Shortly after Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs, both 24, graduated from Parsons design school, they repaired to the French bistro Felix in Soho and, over a pitcher of Caipirinhas, christened their new fashion brand: Cushnie et Ochs.
Neither woman is French—Ms. Cushnie is British, born to Jamaican parents, and Ms. Ochs is a Canadian of German-Filipino ancestry who grew up in Maryland—but who cares?
“Abbreviated with ‘et’ as ‘and,’ it’s ‘CEO,’” said Ms. Cushnie last week at the pair’s cozy studio in the “fashion ghetto,” as they called it, on West 36th Street (they are pronouncing “et” phonetically). “We’re young, and becoming CEOs basically of our own company, so we kind of liked that aspect of it.”
“It was a beautiful day,” said Ms. Ochs, no relation to The Times Ochs-Sulzberger clan.
“Oh, it was a gorgeous day,” echoed Ms. Cushnie in a soft, aristocratic lilt.
Best friends since junior year, the women had always shared a strikingly similar, streamlined aesthetic. Their parents had encouraged them to work for established labels first, but after months of interviewing, they were still determined to go into business together. Ms. Ochs had won Parsons’ prestigious Designer of the Year Award (Ms. Cushnie finished second). They’d both already appeared on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. They’d racked up internships at Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Isaac Mizrahi, Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler and Chado Ralph Rucci. What more was to be learned without actually doing, they figured?
Now, a year and a half after that fateful lunch at Felix, Ms. Ochs proclaimed joining forces “the right thing to do.”
She was sitting with Ms. Cushnie at a black lacquered table in their studio’s anteroom, surrounded by racks of tight, monochromatic dresses from their debut collection for spring 2009. Ms. Ochs is the more bubbly of the two, with a short, angled black bob and a self-described “potty mouth.” Ms. Cushnie is a 5-foot-8 former fit model with a glossy, blondish ’fro and bedroom eyes.
As snow fell softly outside the window, the partners explained that they’d designed their first collection with a female version of Patrick Bateman from the film version of American Psycho in mind. “I think the character—not the killing part—I related to,” said Ms. Ochs, who graduated from a military high school in D.C. (hence the small office’s crisp organization). “The type of woman we want to dress is not the wallflower, kind of stuck in the corner.”
“It was just so interesting the way he was so meticulous in everything he did,” said Ms. Cushnie of the Bateman character. She was introduced to the movie by Ms. Ochs, who was “trying to Americanize Carly.” Some of the clothes in the collection, including the electric pink dress that opened the show, had strategically placed, flesh-baring cutouts—meant to reference “the slashing, obviously,” said Ms. Cushnie.
They said they like “lips, tits and ass” on their runway models, women as opposed to girls. Glowing reviews of the collection often mentioned that Ms. Ochs and Ms. Cushnie—hardly wallflowers themselves—looked exceptional in the clothes as they teetered onto the runway after the show, offering tentative waves.
“Few things are more electrifying than bearing witness to the nerves and excitement of a young designer’s first break-out show,” wrote Bergdorf Goodman women’s fashion director Linda Fargo, who was in attendance, in an email to The Observer. “It was highly anticipated by myself and the Bergdorf team … the last girl walks, the curtain closes, they take a nervous bow. Cushnie et Ochs delivered and the label was born!” She called the collection “as sharp, body-aware, modern, and beautifully turned-out as these two polished young women.”
Ms. Fargo, who had been on the panel that judged Ms. Ochs and Ms. Cushnie’s senior theses at Parsons, bought six looks for Bergdorf, where, priced at a not exactly recession-friendly $825 to $1,695, they will hang as of Feb. 5 alongside creations by Prada, Jil Sander and Mr. Jacobs.
BABES IN BAND-AID DRESSES
The designers have a specific customer in mind for their snug, architectural, often Band-Aid–like dresses.
“Well, she takes care of her body,” said Ms. Ochs, laughing.
“Someone who’s confident and likes fashion doesn’t want to hide between some tent dress, likes to dress up, likes to make an effort, likes clean lines and likes to look sexy without being vulgar,” Ms. Cushnie put in.
Who is a Cushnie et Ochs celebrity? “Leigh Lezark,” Ms. Cushnie said, speaking of the Misshapes DJ ubiquitous in fashion circles. Also: “Demi Moore, I think, could rock this.”