“Our favorite all-time muse girl is …” began Ms. Cushnie.
“Esther,” supplied Ms. Ochs. “I don’t know how you say her last name.”
That would be Esther Cañadas, the generously puckered Spanish blonde best known for a series of lusty DKNY ads in the late ’90s.
“We watched The Thomas Crown Affair the other day, which she was in,” said Ms. Cushnie. “She would be our, like, our woman.”
It is not lost on Ms. Cushnie and Ms. Ochs that while they’ve barreled straight into Bergdorf in the middle of the biggest financial meltdown in 80 years, other, better-established designers have had much worse luck.
“It’s weird for us that we’re sort of slowly moving forward while people are scaling back,” said Ms. Ochs. “People ask, ‘How is the economy affecting you?’ It’s affecting everyone. We’re at the bottom.” She noted that buyers had been cautious during last September’s Fashion Week, which roughly aligned with Lehman Brothers’ implosion, and that several stores that had raved about the collection—among them high-end downtown emporium Jeffrey—had decided to wait another season before placing any orders.
“Everyone took a different path,” said Ms. Ochs diplomatically. “Some people shot up, like Marc [Jacobs]—he went bankrupt twice, but look at him now! I mean, I don’t want to say, ‘Let’s go bankrupt twice …’”
Mr. Jacobs is of course himself a former Parsons Designer of the Year, but Ms. Ochs and Ms. Cushnie are more often compared to another duo, Proenza Schouler, the label designed by current industry darlings Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. Messrs. McCollough and Hernandez launched their business right out of Parsons, where they also won Designer of the Year, and are now worn by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Rihanna.
While the female duo shrugs off any similarities, the fashion world is increasingly like basketball, wherein prodigies are anointed early and saddled with comparisons to Michael Jordan. Young designers are plucked from their dewy financial obscurity and given Target capsule lines, Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) funding or the backing of an international conglomerate (Proenza is now backed by Valentino).
In early January, like Proenza before it, Cushnie et Ochs won an Ecco Domani award, one of several $25,000 grants awarded annually to promising young designers. In a season when more established names like Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson are scaling back to in-store “presentations” for Fashion Week in February or dropping out entirely, that money will help them to stage an extravagant runway show at the New York Public Library.
The forthcoming collection was inspired by a photograph they saw in a magazine of a Volkswagen factory in Dresden.
“Before the whole auto bailout and everything with the car industry, we saw that and it was so clean and so white,” said Ms. Ochs.
“Very us,” said Ms. Cushnie.
“Very us. It was just like, ‘We’re starting here,’” said Ms. Ochs. “We don’t discuss anything. We have no concept, we’re not like, ‘This is the direction we’re going.’ We kind of separate, don’t say anything to each other, and—”
“And it usually ends up being the same thing,” Ms. Cushnie said, “and we’ll mix and match and then we’re like, ‘Omigod, we’re on the exact same page without having said anything.”