Spend an afternoon downtown in New York and chances are you’ll spot countless women wearing New York-based contemporary label, Sea. The funny thing is, unless you’re in the know or have bought their clothes from one of their many retail partners – think Net-a-Porter, Barneys, ShopBop and Harvey Nichols – there’s a big chance you’ve never heard of it before. Since the brand’s inception, co-founders and longtime friend duo Sean Monahan and Monica Paolini have shied away from courting celebrities, have never shown at fashion week nor do they court collaborations or advertise. With Sea, it’s all about the product and it shows.
Their clothes don’t reinvent the wheel – and that’s the point. They’ve made it their business to offer collections that are consistently cool and feminine without the frills, always with a fresh take on a classic and never prohibitively expensive. And the creative process always begins with looking through Monica’s wardrobe. It’s her paid back but polished aesthetic that lays the foundation for everything they create. In short, it’s how many women want to dress now and, as a result, their designs have been much emulated by other labels and on the high street. Even if you’ve never heard of the brand before, you’ve probably worn something influenced by it. Read to find out how the pair came to work together, on Monica’s former life at the likes of Jill Stuart and Betsey Johnson and why they refuse to rest on their laurels.
HOW SEA WAS BORN: Sean started the business about 10 years ago and was able to grow it to a point where it made sense for me to come over and join full-time. The genesis of the brand is our friendship: we have known each other since childhood and I think this really shows in the way we work together. Our design ethos is aligned and we completely trust each other. We both come from different backgrounds in terms of our previous work roles and it has meant we can both bring a different dynamic to Sea. We always envision the Sea woman as someone who wants to dress like herself, she has a sense of freedom and creativity while not looking like she’s tried too hard. She is elegant, cool and sophisticated but definitely fun!
THE STORY BEHIND THE NAME: Sean came up with the name Sea. He loves the NY but really he’s just lazy. He was “helping” me with the line up for a fashion show at Betsey at 4am and lost interest and began typing his name in oversized letters on a corkboard. Before he finished he went to the kitchen for a coffee and came back and saw ‘Sea’ and that was the beginning of Sea. It just stuck and it’s a great name that also has a meaning behind it. I love how it evolved.
ON HER LONG FRIENDSHIP WITH SEAN & THEIR WORK RELATIONSHIP: Sean and I are childhood friends. We grew up together in Newburgh, NY. We have a symbiotic relationship and balance each other out. In Sea I bend more towards the vintage feeling pieces and Sean leans perhaps to more modern clean styles. We usually pick the fabrics and prints together and then I begin to fill in shapes with the design team. As the boards evolve Sean becomes involved filling holes or dropping certain looks. He also interacts with the customers much more and I look after the production side. But all in all we are a small team and it is a close and healthy partnership. We are lucky as it enables us to fit perfectly, we run no risk of an external creative changing what we know works.
ON THE DEPARTMENT STORE THAT HELPED CHANGE EVERYTHING: Our business really began to grow with Barneys. They truly supported us and helped elevate and grow our brand. Our first international stockist was Montaigne Market in Paris. I love how this has grown and to date we have stockists in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. It really is a global brand and I am proud of our team effort and our wish to continue to grow our business. Our online stockists also include Net-A-Porter, Matches Fashion and Moda Operandi who are hugely supportive. Having those key online stores really allows you to show your product and creations to a global audience.
LIFE BEFORE SEA: I was the design director of Betsey Johnson. She’s a wonderful lady that made coming into work every day dynamic and enjoyable. She is a tremendous spirit and her journey through the fashion world continues to inspire me. Before Betsey I was I worked for Jill Stuart. Luckily Jill saw something in me and hired me out right of FIT. I started work before finishing my degree so working with Jill was the perfect finishing school for me. We worked exceptionally hard and I worked in many areas beyond RTW design including public relations, accessory design and production. I even learned a bit of Spanish managing our handbag factory that was staffed by craftsmen all from the Dominican Republic!
ON WHAT WORKING AT OTHER BRANDS TAUGHT HER: At Betsey I learned the importance and value of being faithful to your voice and customer. Betsey’s aesthetic is not mine but she is an inspired person that cherishes her customer relationship and has always been faithful to her voice. Jill Stuart was my first job. I shared a closer aesthetic relationship with Jill but most importantly she taught me the value of hard work and diligence. She has an incredible work ethic and showed me what it takes to be successful in this industry. I certainly believe working for someone is important. This business has so many moving parts and cannot be wholly learned from the outside. Working for a brand provides the exposure to the nuance and challenges of the business.
SILENCING OUT THE NOISE: It’s important to us that we keep true to Sea’s voice. Each season we work on building our vocabulary, but always try to speak in the same language. It’s Sea’s voice that bonds us to our customer and that’s something we cherish. It is not intentional that we build upon the last collection but we always cater to that ‘look’ that our customers know so well. We do however continually update and evolve our collections; we want to ensure we grow with our current consumer as well as attracting new fans of the brand.
