Early into the Covid-19 lockdown in New York, Jonathan Cohen decided it wouldn't produce its Fall 2020 collection, which it had presented during New York Fashion Week earlier that year. Not long after, the designer and his co-founder and business partner, Sarah Leff, decided to skip the Spring 2021 season, too.
"We just felt like this wasn't not going to be over anytime soon and we needed to be smart about things," Cohen says.
It's not that the brand hasn't released anything over the past thirteen months. Like many other designers, Jonathan Cohen pivoted to make masks with leftover fabric from past collections through The Studio early on into lockdown. Since then, it has collaborated with Tidal New York on flip flops, Gigi Burris on hair accessories, Carolina Bedoya on pillows and Dempsey & Carroll on stationary. It kept up its virtual Flower Shop business. It designed a T-shirt for the President Joe Biden's campaign and, of course, dressed First Lady Dr. Jill Biden on the eve of the Inauguration.
Still, the pause on ready-to-wear — Jonathan Cohen's bread and butter — allowed the designer and his business partner to "make changes that we've been wanting to make for a very long time" and ask themselves some deep, existential questions about why they do what they do.
"We all know the problems the industry across the board, from small brands to big brands, was having even before the pandemic," Cohen says. "We felt to not take this moment and to not meet it would be a waste of time."
One big shift that happened behind the scenes was that Jonathan Cohen has shifted its production to Italy, where it was already printing and weaving its fabrics. "For the past years, we've really been evaluating our entire process, cycle and relationships," says Leff. "Everything had been made in New York, but there were a lot of hiccups." They were already talking about making that move in 2019, and the pandemic just solidified the decision and "put things in motion." The result is two-fold: The brand is able to offer a new level of craftsmanship, and the company is able to reduce part of its overall carbon footprint, since it previously had to ship its textiles from there to the U.S. then back to Europe for sales in that region.
"This last year has been phenomenal, to be able to communicate with the clients," Leff says. "Every time we release something, we get the constant feedback from them, on social or email... We're really excited to finally be able to have the customer come to our platform, shop and hear direct feedback of what they want, what they feel is missing, what they're coming to us for."
Through spending time at home, focusing on Our Flower Shop and thinking hard about What It All Means, Cohen says he's become "more confident in our vision and more doubled down on what we're doing from a design perspective and social perspective." That, the ongoing Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the U.S. and a growing desire from people to get dressed up again made him and Leff feel confident that Fall 2021 was the right time to come back.
Of course, the world is very different from how it was when Jonathan Cohen last unveiled a collection — as is the way people want to dress. The challenge in designing for a post-pandemic wardrobe lied in figuring out how the brand's aesthetic fits into the now. "We're basically having to teach people how to dress up again," Cohen says. "So let's get rid of all the fussiness — just make it a dress, make it a button up, clean up the shapes a bit."
So, in Fall 2021, you'll find uncomplicated, well-crafted silhouettes made from artful fabrics that you'll want to keep and wear for a long, long time. Cohen pulled a lot of inspiration from the time he spent in his childhood home in San Diego, so you'll find autobiographical sprinkled throughout the line: Some of the bouquets feature blooms he'd find in the garden; the rainbow stripes on a dress allude to the Pink Floyd cover art in his bedroom; a few florals and a Dalmatian spot print were inspired by the 1998 film "What Dreams May Come," which he watched during quarantine.
Other highlights include a denim suit decorated with hand-painted florals, made from deadstock Carolina Herrera fabrics (the fellow New York brand's president was Cohen and Leff's mentor through the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund), flowing printed dresses with attached scarves that can be styled in a variety of ways and new riffs on Dr. Biden's now-famous coat.
"We love making beautiful products that stay in your closet," Cohen says. "As wacky as our prints can be, they're timeless because it's always going to be that printed dress."
Moving forward, Jonathan Cohen hopes to unveil new collections closer to when customers will be able to shop it online and at its retail partners. Products will now be released in small drops, leading up to the season they correspond to. For autumn, there will be a drop this month, a drop in July and a drop in September, with additional special pieces, dubbed "top-offs," here and there. "The ultimate goal of this new system is to really be able to control what we're doing," Cohen says.
There's also a new sub-line, called JC Basics, consisting of three printed pieces — a pair of leggings, a long-sleeved shirt and a draped dress, available in sizes XS through XXL, made using machine-washable Repreve fabric and all priced under $500 — that will accompany each delivery. (The first drop features a Dancing Tulip print.)
Much like a handful of the products it offers through The Studio and Our Flower Shop, JC Basics creates another entry point for potential customers to buy into the Jonathan Cohen brand. That's been especially important over the past year — and especially since Dr. Biden put the brand under a global spotlight the night before President Biden was sworn into office (and a few times since).
"We had teachers write us who felt a connection [with Dr. Biden's coat] and were so excited for Biden to be in office, but obviously buying into something she's wearing on the day wasn't in their budget," Leff says. A mask, a scrunchie or any of the other smaller items the brand sells, "it's something they would put on every single day and feel the connection and why they're proud for the new administration."
"We're all of a sudden getting these average orders of $250 from people and normally we don't even have a dress that retails for that," Cohen says. "People were still pre-ordering the coat, but it's a smaller pool. It's bringing people into the brand in a way that we've never experienced before."
For Cohen and Leff, it's about bringing beauty into the lives of their customers. "That's why I felt our brand is so important right now," Cohen says, "we we do need to dream again, to find some joy in all this and be able to smile, even with all the hardship that people have gone through... I really wanted to put that into the clothing, to give our customer and potential future customers that vision."
"We're just excited to dress people again," says Leff.
See every single look in Jonathan Cohen's Fall 2021 collection in the gallery, below.