image: CeO image: CeO

With the Spring/Summer 2015 womenswear shows quickly approaching, let’s reflect for a moment on one brand that has been doing it right from the get-go: Cushnie et Ochs. As indicated by the relatively young brand’s most recent collection, Resort 2015 collection, and its subsequent sales, the brand is thriving.

Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs, known for their body-conscious dresses and skin-bearing cutouts, launched their brand after graduating from Parsons in 2007. The first several collections that they showed during New York Fashion Week focused heavily on those two design strongpoints (bodycons and cutouts), which have become their signature. While emphasizing their brand’s DNA each season from the beginning, the design duo largely abstained from the array of designer collaboration deals they, like other emerging brands, were undoubtedly offered and that many young brands arguably take on much too soon.

This type of restraint is immensely important; you can only make a first impression once, after all. Cushnie and Ochs look upon these first several seasons as calculated “growing years” from which they have ended up with a focused and distinctive brand image. This isn’t something too many brands get right, especially early on.

Cushnie and Ochs — who, next to dedicated fan Karlie Kloss, are arguably the best models for their designs — have garnered an immense following in fashion and in Hollywood alike. A major red carpet event hardly goes by without a CeO dress being spotted. This is not terribly surprising, though, as the girls were the most promising students to graduate from the New School of Design in 2007. Ochs was named the Designer of the Year, with Cushnie being named the runner-up. They sold their Spring 2009 womenswear collection exclusively to Bergdorf Goodman, the same year they won the Ecco Domani Fashion Fund award.

But even more telling than the critical acclaim with which their collection has been met is the fact that when one of their dresses (or tops or skirts, etc.) hits the runway, the red carpet or the pages of Vogue, you know it. And when one of their copies hits a fast fashion website, it is obvious. You can pick it out, identify it as Cushnie et Ochs. This is something Ochs told me they have been hoping to cultivate for some time now. When I sat down with the designers back in 2012, she said: “We want our designs to be identifiable when they are in a room with other dresses.” It seems to be working.

But such intense concentration is not without its own potentially negative implications. Fashion critics have questioned the staying power of a brand that is so focused, so proficient at filling a certain niche in the fashion market. “How many cutouts can they create?” “How many bodycon dresses does any one woman need?” These are questions that have been raised. I have pondered similar questions myself, only to attend their next runway show, or see their next lookbook, to be met with the introduction of swimwear one season, outerwear and fur the next, smart tailoring that extends beyond body-conscious frocks for yet another season. The introduction of prints.

This type of progression, whether it be in the form of a novel construction technique or a new type of garment altogether, balanced with a sense of true unity is one of this brand’s biggest strengths, and they certainly have a few.

Ahead of showing Spring/Summer 2015, which will be their 20th collection, I have found myself wondering:  How did they get to this point? How did they manage to avoid the pitfalls that many emerging brands cannot seem to withstand? And what can designers learn from Cushnie and Ochs? I suppose it starts with a strong vision, coupled with some serious business acumen.

In speaking with the brand’s Vice President, Rosella Lopez, who spent time at Ralph Lauren and Diane Von Furtsenberg before joining CeO, it is clear that Cushnie et Ochs identified their niche early on and have subsequently devoted their energies to it, almost unwaveringly. “When the girls started out, there were so many bigger brands with bigger advertising budgets. They knew they had to stick to their DNA and consistently send that same message in order to really compete.”

And compete they do, not only in terms of sales but in terms of creating a brand that can stand the test of time, so to speak, in a time when fashion moves at the speed of light. There is an argument to be made that by staying with their established aesthetic (think: sexy, elegant, sophisticated garments), while still venturing out a bit each season, Cushnie et Ochs is positioning itself to thrive. This is not to say that those who alter their aesthetic are not successful, but there is something to be said for really honing your vision. In fact, Raf Simons himself spoke to the notion not terribly long ago, saying: “You have people who come with an aesthetic that is there forever, even if it evolves.” It seems that Cushnie and Ochs fall neatly in this camp.

At the same time, there are the aforementioned additions, adjustments, each season. For Resort, for instance, the designers introduced a snow-leopard print (an original creation of Cushnie et Ochs) on dresses and bathing suits and lacing detail that covered a frock and a pair of shorts. The cutouts are imagined further and come in different iterations (to the trained eye, at least); this season they have a more athletic vibe than ever before. The technique feels a bit elevated, the collection more expansive. And yet, the collection simultaneously very grounded in the Cushnie et Ochs aesthetic. You may notice that many of the frocks were derived from the crop tops that the girls have shown in the past and which have been a big hit for them.

On a grander scale, the designers have come a long way since they showed some of their earliest collections. While their signature aesthetic is almost always evident, they have continually worked in a number of other elements, such as new construction techniques and new materials, to keep their woman coming back. For instance, the classic stretch jersey turned into stretch leather, both of which are best sellers for CeO. Neoprene frocks were added to the line up.

One neoprene dress for Pre-Fall 2014, for instance, is complete with a delicate gossamer under-layer, exposed by an asymmetrical hemline. Other seasons have brought draped silk and a subtle movement away from the skin-tight offerings, for which the girls are known.  Long-sleeve gowns have been added for the arm-conscious women. Lace (for Fal/Winter 2014) and pearl accents (for Pre-Fall 2014) adorn an array of frocks, and boundaries are tested with new silhouettes.

But not only are Cushnie and Ochs varying the look of their pieces and in some cases, the occasion (a pencil skirt for work or a long-sleeve for more traditional evening events), they are expanding their potential client base. Not too long ago, they introduced knitwear, which is still very much growing for them. Lopez says that this particular range is a way to reach a new girl, more aspirational shopper.

Also key to the CeO strategy: They, along with most other designers, have also come to rely quite heavily on the inter-season collections, such as Resort. Like many of the pre-collections that have come before, Cushnie and Ochs used this season to reinforce their brand’s DNA, one of the key objectives of such collections, Lopez told me. While the designers tend to push the envelope a bit further with their two main collections (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter), the Pre-Fall and Resort collections, which stay on the store floor (at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks, etc.) for much longer, provide them with the opportunity to really hone in on the pieces and the aesthetic that their women keep coming back for.

A bit about the Cushnie et Ochs woman. Yes, she is a woman. She is not a girl, and quite often, she is not a size 0, which the designers say is probably the biggest misconception about their garments. According to Lopez, who is the designers’ right hand, the Cushnie et Ochs woman is maybe not what you would automatically expect. Instead, “She is mature. She’s sexy and she’s confident,” Lopez tells me. The amount of size 0 dresses that the brand sells is hugely out numbered by the size 4, 6, 8, and 10’s.

This is – if nothing else – a testament to the designers’ inherent understanding of what women want and as a result, the amount of thought that goes into each garment. The structure of the garment, the lining, the cut, the most practical elements are, according to Lopez, the core of the CeO design. The result is not only beautiful, but if you’ve ever worn one of the dresses, I don’t have to tell you, they are wearable and even transformative. In a market dominated by womenswear that is designed by men, I think this is one of the strengths of this particular design team; the fit of the dresses, which are each cut and sculpted to perfection, are done so in a way it seems only a woman would know.