Meet Mónica Santos, The Designer Behind The TikTok-Famous Cactus Leather Bags

Behind a small storefront on New York’s Ludlow Street, 29-year-old Puerto Rican designer Mónica Santos has built the shop of her dreams. It’s decorated with a disco ball chandelier and filled with cactus leather handbags and ‘60s-inspired skirt suits from her brand Santos by Mónica, as well as clothing and accessories from other Latinx-owned brands like Yayi Pérez and Krystal Paniagua.  

“[Having a physical store] is a lot for a small brand,” Santos tells Refinery29. “It doesn’t make that much profit, to be honest, but it’s great because I’ve created a big community.”

That’s an understatement. Since Santos by Mónica launched three years ago, it has become an “if you know, you know” brand among digital It girls like creators Alyssa Coscarelli and Abby Mills and celebrities like Aly & AJ’s AJ Michalka, and made an appearance in the second season of the Gossip Girl reboot. Santos has also blown up on TikTok: Searches for the brand have generated over 4 billion views, while the hashtag #santosbymonica has grown nearly 3 million impressions. According to Santos, 90% of customers who come in the store say they know the brand from the app: “TikTok has created a different kind of cult following.”

Santos’ journey to viral sensation started at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where the designer majored in industrial design. After graduating, Santos worked as a shoe and handbag designer for companies like Coach and Doll’s Kill, where she started dreaming of building a brand that used biobased materials and slow production methods. While working on the concept, Santos first contemplated using mushroom leather, but, according to her, the material cost $1,000 per yard, a hefty price for a young self-funded designer. After researching a few other options, including grape and pineapple leather, she settled on plant-based material made out of nopal, from the Mexico-based company Desserto. 

In 2020, she launched handbags on a pre-order model. “I had no advertising, nothing; I knew nothing of business, just design,” she says. The next few weeks Santos found herself sewing the nearly 30 orders she received from her launch campaign, working until 4 am, only to have to message clients to say their bags would be delayed as a result of material complications: “I started getting a humpback, I had terrible pain… Bags were turning out lopsided.” Since then, she’s partnered up with a Brooklyn-based factory that’s allowed her to work on a batch-order basis and launched four more handbag models all baptized in Spanish names, from Dolores to Pilar. 

While Santos has grown her production — last year, with the help of a Manhattan-based factory, she also launched clothing with a mod-heavy aesthetic — the designer has largely remained the only person behind the very social media presence that has skyrocketed her into digital fame. “I realized very quickly that shareable content is crucial,” she says. 

Since 2022, Santos has been experimenting with TikTok, first posting a “Cactus Leather 101” video which got 31,000 views. In February 2023, she uploaded a short clip featuring the Dolores bag, which gathered over 500,000 views. But it wasn’t until March when Santos’ Pilar hobo bag went viral on TikTok after the designer released a video showing all the bag’s features. It was the culmination of months of wondering if her digital efforts were going nowhere. “I was uploading videos every day, researching trending audios, seeing what other people were posting that day, it took so much time,” she says. Once she found her sweet spot, her content took off. Throughout the past year, she’s also been endorsed by accounts and creators like That Curly Top, Frances Estrada, Sustainable Baddie, and Aanne Drinks Matcha, who rave about Santos through round-up and brand spotlight videos.

@santosbymonica BTS of how our cactus leather is made! 🌵❤️ #smallbusiness #sustainablefashion #slowfashion #nycfashion #ethicalfashion #ecofashion #smalldesigner #veganleather #santosbymonica #smallbusinesscheck #smallbusinessowner #sustainability #behindthescenes #ecofriendly #fashiontiktok #womenownedbusiness #leatheralternative #ecoleather #plantleather #summerstyle #slowfashionmovement #emergingdesigner #tencel #leathercraft #leathertok #independentdesigner #nycdesigner #consciousfashion #cactusleather ♬ Sunset – ØDYSSEE & Gatz2Gatz

“I feel like my business is completely different since March,” Santos admits. “Every time a video goes viral, I get a ton of orders.” This poses its own set of challenges for a small business that’s also keen on making sustainability its main pillar. Whenever a style goes viral on TikTok, Santos has to make sure she has enough in stock because “it’s the one [viewers] buy, so, if I don’t have stock of it, what am I going to do?”  

While she is answering that question, Santos is busy with her brick-and-mortar store. What started as a 10-day pop-up in 2022 has evolved into a permanent space. “The store brought in a clientele that was skeptical about these new materials,” she says of her motivation for extending the lease week after week once the initial period ended. She also started bringing in other brands like New York-based De Maria and opening the space to other creatives to do community events: “If I’m here, why wouldn’t I open it to other brands I like and align with my values?” 

But in Manhattan — where retail space rents are higher than ever before and require full-time employees to work them, which Santos took out a loan and used her personal savings to make happen — TikTok’s algorithm and foot traffic will only go so far. “I’ve been making rent for a year now, I don’t know how, but I have,” Santos says, adding that she’s almost closed the store a few times. 

As she’s achieved TikTok and IRL success — she landed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in 2022 — it’s also become harder for Santos to be hands-on in the design and craftsmanship process. In turn, Santos has not been able to launch any new product in a year, instead focusing on increasing brand recognition and loyalty. “To grow, I need money like any other brand,” she says. “It’s hard to take those next big steps without investors and I don’t have any.” And, although she’s considered pitching investors, she’s hesitant to take the plunge, citing fears of losing her creative and business independence. 

Amid the struggles, her mind continues to spin creatively, though. Santos envisions her brand expanding into pop-up shops across the country, as well as introducing other product categories and collaborating with other emerging brands. “I got myself this far, you know,” she says, laughing. Santos is even plotting to develop her own bio-based material, which she wants to create at home in Puerto Rico.

“For now, I’m just sticking to cactus leather,” she says. And TikTok, of course. 

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