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.”
“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.”
They seem to have mutually arrived at an industrial, assembly-line vibe: “looking at the idea of mass-producing the supreme being, and what she would look like today,” explained Ms. Cushnie. And as with the debut collection, they’re obsessed with the perfect color of nude, or “the idea of being naked without being naked,” as Ms. Ochs put it.
“They’re both very sexy,” said shoe designer Alejandro Ingelmo, who is providing industrial-grade footwear for the show. “What they design is who they are. … They’re not, like, all over the place.”
Indeed, as fashion increasingly leaps into bed with reality television and markets itself to the middlebrow, Ms. Cushnie and Ms. Ochs are determined to keep things high end. “People take fashion and think it’s easy,” Ms. Cushnie said.
“Project Runway hasn’t helped. It really hasn’t,” said Ms. Ochs.
“And with all the celebrity lines, it’s like the new ‘It’ job to have,” said Ms. Cushnie.
They both insisted that despite being the most photogenic female designers to emerge in years, they plan to avoid television cameras at all costs, preferring instead to be land their wares in iconic boutiques like Kirna Zabete, Jeffrey and Browns in London.
“Something English,” Ms. Ochs said dramatically. “I think our woman is a little more ‘over there,’” she added, meaning Europe, “because everyone saw us and was like, ‘Oh, are you selling to Russia?’ I’m like, ‘We’re trying!’”
Though the duo’s bandage dresses, American Psycho references and pneumatic models have undertones of an early-’90s revival, Martin Price, a former Parsons professor of the duo, praised their innovation. “They’re living in the 21st century,” he said. “A lot of young people live in the ’60s, or the ’40s, but it’s important to tap into he fact that it’s 2009.” He called their bare, accessories-free aesthetic “an extremely streamlined sense of the way women want to dress.”
And: “They are their best advertisement,” he said.
While the women always wear their own designs when they venture out, they’ve been too busy lately to do much of that.
“Going out is a luxury now,” Ms. Ochs said, recalling undergraduate days of foie gras burgers at DB Bistro.
“I don’t think there’s that many great places to go out anymore,” Ms. Cushnie said, remembering a night they got into PM after a particularly stressful day of classes, Ms. Ochs wearing Uggs and carrying pattern paper. “As soon as he let me in, I said, ‘Shame on you,’” she said.
Nowadays, they prefer the relatively subdued scenes at SubMercer or the private club Norwood. Or better yet, carnivorous mecca Shorty’s .32 in Soho, which “has the best short ribs,” said Ms. Cushnie.
“We go there when we’re dying,” Ms. Ochs said. “We don’t need menus, they put it right in,” said Ms. Ochs. “Because they know. Two short ribs, string beans on the side, mashed potatoes.”
“We don’t talk to each other,” said Ms. Cushnie. And they howled with laughter.