 

Ahead, we talk fashion week traditions (or lack thereof), inspiration and Fall 2020. 

How long have you been in this studio?

Three years. I love this space because it reminded me of those old lofts in New York. I want it to look like you're in the woman's closet, seeing the clothes in her space. And we've always wanted to have a studio on the Bowery — it's always been one of my favorite places in New York.

What about it do you like?

I love the juxtaposition of everything — that it has a very street vibe but it also has these amazing museums and galleries. It still feels like that old New York that's being lost in a lot of places. We had this amazing steel door that was taken down, which was really sad. But I remember when we moved we were like, "This is it." We immediately fell in love. We do everything here — we design, we have a sewing space where we make a lot of our pieces, we do fittings, we do market. This is the hub.

Pieces from Jonathan Cohen's Spring 2020 collection on display at his studio. 

Pieces from Jonathan Cohen's Spring 2020 collection on display at his studio. 

The last time we spoke, you had just launched Studio. What has that been like?

It's been really interesting because it's our first time having an e-commerce of our own. To see the traffic that we're getting and who's coming onto the site, it's super analytical and very precise. We've been selling mostly to stores for so long — we do sell online, but through other retailers — I'm very surprised at how many young kids are coming onto the site. That's really nice to see because our price point is higher, so I always assumed that it was going to be an older generation, but we do have a young fan base who's wanting to buy into the collection. And a lot of men, which is really cool.

Now, you're working on your Fall 2020 show. How early do you start thinking about your runway collection?

I feel like I'm always thinking about it. During fittings and castings, all of a sudden I'll have an idea that I want to explore more for the next season. It's always a continuous story. I don't even think of it as separate. At the end of each collection, there's always a detail that I'm like, "God, I wish I did..." And it's like, "Oh yeah, I can do it next season."

What's the story for Fall 2020?

Everything I do is very personal, but the last two seasons in particular were very personal in dealing with my heritage. There was a lot on my mind that I felt I had to say. I was thinking about finding my voice, being in the closet when I was younger, who I am now and telling that story. So I was looking at metaphors that kind of go with that. 

We do florals, so I really want to focus on the blossoming of a rose, how it blooms and how beautiful it is from all stages. That's what we're talking about in the collection — it's going from a very dark palette to these really bright and beautiful colors.

And obviously, we've been talking a lot about waste and consumption and how we're tackling that issue. We're working with recycled cashmere and nylon — these really incredible futuristic fabrics, which I'm excited about. We're doing a lot of great things with scraps again, continuing to find ways to utilize our excess waste. We're making a point to show it on the runway so people really start to understand this isn't a fad. This is embedded in the way we produce our clothing and the way we do business. I think that's a really important message to send. Also, some components of the show will be available for sale immediately on the site. 

Your Spring 2020 collection had such a strong narrative — it was very biographical, down to the production. What about these past few seasons have made you want to lean into that personal narrative?

It's always been there. Those aspects of being Mexican and American and Jewish and gay — all these things that make me who I am have always been in the collection, but I think in the last few years they've been a little more overt. Especially because we started doing shows, it sends a much bigger statement.

For me, designing has always been a very authentic thing. It's very much a self-expression. That's always in the clothing. I've been subverting these topics in the work. I've just been getting older, more confident with my voice and more comfortable to talk about this and be like, "This is who I am."

Cohen's desk. 

Cohen's desk. 

Have people responded to that?

It's been interesting because you get both sides of it. You've got these messages from young kids and older men and women about how inspired they were by it and how much it meant to them. I'll hear from young designers in Mexico that were really moved by it. That meant a lot to me because I didn't expect that — I just wanted to do this and see, with no expectations. Then you get the opposite. But it was really incredible to see how embraced [Spring 2020] was by the industry. I was really happy to see that they really responded to that.

This is your third runway show, but you've been designing this brand since 2011. What made you feel ready to do fashion week?

We really held off on doing shows in order to build the brand and the business. Being in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and getting that exposure [helped] — we felt we had the right eyes on us and it was the right move. I've always been designing the way I have, but I think because of the shows, the message is much louder. People are seeing things that they might have not seen in the brand before.

