Interview with Mónica Santos Gil: founder of Santos by Monica

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Mónica Santos Gil

is creating insanely chic bags from cactus leather

What drives a designer to go from a high paying, high fashion gig with free rein to make innovative handbags to risking a new venture out on their own? For Monica Santos Gil that step proved easy once she experienced the total manufacturing picture: polluting and highly toxic materials (PU and PVC both of which melt together in high temperatures if left too long in a drawer – think global warming melting your handbags!) and poorly paid overseas workers (think global warming, the global south, the people making your stuff, bearing most of the brunt for now!)

During the Covid-19 quarantine, she left a luxe job at Coach to open Santos by Monica. Created and produced with vegan leather and 100% sustainable materials, Santos by Monica mixes art, design and timelessness with sustainability and proves it can be just as luxurious and classic as other fashion brands. We had the pleasure of interviewing Mónica to talk about sustainability in fashion and how that’s impacted her with her business.

You went to Pratt Institute for Industrial Design and are now designing handbags. Is this an unusual career trajectory for an industrial designer?
I have a lot of friends who graduated from Pratt Industrial Design with me who are now designing handbags or shoes for different companies. It definitely wasn’t unusual in my year, but I don’t think it’s too common either. I initially wanted to study fashion, but had so many design interests that I decided to go for Industrial Design, as I felt like it was broader and I would have more career options to choose from. There weren’t many fashion electives offered to Industrial Designers, so whenever I wasn’t in class, I was always interning for different accessories companies, which was what sparked my interest in handbag design.

 Were you taught to consider the end of life of an object in school or was your awareness of the importance of sustainability something that happened later on?
I was always aware of sustainability in school, but it wasn’t until getting a job for a corporate company that I truly realized the effect fashion has on the planet and garment workers and began to pay more attention to the life-span of the products I was designing for these companies and the materials that were being used.

 How did the experience of working for other fashion companies affect the way you run your business?
In a way, these experiences were what led me to create Santos by Monica. While working for corporate brands, I felt like everything was really fast-paced. Designs had to be completed from one day to another, I sometimes even found myself sending 8-9 technical drawings out to factories in a day. Instead of having that accelerated drive into the future, I wanted to be able to create things at my own pace and invest in a brand that truly reflected my own values around sustainability and responsible business practices.

Bags from Cactus Leather by Santos by Monica

Bags from Cactus Leather by Santos by Monica

You’re using cactus leather and before that looked at apple and pineapple leather. Why did you settle on cactus leather?
I had been looking into leather alternatives since 2016. I first came across mushroom leather, which is now gaining a lot of popularity. I can’t remember exactly how I heard about it, but it was being developed in San Francisco during the time I was living there. I considered it, but it was way too expensive at the time for me to be able to experiment with it. I then began doing research and found Pineapple, Apple and Cactus leather alternatives through Instagram (one of those Instagram loopholes I sometimes find myself in). After receiving swatches, Cactus leather seemed the most suitable for bags, as it had the closest look and feel to real leather.

What’s your design process?
I usually begin by choosing a specific shape or form that inspires the collection, maybe it’s a circle or a triangle, or a simple curve. I’m very inspired by simple forms and finding ways in which those shapes can inform the entire design of a specific product I’m working on. For example, with something as simple as a circle I will design the bag, the pocket, the opening, as well as the graphics behind the collection’s campaign. What I love about this is how elements such as a simple curve can create something that feels very elegant and fresh. I always try to sketch a few designs, but it isn’t until I begin prototyping that the design really begins to come to life. I love sketching, but there’s truly nothing better for me than working 3-dimensionally, something I learned at Pratt.

How does your Puerto Rican heritage inform your work?
Part of my mission with the brand is to celebrate my Puerto Rican heritage by collaborating with local or latinx talent. I try to shoot most of my campaigns in different locations around the island, such as El Bosque Seco de Guanica, mountains of Cayey, my grandmother’s home, and most recently the Sixto Escobar stadium, where I used to have my elementary school field days. I also think a big reason why I chose such bright colors for the branding was due to my upbringing on such a vivid island.

What do you love best about Puerto Rico?
I love the size of the island the most. How accessible it is and the fact that you can easily go from spending a morning in the mountains, to a beautiful river with a waterfall, an afternoon at the beach and suddenly end up at a bar in Old San Juan. I love how you can easily immerse yourself in those experiences in a short period of time, it’s something you can’t really do in NYC.

About Brooklyn?
As for Brooklyn, I love that there is a large community of Puerto Ricans in New York, something that helps me feel at home here. Sometimes I’ll be walking around my neighborhood and hear cars playing Reggaeton or Salsa. I love being in a city that has the ability to function as a world with a thousand worlds within — moving past Puerto Rican neighborhoods and ending up in Chinatown, Koreatown, even Coney Island itself is a unique world. What I love best about NYC is being able to coexist with a diverse number of cultures and people with different customs and ideals.

What has been the biggest lesson learned since starting Santos by Monica?
I’ve learned to be able to remove myself from my position as a designer, which I’ve carried for so many years, and put myself in the shoes of leather makers and seamstress who create things with their own hands. This understanding has shaped the way I design and has helped me understand the manufacturing process even further. Like everything, this also brings limitations which have pushed me to be more creative with the few resources I work with.

What are some of your favorite things/ things that inspire you and bring you joy?
Good cinema, disco music era, Italian furniture design, cooking, watching my boyfriend paint, nostalgia for a past never lived and hope for a better future.

 Where do you hope to see the future of Santos by Monica? Do you plan to expand your product line beyond handbags?
I will probably expand my product line, but at my own pace and process. Something I promised myself when I started the brand was to only launch products if there’s truly a need for them.

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–Janelle Sessoms