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Small is Beautiful

Resisting the allure of world domination can work in your favor. These three New York designers are happily under the radar.


Mona Kowalska
A Détacher

In a world in which grown women are dressing more like teenagers at a slumber party, the clothes at A Détacher can seem a bit out of sync. They are sharply edged and architectural, proudly adult and sexy, and far from obvious. At A Détacher, chunky knit sweaters get thin leather belts like harnesses, jackets balloon at the waist, and little clusters of gathers are found in unusual spots, like armpits or hips.

They are the work of Mona Kowalska, a 41-year-old strawberry blonde with an extra-lean frame and some of the best personal style in the city. “I like structured clothing,” Kowalska says. She is drinking mint tea in a coffee shop around the corner from her store, wearing a shrunken turtleneck sweater and a tiny magenta print blazer of her own design. Over it all is a khaki Marc Jacobs trench, wrapped tight and belted. “I like formal clothing,” she says. “I like clothing that you put on and feel dressed.”

Kowalska spent the early part of her career designing for various small labels in Italy and, briefly, running the Paris design studio of Sonia Rykiel. But with such a precise and unwavering sense of design, she eventually decided that she’d like to do her own label, and that New York—where people really love to shop, and where they savor the process of discovery and the thrill of the unique—was where she belonged. She opened on Mott Street in 1998.

Kowalska has a few wholesale clients (mostly in Japan), and once in a while Barneys New York will take a look, but she does best with the clients who shop directly from her racks. The collection makes more sense, she says, if you see it as a whole. A quilted, collarless wrap coat without a single built-in closure, for example, might look bizarre outside its milieu, but in the store it was a best-seller. “It’s just never going to be mass,” she says. “It’s easy to get caught up with ambition and plans. But sometimes I just say, ‘What about a small, well-run company? Is that such a terrible thing?’ ”

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