There was hardly a mention of Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane’s highly anticipated debuts on September 7th as Cushnie et Ochs’ Spring 2013 collection hit the runway. The design duo’s 9th season resonated powerfully enough with the fashion industry royalty in attendance to silence the non-stop chatter about Paris. Praised as their best collection to date, Spring 2013 undoubtedly lived up to what top fashion critic, Cathy Horyn, has long said of the young design brand: “They aren’t afraid to be provocative.” I expected nothing less from Cushnie et Ochs, one of the most coveted young design brands, recognized for its sexy body con dresses, perfectly-placed cut outs and minimalist elegance.
Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs’ New York City design studio is where the girls develop many aspects of their brand, from sketching to making their patterns to the sales and production – almost all of it themselves, as they are a young design label. On a recent morning, an entire wall of their showroom is lined with rolls of fabric, and the designers apologize for what they deem a disorderly state. However, such “disarray” speaks to the under workings of the design duo and their one hundred percent Made in New York garments.
After graduating from Parsons four years ago, the girls began designing and manufacturing in NYC’s Garment District “because no one else would work with us,” they told me. These days, Cushnie et Ochs is far from unknown. Celebrities, editors, and in-the-know consumers are drawn to the label for its sophisticated sex appeal and impeccable accentuation of the female body, as well as the designers’ hands-on approach to womenswear. “We actually make clothes here,” says Cushnie. “Everything is made in a two block radius around this office.”
In a market that offers young brands nearly boundless opportunities to put their names on everything and just about anything, Cushnie and Ochs have resisted. Their priority is focus. They are first and foremost building a brand and building a vocabulary. They are not only talented designers; they are smart businesswomen. They are simultaneously their best models, although they would modestly disagree. Michelle and Carly not-so-coincidently wear their own designs with a fierceness that even top models can hardly match. It turns out, the two twenty-something’s design with themselves in mind. “Because we’re women, it’s instinctive and unavoidable,” Ochs tells me. “You tend to gravitate to what you like. We don’t put anything out there that we wouldn’t wear,” Cushnie adds.
The Cushnie et Ochs-wearing woman ranges from young adults to women and mothers. How does designing for themselves, so to speak, translate to collections that are both suitable and flattering for a large range of women? Again, it’s all in their focus. “We design for the woman and the female body, rather than age per se,” says Cushnie. Regardless of whether it’s the sheer organza and leather jacket (that will be in stores even though it didn’t hit the runway), a white gown with a cutout midriff, or a bikini (two were introduced for the first time for Spring 2013), there is a obvious constant that underlies their success.
This is a line created by women with the inherent, inevitable awareness of what really works and what is sexy. Ochs says: “A lot of people say you have to be a size 0 to wear our clothes and we’ve proven them wrong 10 fold. Michelle Obama’s worn us and Salma Hayek. We do have the cutouts because it’s an aesthetic vocabulary for us, but we do a huge range of clothes- it’s not about being a size 0,” and they largely credit their customers for the end result. “Our clothes only work with a body in them. It’s not going to work on the hanger. You need to be a woman. That completes it. It’s not just the dress. You need them together,” Ochs says quite emphatically.
It is no secret that Cushnie et Ochs is known for making beautiful clothing for beautiful women, but there’s more to it than that. The girls behind the label are a team of creative talents and calculated businesswomen rather naturally as they come from entrepreneurial backgrounds. Ochs reveals an understanding of the modern state of business for young brands: “We are aware of the plights of starting a business and that there is always too much, too fast, too soon.”
As a design team, Cushnie and Ochs obviously have differences when it comes to design specifics, but in terms of the business of fashion, they are very much on the same page. “When we were growing up no one talked about ‘what’s the brand about,’ and now it’s all about the ‘brand.’ We learned a lot of lessons early on: crawl before you walk, walk before you run,” says Ochs. And run before you fly, they tell me laughingly and nearly in unison.
With the enormous exposure that comes along with social media, it is remarkable to remember that Cushnie et Ochs is still a very, very young brand, an emerging design brand. The girls agree that this term is thrown around quite loosely these days and that it’s meaning is not very clear. Of the state of the brand, Cushnie says: “We’ve only been in business for 4 years and although that seems like a long time for us, in the grand scheme of things 4 years is not that long. Spring was our 9th collection and Womens Wear Daily just did an article on Donna Karen for her 50th collection. We’ve got a long way to go.”
So, do they identify with their status as emerging designers? Not quite. It seems that they ultimately define themselves by their deep-seated understanding of how to dress women, as opposed to identifying with any one term. While they’ve been referred to as the body girls, the next Proenza Schouler, two of the most promising young designers, and the list goes on, Carly and Michelle don’t seem phased. “We are focused on what Cushnie et Ochs is to us: a brand that embodies minimal edge, and design that is classic, sharp and sexy. We are defining the new modern woman,” they tell me. And with their unique perspective paired with such immense talent and business smarts, would they settle for anything less?