Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim are still full when they arrive at their studio on the morning of today’s shoot; last night they were at Kim’s New York apartment, where she cooked up a Korean feast that was, by all accounts, delicious. It’s something that she loves to do, but doesn’t often have the time for thanks to the design duo’s packed-out schedule. Why? Just two years after they founded it, their label, Monse (pronounced mon-say, named after Garcia’s mother), is bigger and more successful than they ever imagined. Not to mention the small matter of their side hustle as creative directors at Oscar de la Renta.
It’s impossible to talk about Monse without also discussing the storied American fashion house, given that one wouldn’t exist without the other. Oscar de la Renta was the first place where both Kim and Garcia worked, and it’s where they met eight years ago. Kim was already an established designer there when Garcia appeared, having secured himself an internship through de la Renta himself; like the designer, he grew up in the Dominican Republic and managed to get a friend of a friend of his father’s to introduce them. Kim, 35, and Garcia, 31, clicked immediately and conversations about starting a label together swiftly followed.
“I always wanted to have my own brand, and when I first met Fernando, I knew we were going to work really well together, so I asked him, ‘When shall we leave to start our own company?’” says Kim, laughing. “And he was like, ‘I don’t want to start my own company; I want to be creative director of a big house.’”
They both got their wish in the end. After some not-so-gentle persuasion from Kim, Monse is an award-winning, buzz-generating reality. The pair started working on it without being exactly certain what they wanted to create. “We didn’t think it was going to be like Oscar; we didn’t want it to be,” says Garcia. “But after spending eight years there, we didn’t know what was going to come out of our hands, and we were scared of that.”
We started chopping up shirts; at the time, the concept of a shirt dress wasn’t tapped in a modern way”
So they hinged the label around pieces rather than trends, canvassing industry insiders whom they’d worked with for advice as they went. “We started chopping up some shirts, because at that time we just thought that the concept of a shirt dress wasn’t tapped enough, or not tapped in a modern way,” says Kim. “I imagined myself at a department store and seeing something familiar, like a shirt, but reimagined.”
Their big debut happened before they’d even shown a collection. In his last weeks at Oscar de la Renta, in fittings for the Met Gala, Garcia mentioned the fledgling label to a clutch of stylists who jumped at the chance to help. The result was Sarah Jessica Parker, an enduring supporter of the brand, wearing a striped monochrome dress that Kim whipped up on a sewing machine. Since then, thanks to the appeal of the label’s on-point blend of grown-up, refined polish with a cool, deconstructed edge, they’ve dressed everyone from Cate Blanchett and Amal Clooney to Blake Lively and Selena Gomez. And not only does this give Garcia a chance to indulge the love of movies that got him into fashion in the first place, it’s helped introduce Monse to a multi-generational crowd of discerning women around the globe. “I think a lot of women relate to actresses; it’s like they envision themselves being that character,” says Garcia. “So when they see them wearing clothes, it becomes real. It’s fun to make the label approachable to people, by them seeing it on the women they want to be.”
“We imagine our woman as hardworking, someone who doesn’t have exactly the luxury that women used to have: going home and changing their outfits,” he continues. “So, everything has to have versatility, comfort and a sex appeal that lasts throughout the day.” With that in mind, Kim, who mixes the Monse collections with vintage finds and streetwear in her own closet, tries on each piece at every stage to make sure that it really works (“I’m always stealing samples, I have so much fun doing it,” she says). They temper the more overtly ‘feminine’ shapes with a menswear sensibility. “I always thought the sexiest thing a woman could wear was her boyfriend’s clothes,” says Garcia. So the duo start with “a bunch of basic menswear. From day one it was always about men’s shirts, men’s pants. We get it from thrift shops and then make it feminine: make Monse sexy,” he says.
Our clothes are very comfortable. Monse isn’t a brand that you have to be a size zero to pull off”
After so many years of working together, their partnership is down to a fine art, texting each other images they like, working separately and then coming together to exchange ideas and argue – Kim’s tougher edge balancing out Garcia’s more romantic tendencies. Last year, when they returned to Oscar de la Renta as co-creative directors, rather than being overwhelmed by the juggling act of heading up two labels, the pair actively prefer it.
“We designed the first two Monse collections without side jobs, and I actually didn’t like that,” says Garcia. “We came from Oscar, where the collections were huge, and then jumped into something that was 50 pieces at the most. We had to focus on the tiny details, and that’s not what it should be about. It should be a spontaneous feeling, and when you focus too much on something, you overwork it. Now, we don’t have time to dwell on things, so if it’s not getting a reaction right away, then it’s over.”
They’ve managed to carve out an identity and cement some of their signatures for their own label, where they have the freedom to design without an established DNA. “There’s always an element of deconstruction, something that you’ve had in your closet for a long time that is reimagined. And unhinged, I guess,” says Garcia. “Then, we love our stripes; it’s our version of a print and that’s a staple. I feel like our clothes are very comfortable, too. It isn’t a brand that you have to be a size zero to be able pull off.”
There’s something else that they can thank de la Renta for. “He made me enjoy working,” says Kim. “I’m from Korea, so our culture is very different; he was Dominican, always happy, always dancing, singing. He showed me that there could be joy in the office, to enjoy other people’s company, rather than just work 9-to-5.” The joy shows in the clothes.
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.