ON WHAT SHE PUTS ALL THEIR SUCCESS DOWN TO: I think a lot has to do with the bond that has developed with our customers over the years. They drive the brand in the sense that they are our focus and factor into our thought process as we develop, price and produce the collection. We have not been particularly focused on press; we have never had a show or a presentation for example. We have just kept our head down and focused on evolving the aesthetic and delivering collections and pieces that make our customer feel special. That way, Sea customers know and trust our judgment. They know they are buying pieces that will last and are of a high quality. We pay attention to the fabric choice, components, fastenings and color selections not forgetting the all-important pattern choice and fit. There is so much that goes into ensuring the product of the highest standard before reaching any retailer or customer.
ON OVERCOMING EARLY STRUGGLES: As the business has grown figuring out what overhead to commit to and finding new team members that fit into the environment in a seamless manner has presented challenges. The best part of having these challenges is overcoming them, working together as a team to determine what is going to work and the best way of ensuring we reach that final goal. I know we will always face challenges in a continually evolving world. It’s a challenge in itself to make sure you’re on top of everything from the newest trends to the latest technology in both manufacturing to social media. Sean and I are lucky to have a creative team who feel as passionate about SEA as we do.
WHY ‘WEARABLE’ ISN’T A SWEAR WORD: It’s something we are aware of when we are developing the collections. We want to be a resource our customers can depend on and also make clothes that are easy to wear but at the same time make you feel special – to help express your personality rather than overwhelm it. So many of the SEA pieces can be dressed up or down. We are so aware of the fast paced lifestyle women are challenged with in the modern day. We know that are customers choose to wear that piece from SEA as it caters for the day at work, that important meeting and the dinner you may have planned all in that one day. We pride ourselves in being the brand that works for all elements of their day.
HER PERSONAL STYLE: Over the years I would say I have moved to a cleaner, less complicated, timeless wardrobe. And no more heels. I love how sneakers are now a premium, cool and creative shoe to have in your wardrobe. Nobody would question a woman in an incredible dress and blazer while wearing trainers in the office. It’s such a breath of fresh air!
PRE & POST BABY FASHION: While I was pregnant I lived in our jumpsuits and Zara maternity jeans. And now that Luca is here I would say washable clothes are majorly important. As he’s still young I need to be able to move around easily as I am constantly picking him up and running around. It’s interesting how you adapt to your needs while keeping your signature style intact. Having him definitely made a huge impact on my style. He has radically changed what I wear every day as I need to be able to be on the move and quick! Comfort has really taken over style but that’s the great thing about Sea, so many of our pieces are cool and relaxed but should I need to run into an important meeting or meet anyone externally I can guarantee that any of our pieces will work.
THE MOST CHERISHED PIECES IN HER WARDROBE: Vintage high-waist Levis; a Rolex from the 40s that Sean got me; Sea distressed cotton t-shirts and a Celine motorcycle jacket come to mind. Building your wardrobe is a long process and I often see it as a collection of favourite things. If you invest wisely you cannot go wrong and I can assure you that you will continue to wear key, quality staples forever. I’m always drawn to pieces that feel timeless and will last me season after season. I want our pieces I design to have that element but also to feel special whether they be minimal, like a t-shirt that we wash down and hand distress to the more intricate embellished pieces like an embroidery dress. Sea has the perfect balance of intricate pieces as well as the minimal classics. I really feel like Sean and I have developed a collection and brand that you go to no matter what you like.
ON SHOPPING VINTAGE: Be careful and make sure it’s true love and not just another skeleton in your closet. Don’t buy something on a whim: think about it, what will it work with in your wardrobe and what will you wear it to? Should you be able to answer all those questions with ease, you’re good! I love Southpaw but that is rental only. They have an incredible library though that is endlessly inspiring. I recently found several pieces I love at Ritual Vintage on Broome St. I can never have enough frilly white Victorian blouses and they always seem to have that new piece I have to have.
ON WHY SHE REFUSES TO REST ON HER LAURELS: I don’t think we will ever feel like we have made it. It’s been an incredible journey and I am very happy to be on it with Sean. I will say visiting London, Paris and Tokyo and seeing girls wearing our clothes is not something I imagined when I was young but something that literally takes my breath away every time it happens. To see someone wearing something from the collection in their own way inspires both me and Sean to keep creating and to push ourselves to ensure we continue to evolve. Those are always fun moments which I am super grateful for. I am a firm believer in never allowing yourself to have that moment where you feel like you have accomplished everything. Always push yourself to ask ‘Where can we go next and How could we have done that better’?
The shirtdress worn by Monica in the shoot is available to buy at ShopBop here