Ten years in: Jonathan Cohen and co-founder Sarah Leff on the indie brand journey
On a mid-August Monday, in which most of the Upper East Side is a vacation-induced ghost town, Jonathan Cohen and partner Sarah Leff are staffing the Jonathan Cohen temporary store on Madison Avenue. Cohen cracks a joke about the hands-on demands of running a retail shop full-time as he and Leff take a break from their behind-the-scenes work.
Kidding aside, the duo is loving the retail experiment-slash-experience. What started as a month-plus plan in May to use the space as a retail playground will stay open until January. The brand has also just launched its first Amazon Luxury Stores capsule collection. FashionNetwork.com caught up with Cohen and Leff as they turned the corner on ten years in business.
“We sold out of six weeks’ worth of merchandise in ten days,” Leff explained on how the lease extension came to be.
Leff and Cohen are among several businesses that found the post-pandemic retail scene forgiving for a young brand, allowing for trial and error.
“Pop-ups are designed to help you test the market,” she continued, adding that “pre-pandemic, the leases were 10-year contracts, and that is a big risk. This option offers flexibility and fluidity of how or where to go.”
The pop-up experiment had a trial run in December 2021 downtown, which was admittedly, according to Cohen, more of his stomping ground while uptown is where Leff was based.
“We noticed the downtown shopper was more price hesitant. With a pop-up, you want to ensure you have robust sales,” said Cohen.
The store opened with the Resort 2022 collection to be sold from May 1 to June 14 but will now add fall and holiday collections too.
During the pandemic, the pair closed their studio on the Bowery and based themselves out of their respective apartments. As the world began to open more, Leff found herself hosting staff members and clients in her Upper East Side home. Thus, it made sense to open uptown, and the Madison Avenue space now houses a stockroom and offices for the partners in its three stories.
The brand has used the space to test out styles, designs, and even the look and features they want in a permanent store. Getting to know the customers has been one of the most substantial advantages.
“We see customers walking their dogs or another customer who saw a dress from the store window looking out of their own window. This woman was worried about shopping in person because of Covid but needed something for a close family event,” said Leff.
Cohen noted the novelty of a brand like theirs in the tony enclave.
“We are bringing something new to the Upper East Side; these are fresh and new names for them,” he said, referring to trunk shows and events with fashion brands such as Khiry, Gigi Burris, Aera, and Mark Cross bags. “We have a garden, so we host monthly shopping events; one involved a Churro company. They are big selling moments, once I even sold the shirt I was wearing,’ said Cohen.
The neighborhood, which took a big hit in the pandemic with empty storefront after storefront, is seeing an uptick in new cafes and businesses such as Irene Neuwirth, Caviar Kaspia, and a private club on the way. Other younger independent brands such as La Ligne and Altuzarra are nearby.
Besides learning where they wear the clothes, Cohen says seeing how their customer wears them has also been illuminating.
“If I notice the same alteration on a dress. I tweak my production or design,” said Cohen adding, “It also makes me understand what people want from us. Men have been coming in for the shirts. Some can wear the matching pants, which are killing it, by the way.”
The pants may be a style that a wholesale account didn’t nab, but can be tested in the store or e-commerce site. The store has also boosted already booming event dressing.
“We always did custom pieces, but the uptick in events this year helped build this. Just last week, we did two custom gown orders,” said Cohen.
Currently, the duo is buzzing about the recent launch of the Amazon Luxury Stores capsule collection of dresses ranging from XS to 5XL—the most extensive size range the brand has made in production—based on the Everyday Florals collection made from recycled fabric.
“The dresses evolved from our Fall 2021 collection, which featured these florals as underpinnings like leggings and long sleeve tops. These dresses are made from jersey and Ponte fabric and are machine washable, packable but nice enough to wear to a wedding,” said Cohen.
The prices range from $395 to $450.
The duo is also quick to point out how a gown in the store window supports its sustainability practices which Leff refers to as “taking responsibility for fabric remnants.” A black evening dress on display was festooned in upcycled fabric-covered gem-shaped metal appliques. Another popular style, a Fifties fit-and-flare style dress, is made in quantities according to the leftover yardage of any particular print. Ditto for a fitting room curtain.
The duo engages artists to take part in their fabric circularity too. French artist Djivan Shapira created resin skateboard decks that have fabric remnants inlaid and abstract wall hangings made from the textile scraps on offer as part of the retail experience.
Additionally, there is furniture from designer Fernando Mastrangelo serving as part décor and for sale. The Flowershop concept, launched in the pandemic and grew into the brand’s philanthropic arm, has evolved to stationary by Dempsey & Carroll rounding out the brand extensions.
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