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Cooper & Ella’s Kara Mendelsohn talks fashion, business and New York City style

For designer Kara Mendelsohn, fashion isn’t all about the big runway shows or flashy statement outfits worn once and tossed in a maybe/never dry clean pile.

Her line, Cooper & Ella, named after her two kids, sprouted from a desire to create a single piece, the “date top,” she said in her 39th Street showroom on Wednesday.

A veteran of major New York City fashion houses Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Thakoon, Mendelsohn capitalized on 18 years of experience and a constant request for going out tops to launch her own brand. 

“It’s hard,” Mendelsohn said of breaking into the fashion industry in NYC. “I think I had an advantage because I had already been working in the industry for 18 years and had 18 years of experience and 18 years of contacts rather than launching a brand straight out of school.”

 

A clear vision was what truly led Mendelsohn's
Photo Credit: Cooper & Ella

A clear vision was what truly led Mendelsohn's designs to top department stores. "I knew what was missing from the market," she said. "That is the key to starting any business, really understanding where there is a wide space or demand that is not being filled."

Season after season, Mendelsohn had buyers asking where they could get date tops, but the piece they were looking for didn't quite exist. "Most people when they're designing, they're designing a collection, an entire world ... they want pants and jackets and coats and sweaters to present."

Skipping the flashy runway presentation, Mendelsohn opted to debut a single item to get her designs in stores. "I knew I would never get picked up if I had an entire collection, because I'd be one in a million," she said. Offering a specific item was the key to getting her foot in the door at Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and more than 300 specialty stores in the past three years since she launched Cooper & Ella.  Plus, working with buyers and establishing relationships over the past two decades certainly helped. "They would return my phone calls and see what I had to show them," she said.

Another facet of Mendelsohn's vision was "a disruptive price point." Cooper & Ella's tops retail for $88-$150 and dresses cost between $198-$250, though they still feature stitching and details seen in high-end lines like Alexander Wang. Bonus: All the fabrics are machine-washable.

Getting her clothes in stores was not Mendelsohn's
Photo Credit: Cooper & Ella

Getting her clothes in stores was not Mendelsohn's only goal. Once it became financially feasible, Mendelsohn and her team of seven female employees all decided it was a priority to give back. For every Cooper & Ella piece sold, a hot meal is donated through The Hope Foundation. Low overhead costs, including a tiny team and shared office space, allow the brand to commit to donating a minimum of 100,000 meals annually. "We all wanted to contribute and give back," Mendelsohn said, "We committed to give money to something we all believe in and support, versus keeping it in our pockets."

Perhaps it's the feel-good sentiment of knowing a nutritious meal is coming from a shopping spree or maybe it's the "desk to dinner" aspect of Mendelsohn's contemporary clothes, having led to Cooper & Ella's "astronomical" growth.  Though 65 percent of the line is still tops, the brand has branched out to dresses, jumpers and jumpsuits, increasingly popular with New York women.

"I'm at the point where I'm walking down the street and I see people wearing something that's mine and it's mind-blowing," said Mendelsohn.  "It's super exciting to get to a point where you spot someone wearing your designs - it's thrilling!"  

Seeing her clothes for sale in New York is another success that Mendelsohn describes as "so cool."

Just Wednesday morning, in fact, the fashion director at Bloomingdale's sent Mendelsohn a picture of a spring Cooper & Ella dress in the windows at 59th Street.

"It's still the most amazing feeling to see that it's my own actual product," she said. "I worked so long for so many other people and I was excited to see their brands, but when it's your own it's a whole other level."

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