Words By Mimi Vu
One subzero morning last February, the fashion designer Mandy Coon opened the door to her cozy wood-clad studio adjacent to her charming 1930s cabin in the hamlet of Smallwood, New York. Sporting a natural ash-brown bob, a black jumpsuit, and white Minnetonka moccasins, she was fresh-scrubbed and ethereally pretty and relaxed—the picture of polished rusticity. Inside her workshop, bolts of patent leather and calfskin waited patiently by industrial Juki sewing machines, a cutting table, and a die-cutting machine. To one side stood a rack of sophisticated bags—clutches with circular cutouts, a giant perforated-leather tote, and an array of quirky rabbit-shaped purses—in every possible variation of black. On Coon’s desk perched two handmade leather baby booties, for the son she and her boyfriend, Peter Miszuk, are expecting in March. The space had the air of both a high-fashion studio and a homey crafter’s nook.
Those who followed Coon’s career in New York City at the start of this decade might be surprised by this quiet idyll. A few years ago, Coon was a model/DJ turned fashion-world upstart with a critically acclaimed womenswear line, a raft of glowing press about the dark, punk-inflected yet ladylike elegance of her designs—and a place in Paper magazine’s pantheon of “Beautiful People,” thanks to her sharp, half-shaved aubergine crop of hair and striking personal style. Vogue, reviewing one of her shows in 2011, wrote, “Can there be anyone more emblematic of how exciting and [energizing] young New York has become than Mandy Coon?”
Despite all the applause, however, Coon was overcome with anxiety. “I was really trying to make it work on a shoestring budget every season,” she said, “and I was so burnt out. I had ulcers. And then within a couple of months of each other, my dog died and then my dad died.” She was also, she later noted, going through a divorce from LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy.
Fashion is often described by insiders as “the harshest industry” (in the words of the designer-mogul Tom Ford), one that has driven any number of household names, from Yves Saint Laurent to John Galliano, spectacularly over the edge. Independent young designers who are gifted enough to hit on success find themselves sprinting on a punishing and relentless treadmill, cranking out collections for every spring and every fall, and often feeling pressured to expand into pre-fall and resort collections, or accessories or cosmetics. (Saint Laurent once described this machine as “quite horrible—a system of meshing cogs, a cycle that one is caught up in which cuts short many relationships one could have with friends, family . . . lots of things.”)
“I was really trying to make it work on a shoestring budget every season,” she said, “and I was so burnt out.”
Coon decided that, for the sake of her sanity, she had to find another way. “What I had always loved about fashion was making things, not running a business,” she explained. “But that’s all I felt like I was doing, just putting out fires every day and having to yell at factories. Unless you have big-time investment behind you, it can become unsustainable.”
She and Miszuk, then a photographer, had been coming up regularly to Woodridge, New York, to visit friends. By March of 2013, the couple had the keys to their own place, a 1,500-square-foot log-siding cabin nestled amongst pine trees.
Coon had already decided at that point that the spring 2013 ready-to-wear collection would be her last, and that accessories would be the way forward for her. “To be honest,” Coon said, “the most successful things I’d ever made were the bunny bags,” those adorable yet diabolical floppy-eared black leather purses (inspired by a kitschy bag carried around by Shirley MacLaine’s character in the 1958 film Some Came Running) that have been spied on celebrities from Zooey Deschanel to Rihanna. It wasn’t too big a leap, it seemed, to officially make the move to the aptly named Smallwood—and not just her home, but her business operations, too.
After the house was theirs, Miszuk, who has carpentry skills and was making the transition to real estate, helped to build the small extension that would become her new workspace. Soon after, Coon downscaled her East Village studio of three staffers to a one-woman cottage—or more precisely, cabin—industry, crafting leather goods by hand from start to finish upstate.
The move has been transformative for her. “I am a real control freak, and I like to be super-obsessive,” she noted. Designing amongst the trees and deer has allowed her to be that control freak in a much more laid-back way. “I definitely didn’t think that I was a country person,” she said. “So I was very shocked—everyone was shocked—that I felt at home here so much. But I’m way less distracted. I’m able to get so much more done and still go on a hike in the middle of the day.”
“I definitely didn’t think that I was a country person. So I was very shocked—everyone was shocked—that I felt at home here so much.”
Coon is just one of a growing contingent of creatives who are bringing diversity to upstate’s resurgence in recent years. Plenty of city dwellers have traded their tiny pads for dairy farms, bed-and-breakfasts, and antiques shops, but joining them now are ever more fashion designers, artists, and musicians, as well as retail outlets and galleries showcasing their work: Aside from boutiques in the city such as ODD and Henrik Vibskov, Coon sells at Nest in Narrowsburg.
And while there are some downsides to being outside the mad whirl of the city—she can’t just dash on a whim to Manhattan’s garment district to pick up supplies or, for that matter, easily indulge her pregnancy cravings for ramen—she’s learned to plan meticulously around her sourcing and sales needs, making regular trips to meet with buyers and showrooms. She also aims to grow her online sales, to increase her all-important independence from the fashion cycle.
“My ideal dream situation,” says Coon, “is that I could find some old ladies up here who know how to sew, and I could just teach them how to sew leather. We could be a little collective.”
Photography: Diego Uchitel Styling: Yael Gitae Makeup: Moani Lee x Hourglass Cosmetics Hair: Jasmine Gibbs x Oribe Fashion: Rebecca Taylor long sleeve tangier dress, Tracy Reese strapless flounce dress, Stella Mccartney crop top, Mara Hoffman off-the-shoulder striped top