Fashion / Style

Fashion Designer Jonathan Cohen Swoops Into Houston, Bringing the Energy and a Sense of Escape

Getting Away From the Old Pandemic Realities With Friends & Trends at Elizabeth Anthony

BY // 03.08.22

It seemed like old times at Elizabeth Anthony’s Friends & Trends Luncheon and Style Presentation. After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the 13th annual gathering was on again and the Uptown Park boutique was filled with energetic Houston shoppers curious about innovative designer Jonathan Cohen.

The Mexico City-born, San Diego-raised designer — who is now living in New York — is getting a lot of buzz for his inventive hand designed prints and commitment to sustainability. Cohen debuted his fall collection in Houston even before it has been shown to such fashion heavyweights as Vogue, along with his spring collection, accessorized with couture jewelry from Boston-based designer Katherine Jetter, a longtime favorite of the store’s loyal clientele.

The energy was so high-octane (i.e. noisy) as guests mingled and excitedly perused the collections that Cohen and I escaped to a dressing room on the store’s second floor so we could hear one another over the din during a quick interview. After the long pandemic, the 36-year-old designer is ecstatic to be on the road again to meet with customers and talk about his work.

“For me, fashion has always been a way to escape. Any struggle I’ve had in my life, I’ve designed my way out of it,” he says.

While the pandemic had plenty of down and heartbreaking moments, it allowed Cohen and company CEO Sarah Leff to press the reset button on their business. (The duo first met 16 years ago as classmates at the Parsons School of Design and formally launched the company in 2011.)  They put production on hold and looked at ways to keep the brand going online.

Cohen designed masks, pins, brooches, necklaces, headbands and children’s clothing — all using recycled textiles. He also opened a digital flower shop, where a Cohen-designed sketch of a floral bouquet could be purchased online and sent to friends and loved ones to keep in touch.

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“It was a way to engage with people and create a sense of community when we were all lacking it,” he says. “With the pandemic we really tried to make the best of the situation as much as we could.”

Cohen has continued the online flower shop, with the latest offering titled “Ukranian Roses.” The drawing of a bouquet of yellow roses costs $20, with a portion of proceeds donated to Voices of Children.

Jonathan Cohen and the Italy Connection

Once Cohen and Leff ramped up production again last year, they moved manufacturing to Italy, closer to where they source their materials. They also decided to show new collections on a timetable more favorable to clients than during New York Fashion Week. For his spring collection, in stores now, Cohen looked to the idea of escapism since he designed a lot of his prints while in quarantine.

Inspired by the 1988 surrealist movie What Dreams May Come, which he watched during the pandemic, Cohen created textiles for the spring collection featuring smudged floral prints, woven jacquards of bumblebees set against a honeycomb pattern and air balloon florals. It’s made to “look like these bouquets are actually air balloons flying into the sky (to convey) this idea of transporting to another place and using fashion to bring joy and escape day-to-day life,” Cohen explains.

For the fall collection, he collaborated with a friend to photograph dahlias submerged in water. They later improvised with hand sanitizer instead of water to get the desired effect. They also took an up-close view of the tail of Cohen’s pet fish Selina, creating abstract prints that emphasize the idea of reflection and self-reflection in a post-pandemic world.

Elizabeth Anthony Friends & Trends Luncheon
Jonathan Cohen denim pantsuit with hand painted flowers. (Photo by Jennifer Greene)

In a commitment to sustainability, Cohen repurposes leftover fabric remnants in a variety of ways. Several signature smocked pieces in the new collections are made from remnant strips and a striking mini-dress features hundreds of upcycled crystals covered in recycled fabric that dangle like colorful paillettes.

“I’m constantly pushing the idea of fabric remnants just like I push any collection, to do something new with it, to do something that people haven’t seen, a new way of looking at it,” Cohen says. “We do all this work so our customer doesn’t have to. At the end of the day, she just wants a great dress.”

Jonathan Cohen had his moment in the spotlight last year when first lady Jill Biden wore a striking purple coat with velvet belt from his collection when she and then president-elect Joe Biden flew to Washington, D.C., to kick off inauguration festivities. The coat was made from fabric remnants in keeping with Cohen’s commitment to sustainability.

“And she’s continued to wear it. That’s a really important message to send,” Cohen says. “From a sustainability standpoint, you want pieces that stand the test of time and that can be worn more than once, that aren’t trend-based and that really adapt to your life.

“She’s a perfect example of that.”

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