When Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs debuted their first collection for Cushnie et Ochs in 2008, the Parsons School of Design graduates had rarely seen a cutout on the catwalk. Back then, the notion of showing a lot of skin in high-fashion was still considered too much. The design duo decided to premiere form-fitting silhouettes, crop top and high-waisted trouser separates, and sleekly tailored clothing for their inaugural Spring 2009 collection. Ever since, cool cut-outs and architecture-inspired gowns became a fundamental component of the brand’s DNA and a beloved aesthetic that Cushnie and Ochs continues to infuse into their women’s, handbag, shoe, and athletic wear collections.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the brand, Cushnie et Ochs designers caught up with CR about their latest collection, using art as inspiration, and sticking to a sculptural
aesthetic. For their latest line, the pair unveiled slick dresses and skirts in hues of silver, black, nude, and white, with touches of bright pink to add a daring pop of color to the collection. The Fall/Winter 2018 collection also featured feathered lining on a lilac dress and sheer, embellished black mesh that was lain over a body-conscious bodysuit. True to the brand’s form, dresses were kept sleek, yet sexy and fabrics of silk and taffeta hugged the body, inspired largely by the work of late British architect Zaha Hadid.
“For us it was our ten-year point and it was really sort of almost monumental to look at [Hadid], because it really felt like the right time,” Cushnie tells CR. “Her also being a strong woman herself also inherently inspired the collection as well.”
Hadid aside, the brand has a history of utilizing art as inspiration in seasons past. For Pre-Fall 2018, Cushnie et Ochs channeled minimalist artists Henri Matisse, Richard Serra, and Sol Lewitt through playful use of colors and graphic prints, along with fabrications of multicolored sequins and feathered fringe. For Spring 2018, the pair had models donning flamanco-esque dresses, off-the-shoulder gowns, and floral prints, inspired by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
“It’s always something that we’ve been drawn to, looking at art and architecture,” Cushnie says. “Our lines and our cuts are very are very graphic and very sculptural, so it kind of lends itself to vast buildings or looking at a particular brushstroke or how Henri Matisse did his cutout work. It’s one art informing another.”
Save for the occasional ruffled dress, the brand rarely wavers from the body-conscious, tailored dressing for its known. Before launching their own label, they racked up apprenticeships with the fashion greats, including working in the studio at Oscar de la Renta, running around factories at Proenza Schouler, and learning the ropes from Ralph Rucci, Issac Mizrahi, and Marc Jacobs. Working under the fashion virtuosos influenced how Cushnie and Ochs designed their own collections for years to come.
“Whether we’re consciously showing skin or not, there is a level of tailoring that people forget goes into our clothes,” Ochs says. “While aesthetically Chado Ralph Rucci and Issac Mizrahi are not on the same aesthetic level, there was a great deal of craftsmanship that we learned about fit, form, and working with the body. Attention-to-detail really informed our designs.”
The duo have continued to stay true to their vision and wove this specific sleek aesthetic into different sectors of their brand, including handbags, shoes, and athletic wear. For the debut Spring 2018 shoe collection, Cushnie et Ochs showcased multi-colored stiletto heels, mesh ankle boots adorned with floral accents, and hot pink and white calfskin mules with cut-outs in a nod to the brand’s trademark evening wear dresses. “It was really important for us for the shoes to be able to stand alone but also have that same DNA and those clean lines,” Cushnie says. “The fit and the comfort level of the shoes was also important to us and it was an opportunity to be a little playful as well.”
It was also this same body-conscious aesthetic that courted the attention of famous clients and made the brand a favorite among celebrities including Rihanna, Blake Lively, Saoirse Ronan, and most prominently Michelle Obama. The then-First Lady wore a custom chiffon, elegant green dress for a White House holiday event in 2011. Launching the brand into greater recognition (and drumming up publicity in the process), Obama then presented on-stage at the 2017 ESPY Awards in a black number from the Spring 2017 collection.
“It’s about returning for the fit, being comfortable, and having been known at the beginning of our careers for cocktail dressing and little black dresses,” Ochs says. “It was such a moment to have [Michelle] in this sexy LBD that she wore, and I think you can make something very stunning that’s in black and just have a beautiful neckline. She obviously carries it very well, but it was a nice moment for us.”
More recently, the brand has seen greater prominence designing bespoke creations inspired by the upcoming superhero film Black Panther. The designers worked with Marvel Studios to craft a one-of-a-kind golden gown made with velvet lame, a high slit, and metal abstract hearts, with Lupita Nyong’o’s character serving as the muse. The Afro-futuristic film has already broken new ground in beauty and fashion by including an all-black cast, opting to show their natural hair on-screen.
“We wanted to create this liquid armor dress,” Cushnie says. “And they also used a heart-shaped herb to infuse the powers of the Black Panther so we wanted to embroider this plant onto the dress to exemplify and empower strong women. There hasn’t been a black cast that doesn’t depict something historical and in that sense, the film is very empowering.”
Combining bold sensuality with feminine attitude that is at once understated, yet chicly modern, Cushnie et Ochs designs with the strong, confident, sexy woman in mind. But the fact that two women are creating clothing for other women is a great feat in itself in fashion and a trend that the designers hope will continue in the industry.
“I think even to this day, we’ve had plenty of women who’ve come up to us and said that they could tell that it was designed by a woman, because we’ve thought about the lining and the customer is way more conscious than she has been decades before,” Cushnie says. “I think having more of a female voice in design is important. And I think that will continue to grow.”END
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