Do you have a fashion week routines or traditions?

The thing is, you're working so much that even if you have rituals, they go out the door because you just don't have the time. But I've really made sure I maintain my health during it. I still wake up a little earlier and go to Barry's Bootcamp or to a boxing class. We cook and try to keep healthy meals throughout the week. I did a cauliflower rice the other day — Sarah [Leff, Cohen's business partner] is the big cook here. Today, it's taco salad with a lettuce wrap. And a lot of coffee and tea.

What's your go-to coffee order?

Usually, I do matcha. But if I do coffee, it's a latte with oat milk. So boring.

The kitchen in the studio. (Those are Cohen's doodles on the refrigerator door.) 

The kitchen in the studio. (Those are Cohen's doodles on the refrigerator door.) 

Do you play music in the studio? What are you listening to?

I usually have my headphones on, because music is a huge part of me and how I design. Right now, I'm listening to a band called TR/ST. I saw them live in November and I thought they were amazing. That's also why I love doing the show: I can play music that I love and introduce people to it.

What other places do you source inspiration from?

Oof, everything — movies, art, personal history. I've been inspired by a blanket. What I'm mostly interested in is telling the story. I've always had this very cinematic mind, where I live in a movie.

What's a piece of culture — a movie, a TV show, a book — you've consumed recently that stuck with you?

"Euphoria." I found it very real. First, it was very scary to think that kids are going through that at a young age. But I did think of my high school, and a lot of those stories did intersect not with me, but with people around me. They did it in such a beautiful, artistic way. And what it's doing for fashion and makeup is amazing. It really struck a chord — bigger than I think people realize. The whole cast, the storytelling, the music is incredible. That's a show that's really inspired me. Then, I really like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."

Those are two very different shows.

I love "Maisel." Honestly, every shot in that is like a painting. You can just pause it at any moment and it's the most beautiful thing you've seen. There's not a lot of stuff that's made like that anymore. I appreciate that a lot because I feel, for so many years, we were in this reality television realm. It's nice to see people going back to the craft of movie-making and television making. I like to think that that's how fashion will come around again — this need for craft and color and texture and just really beautiful clothes.

A detail shot of a Jonathan Cohen top. 

A detail shot of a Jonathan Cohen top. 

Was there a specific collection or designer that made you recognize that kind of craftsmanship growing up?

It's kind of funny because he just had his last show, but Jean-Paul Gaultier was someone who really inspired me when I was little. Mostly because I remember seeing the cone bra on Madonna when I was really young. I still think about it now — like, why did that impact me so much? Aside from her looking amazing, super sexy. I think it's that you look at that photo now and you know what time period that was in and what it represented. That a piece of clothing could have such a cultural significance — that's what I've always been interested in.

Do you have a post-fashion week release?

I'm going to Paris after for the fabric show. Then we start market. People don't realize how much we actually do. Anyone who thinks this is an easy job… We're so lucky we love doing it.

What's your favorite place to travel for work?

We started doing trunk shows and going to all these places in America that I never thought I'd go. That's been really interesting. I like the surprise of it. Then, we went to Japan for work last year. Growing up, I was really into Japanese animation, which is really cool now but back then it was not appreciated in school, for sure. So when I went for the first time, it was a huge turning point in the way I designed. I had been reading about and researching Japanese culture since I was little. It was like I came full circle.

What's something you're excited about for Fall 2020?

I'm really excited about the shapes this season. I feel like they're very indicative of where the brand is going. I started when I was [in my early twenties] — I'm 34 now, so I feel like I've just evolved a lot. 

The shapes are a lot closer to the body this season. There's this really interesting draping technique that we're doing. We have a lot of solids, which I'm excited about. As much as I love prints and textiles, I got into fashion because I love making clothes. Obviously, I've always been doing that, but I feel like the prints make it a secondary thing. I think you'll be able to see a lot of the construction and how we make the clothes, which is really important.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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