When I find something I can’t stop thinking about, I want to know everything about it. Call me OCD, but right now I’m all up in caftans. These bold beasts of textile, pattern, and color are based on the Indian sari, and are becoming more a part of the urban landscape than just resort wear. So I met up with one of the most prominent caftan designers in the U.S., Monica Patel-Cohn, whose pieces can be found in Barney’s and many exclusive boutiques.
For Monica, founder of Two NY and the child of an Indian father and Italian mother, patterns, colors, and textiles are a way of life: “I always loved so much from both cultures, and this was the perfect way to fuse all my creative energy and inspiration from the two of them.”
My father’s Indian, a culture that is all colors and patterns. My mother’s Milanese, Italian, and they have a very toned down sensibility. In the 60s my father moved to Italy to take advantage of the tech boom there. That’s where my parents met, and then moved to the U.S. and opened a clothing store. My mom would try to put me in things like Jean Paul Gaultier and I wanted Espirit. At home I was exposed to lots of authentic Indian textiles… beautiful fabrics, but nobody knew how to wear them here. So what I did was take these Indian saris with more modern colorways and a more Western way to wear them.
I always knew I wanted to take Indian textiles and do something. I always wanted to study design and do art. I got married at a beautiful villa near Santa Margherita and my Indian family all wore beautiful Indian saris and it was stunning. All my nieces were wearing amazing color combinations and I loved the juxtaposition against the Italian background. My girlfriend is a designer who lives in South America so I asked her to come out and do some prototypes to see what we could do.
I figured out you could make caftans on a power loom, but I wanted to stick with handmade. The pieces I choose are not the ones people typically wear. They’re old school. At the time, the Indian thing was very glitzy and the Italian thing in the 70s and 80s was very toned down, so I wanted to come up with something that was very chic and low key.
In India right now, it’s the machine versus the handloom. Few people from the new generation want to take over their family’s business of hand-looming fabrics. The highly skilled, traditional hand-weavers are being put out of work by the demand for cheap, fast fashion. When the only priority is to get the garment from the design board to the shop floor in six weeks, hand-weavers cannot compete with power looms.
This really inspires me to help employ people in this sector to loom my fabrics. Sadly, machines are rapidly taking hand-weavers’ jobs and livelihoods away and the only way to stop this is by buying hand-woven products. The added bonus is that hand-weaving fabrics saves one ton of CO2 emissions per year per handloom, so my products have a low carbon footprint.
The woman who appreciates textiles. Someone who loves their home, who puts more time and effort into it, is also usually someone who loves textiles too.
A slip and caftan can go out for a night on the town. When we first started, my girlfriend and I would go around Brooklyn wearing them to parties, and at that time I was pregnant so it was perfect. Especially when it’s hot! People also use them for beach weddings. I’m also starting on everyday pieces, like a pant, as well as kids stuff, these little dolls, and a baby caftan.
I have a huge fascination with home. I love home. Before this I worked with two architects doing graphic design, all very modern and clean, but I also love country mixed in. I have modern cabinets, a beautiful linen-covered couch, really soft colors mixed with bright green. I love Italian design. I don’t mix much Indian in except for cushions. It’s kind of farm meets modern. Our kitchen is like a Dada kitchen, all sleek and modern.
For me it’s the workmanship that goes into it. It’s just an amazing trade and I think I’ve always wanted to be somebody who makes something. What makes me the happiest is when I can make something un-wearable, like a sari, wearable.
I go on these trips to India and hit all my stores and see what they have. I pull and purchase whatever I think looks good. If I have other people shopping for me, I’m not getting what I love. Sometimes I’ll find something that’s beyond amazing and I can’t even sell it. I’m like, ‘You’re staying with me!’—they’re like babies!