This Under-the-Radar Designer Is Quietly Taking Over the Red Carpet
Imagine if Robert Mapplethorpe cut up a Carolina Herrera dress.
When we first enter Jonathan Cohen’s studio, up two very steep flights of stairs, it reminds us of our middle-school fantasy of a Manhattan loft. It’s airy with wide wooden tables and a painting leaning against the wall. There’s a lookbook on the table next to a book of fabric swatches, with succulents on a windowsill that opens up to a fire escape overlooking the Lower East Side. Jonathan’s FW 17 collection hangs nearby—there are purple blazers and structured floral skirts. Thigh-high boots and bows.
He designs for a woman who’s indescribable. You want to initially label her, until you realize you can’t because she’s so many things all at once. “I think she’s someone who’s very complex, she’s not just one thing. She’s elegant, subversive, and she’s sexual. She’s smart. She’s a working woman, and she’s a mother. I think all of those things when I design.”
The artwork we saw on the wall, with cut-out Matisse-like shapes, was actually this season’s mood board. The black-and-white portrait in the middle wasn’t of a model, but instead of Robert Mapplethorpe and Carolina Herrera, two names that almost never appear side by side. And yet there they were–in the middle of a studio on Bowery, cut in half, pasted back up alongside the other, as one. “They were friends, and I guess she was kind of scared of him at first, and then he begged to take her photo, and she did it. Those were beautiful photos he took of her.”
The thought of a Carolina Herrera dress sliced through with a scissor, with fringed fabric and uneven cuts, is hard to imagine. The thought of those scissors in the hands of Robert Mapplethorpe as he deconstructs a piece of Herrera’s timeless elegance is even harder. But the dichotomy of Mapplethorpe’s subversion and Carolina’s gracefulness is what fascinated Jonathan so much it inspired his entire collection.
“This season I took all of the photos of the orchids and used photography as the medium. You can see the orchid print, it’s supposed to be a warped orchid, almost as if Robert was high when he was taking the photos. When you go, they just look like these beautiful orchids, but as you get closer, they are really warped and blurry.” Jonathan makes all of his prints, which explains the extensive narrative behind each one. “The last print is like torn wallpaper. It’s almost like Robert took all of Carolina’s wallpaper, tore it up, and put it back together.”
“I think that duality worked really well. It’s like, ‘Oh, we weren’t expecting that,’ and sometimes we’re not! Sometimes I don’t know what it’s going to look like. Right now I’m working on a fabric for Spring. It’s a really intricate idea, and in my head I’m like, I think it’s going to look good, but I have no idea.” We feel as though we know the answer, but that initial risk coupled with Jonathan’s uncertainty is what makes us so excited regardless.
With admirers ranging from Cipriana and TK Quann to Karlie Kloss to Lupita Nyong’o (she wore a dress covered in Cohen’s own lip prints in YSL #13), we aren’t the only ones. Jonathan’s designs are captivating and mysterious in that they are never as they appear. When we look around the studio, we realize the fridge isn’t covered in magnets, but design illustrations, the yellow stickers on the pipes don’t say natural gas, but instead Jonathan Cohen. We remember the orchids on the gown aren’t blossoming, but warped. We picture Carolina Herrera and Robert Mapplethorpe, their portraits collaged as a whole at the front of the studio.
“I remember someone told me once when I was really down, ‘It’s not over until you say it’s over.’ There was something really empowering about that. People can’t tell you when it’s over. You decide when it’s over.” Jonathan has too many new patterns to distort, dresses to deconstruct, and unlikely friendships to uncover as potential design inspiration. And so we’ve made the decision for him: It’s not over yet, not even close.
Shop Jonathan Cohen’s FW 17 season on Moda Operandi until May 30th.