Fashion designer Jonathan Cohen, grew up in San Diego and attended Parsons School of Design where he met his business partner (and label CEO) Sarah Leff. Characterized by bright, bold colors mixed with classic designs, Jonathan Cohen – the label is constantly evolving ‘with sustainability weaving through all elements of the brand’. It has organically grown a following of the world’s best dressed including Jill Biden who famously wore Jonathan Cohen at her husband’s inauguration.
Jonathan Cohen and Sarah Leff wasted no time after graduating to kick off their New York based fashion label, also called Jonathan Cohen, in 2011. As Sarah explains, “We decided [in our] freshman year of college we would start a company together. I studied business and Jonathan, fashion, and it was just the right kismet energy that brought us together as we constantly discussed, helped and supported one another. So, post college and working other places, we decided it was important for us to start and try to do this.” Through a lot of hard work, organic growth and some tough times they have managed to grow Jonathan Cohen into a fashion force of nature, making a real difference across the globe.
Jonathan and Sarah’s close connection is a big part of the ‘kismet energy’ that makes the label so special. As Jonathan points out, “Sarah and I are the label. We started the company together. We've gone through the ups and downs of running a company together. So it's very much a partnership and in unison. We're both very involved in every day-to-day decision. While we do have our ‘roles’, we still are very much involved in each other's day-to-day conversations. Whether it's business or design, we're both very intertwined. It's how it's always worked, and we both wear many different hats.”
Like all good partnerships it isn’t until the chips are down that its true strength is revealed, and COVID proved to be a big catalyst for change at Jonathan Cohen. With factories and stores shuttered almost overnight, the fashion industry ground to a halt and Jonathan Cohen decided to pause its ready-to-wear collection. While isolating at home with his parents, Jonathan managed to find a creative solution to a real-world problem that opened up a new opportunity for the business.
Jonathan recounts, “Someone sent my Mom flowers, and I remember we opened the door and I got so scared that I sprayed the flowers with Lysol [disinfectant]. The flowers died and I was really sad, because I thought, ‘What, we're not going to be able to enjoy flowers anymore?’ So I started sketching these floral bouquets and would send them to my friends and to Sarah as a thank you, and to just connect with people while also keeping myself busy and inspired.”
“I was on a walk and called Sarah to say, ‘I have this idea for these digital bouquets.’ She's like, ‘I've been thinking about the exact same thing!’ We created Our Flower Shop, which started with six little illustrated digital bouquets that had a vase with flowers in it. You could buy them off our website and we added a card on the side. I would write each of the messages [people would leave]. We sold them for an affordable price, and gave a percentage to charities that really needed help at the time. Then we instantly saw this huge boom in orders.”
Going from a Procreate sketch on Jonathan’s iPad to thousands of orders in just a few weeks, Our Flower Shop meant Jonathan Cohen’s, “mailing list went up about 5000% over the time period from when we launched to Mother's Day. We had Kelly Clarkson reached out to do arrangements for Mother's Day. It was great because we all of a sudden created something that people felt connected to… We had someone who confessed their love to their partner via Our Flower Shop.” Sarah continues, “I really think that time during COVID allowed us to take what was going on and to make a very quick decision, but it was really for the best. It allowed us to be true to who we are, both as a brand, as people, and about taking things in mind such as sustainability and what that meant to us.”
While Jonathan and Sarah are wary of over-using the word ‘sustainability’ due to its new-found buzz word status, it's definitely something that has always been at the heart of what the Jonathan Cohen brand embraces. Up-cycling clothes and recycled fabric has always been a part of the label’s practice, and even Jonathan’s use of Procreate stems from the reams of paper (up to 3000 sheets) each collection required. “Sarah and I kept saying, ‘Look how much we're throwing out, look how much paper I waste sketching. What's the one small step we can take to mitigate that waste?' Then my friend Georgeana showed me Procreate and within the next day I was like, ‘Wait, this is completely different than what I thought.’ It took my hand so well, and it felt better than paper because I could glide through the screen so much easier.”
Today a Jonathan Cohen collection is printed out on 20-30 sheets of recycled paper only at the very end of the creative process. While the environmental savings are huge, they aren’t the only benefits of a digital workflow. Jonathan was skeptical about it at first but, “I was like, ‘Oh, actually it looks better.’ Our prints are so much better when we print them on the textiles because you don't have any color correction to do. It goes from iPad to computer, and I don't have to scan in my paintings anymore, or take a photo.” Sarah adds, “It changed timelines drastically too. Beforehand it took six weeks to go from what the initial file was to the fabric, and now it's six days.” Finishing Sarah’s sentence, Jonathan adds, “It's very rare we have to write notes anymore for our strike-offs, because the colors just print perfectly.”
