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After seeing leather all over the runway at NYFW this fall, I made it my mission to find a sustainable, cruelty-free alternative. Enter Santos by Mónica, a brand that first captured my attention online with its mod-chic, graphic vegan leather handbags. After experiencing Santos’ bags and ready-to-wear in person, I am a head-over-heels convert to their sustainable mission and playful style.
Founded by Mónica Santos Gil after a career designing for big name fashion brands, Santos by Mónica sprung from her desire to build a brand that centered locally crafted fashion made from ethical materials. While other brands talk about sustainability goals they want to meet in five or ten years, Santos has been walking the walk since the very beginning. In fact, maybe their biggest selling point is that each Santos bags is made from a cactus-based biomaterial created in Mexico and then assembled locally in NYC.
Since launching the brand, a space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side meant to be a temporary pop-up has turned into her creative home. From the moment you walk into Santos by Mónica’s store tucked away on Ludlow Street, you feel like you’re being embraced by one of the city’s most exciting and welcoming new creative collectives. Designers from Mexico City chat with Mónica in one corner by a handmade jewelry pop-up. Racks of Mónica’s gorgeous ready to wear collection hang next to carefully chosen pieces by Latine designers from all over. Friends hang out by the door, talking about art openings and trading studio keys.
Anchoring all of this is Santos’ strong aesthetic, expressed through clothes that feel like they’ve been plucked from the set of a Jacques Demy mod musical, and bags that are graphic, postmodern, and timeless. Read below for my favorites from the collection.
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Agave Triangular Tote in Green
Each bag in the Santos collection is designed to be worn across multiple seasons in a variety of settings. I took my Agave Triangular Tote in Green with me everywhere in New York, and it proved to be my platonic ideal for a handbag: big enough to stow away a book, wallet, camera, and lip oil, but small and flat enough to rest comfortably on my shoulder. Since then, I’ve taken my new favorite bag back to the West Coast where it’s been my ride or die daily carry, and an essential accessory for nighttime film screenings and restaurant openings. Whatever microtrend pops up next, I know that my Santos by Mónica bag will be there to make sure my on-trend style still feel timeless and chic.
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Amelia Mini Baguette
The Amelia Mini Baguette is one of my favorite Santos styles. Paired here with the Penelope Halter Dress in Black, this mini shoulder bag encapsulates everything I love about the brand – classic silhouettes made with fascinating materials, and always with an eye towards fun.
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Penelope Halter Dress in Cream
Speaking of the Penelope dress, I am obsessed with the cream color way with its very on-trend pop of red at the button. The retro collar flatters the shoulders while a sexy slit at the leg means this dress can be taken from a daytime picnic look to a night out with a quick change of accessories.
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Flavia Top in Terracotta Red
My favorite piece I tried on in person was the Flavia Top. I’ve written in the past about how much I love Santos’ choices of bold reds, integrated into both her collection and the store she shows them in. This flirty halter is a great example of how Mónica designs her clothes to be made from as few pieces as possible to save on fabric waste.
If you’re based in New York, I can’t recommend a visit to her dreamy store enough. Fortunately for the rest of us, Santos’ incredible collection of bags and ready to wear are available online. More inspired than ever by her gorgeous lineup, I sat down with Mónica to chat about her inspirations and journey to building this gorgeous brand.
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IN CONVERSATION WITH MÓNICA SANTOS GIL
Could you tell us about the sustainable manufacturing process for your bags and ready-to-wear?
First and foremost, the process begins with our choice of biomaterials. We aim to reduce our own environmental footprint by sourcing and incorporating the latest material innovations that have reduced environmental impact. We create our handbags from a cactus-based biomaterial and ready-to-wear from 100% TENCEL.
The cactus used for our biomaterial is sourced from a farm in Mexico, where cacti are grown using only rainwater, requiring 80% less water than traditional animal leather production. Additionally, it possesses excellent carbon dioxide sequestering capabilities and is partially biodegradable, minimizing its impact on the environment.
In addition to our material choices, we prioritize local production and timeless design to further reduce our footprint. By manufacturing our products locally, we minimize transportation emissions and support our local community. Our commitment to timeless design means that our products are not driven by fast-paced trends, encouraging longevity and reducing waste.
What inspired this commitment to sustainability?
Prior to launching Santos, I interned with numerous luxury designers, before moving to the design table for large retail brands.Throughout my career, I gained visibility into supply chains and realized the effect the fashion industry has on the planet and garment workers. Motivated by these lessons, I decided to utilize fashion as an educational tool to promote a slow, cyclical form of production. From this seed, I founded Santos by Mónica to promote sustainable and responsible business practices.
Where do you find aesthetic inspiration for new pieces? How do materials play a role in this process?
I find inspiration in nature, art, post-modern architecture, as well as my own culture. I’m fascinated by the interplay of textures, colors, and shapes in post-modern interiors for example, and how one shape or figure can be translated into unique designs. It inspires me to think about the entire shape of a bag, from the opening to the pocket, and the entire campaign behind it.
Additionally, I draw inspiration from the sustainability movement itself, which is constantly pushing me to explore innovative approaches. For example, at the moment our designs are composed out of 3-4 pattern pieces, which allows us to use a strategic puzzle-like configuration that minimizes our waste.
Where do you want to take Santos by Mónica in the future?
Building onto our successful NYC retail storefront, which began as a 10-day pop-up, I'm eager to explore new markets in various cities across the US where we have already observed interest through our online sales. Whether these are in-person events, pop-up shops, or partnerships with reputable retail stores that share our brand values.
Long-term, I hope to keep researching and integrating new biomaterials into our designs, and hopefully even develop our own.
Who are some of the other designers you carry in the store? How do you choose other designers to carry?
I carry mostly emerging designers that manufacture in the US or Latin America. Most of them are friends or friends of friends. There is a curatorial process to ensure that the selected assortment is cohesive, but it's mostly a combination of sustainability combined with good design.
Ricardo Arenas from Collarcito de Moda, who you briefly met last week, I was introduced to at a dinner in Mexico City this past spring and immediately fell in love with his pieces. I brought them to New York and it's been wonderful to be able to share his designs with our customers, who seems to be loving them as much as I do.
THE FUTURE OF FASHION
It feels like an increasingly rare thing to find a brand that is completely confident in both its aesthetic and its values. These days, microtrends accelerated by the internet pressure brands to churn out collections at a breathless pace and with a chameleonic style – Coastal Grandma one month, Barbie-core the next. And while many of these brands preach sustainability, it's nearly impossible to service such a high turnover of product while also keeping a commitment to ethically sourced & manufactured fashion. Santos by Mónica provides a compelling alternative, eschewing rigid fashion seasons and instead building new collections inspired by what sustainable materials are available. When the products look this good, it's clear that's no sacrifice.