Expanding further Jonathan believes, “Procreate just streamlines everything. I can wake up, grab my iPad and jot down an idea really quickly, and a really fully realized idea versus just a little quick note. When we would go for work trips it was with all my art supplies and even a light box. So it was just crazy, and then I'd go on the airplane with a stack of paper which is big and heavy. I always had a specific pencil. If that pencil were to disappear during the trip, there'd be this whole thing. Cutting all that time and that excess away really helps my creativity because I'm able to get ideas out in the moment, right away.”
Sarah adds, “It's also changed how we're able to partner with people. Because if we're thinking of something and how to use the print, Jonathan, in the same place that he has the garments also has the print [in Procreate]. So he can just pull up a piece if someone wants it re-colored. Or if someone wants us to pull a component of the print out and see how we could collaborate on it at home, at a show, or even in our store. It all really comes together because of Procreate.”
Often with two seasons in development at the same time, the creative process at Jonathan Cohen is as extensive as it is exhaustive. “I have a very cinematic view in my head all the time, and I think very much in a storyboard. Then I'll go into doing a lot of research too. I spend maybe a month or two researching whatever that might be. Then I'll find something in that research, and that will take me somewhere else. All that happens before I even start sketching. Then as I get honed in more on what I want to say, I'll start with one print and that'll lead to another print. That's where Sarah really helps out, because I have all these ideas and she knows the inner workings in my head so well, she's able to edit it all very quickly. So once we have the print done, we decide the fabrics that they're going to go on. Then we let that inform the silhouettes and go from there. It's a very long process.”
This ‘very long process’ has seen Jonathan Cohen gain attention with a thoughtful and discerning audience who, “really appreciates creativity, art and craft. Which is really important to us as we’re making things at a slower pace and not mass produced.” Jill Biden, not only wore all Jonathan Cohen at the presidential inauguration, but also has continued to wear the outfit. “That's something that we've always talked about, someone who really appreciates these pieces that stay in their closet. They wear it to this important event in their life, and then continue to appreciate and wear it. She wore them to a school function. The juxtaposition of the places where she's wearing them is really special. We always say, as wild as our prints can be, it's still going to be that wild print in 10 years time. I think that's really an important test, that it stands the test time.”
Making garments that stand the test of time may be a brand goal, but Jonathan Cohen also knows how to make a splash when the time is right as Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible ‘Birth of the Rose’ outfit at the Mexican launch of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) can testify. Shrouded in a red billowing gown, it seemed like Lupita was repeating her successful red-carpet performance from the Golden Globes a few years earlier, until she dramatically burst forth from the gown to reveal a stunning black leather dress underneath. A homage to Lupita and Jonathan’s shared Mexican heritage, the only thing more spectacular than the theater of the moment was the actual fashion itself.
“We had been working on this since August. It was amazing because my family's from Mexico City, and she was born in Mexico. I got to go there and help her get ready and do the final fitting in Mexico, and go to the premiere. So that was a special moment for me personally just because that's where my family's from. It was incredible to be there at the premiere. My dad somehow snuck into the influencer line on the red carpet, and he was FaceTiming my mom. So it was a really cool experience, and a really big deal for us.”
The minute detail and deep thought put into the ‘Birth of the Rose’ is pure Jonathan Cohen. An entirely new and environmentally friendly leather curing process meant that for the first time Jonathan could introduce the material into his work, and even the outfits buckles reflected the ‘rose and thorn’ theme. “I did this rose and thorn buckle sketch, and then we worked with someone in LA, this amazing company to create it. If you compare to the sketch, it's amazing how they got my hand drawn details in the rose. I weirdly got really emotional when I saw the mold. Sarah's like, ‘Are you okay?’ I don’t know, there's just something really cool about seeing your illustration come to life and turning into a belt buckle.”
From a two-person team to independent fashion label, to being front and center on the world fashion stage, Jonathan Cohen’s passion for their art, their craft and their industry has remained the same, and is a huge part of their success. We love discovering creatives who, through their use of Procreate, are finding success and making a difference. As Sarah so succinctly puts it, “I think if you're true to what your belief systems are, then you can't really go wrong.”
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