In The Magazine

Double Duty

Sunday, March 1, 2015

It’s a dreadful Monday morning—pouring rain, not a cab to be found, harried people shaking out umbrellas and issuing apologies—yet Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs are exactly on time and perfectly turned out in the restaurant of the Nomad Hotel, calmly perusing the menu and making small talk that sounds more like a continuation of what has surely been an endless conversation between them over the past decade. The first noteworthy fact about the sensational designers behind Cushnie et Ochs is that they both make their beds first thing every morning. The second fact of note: despite their remarkably disparate upbringings—Carly hails from southwest London, while Michelle grew up in suburban Maryland—they both wore uniforms to school. This sartorial requirement has historically driven many a teenage girl to despair, but in their case, it is this exacting love of military precision, combined with a commitment to ease, that has served the two CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists well. Carly and Michelle met in 2004 as young students at the Parsons School of Design in New York—a rigorous, competitive environment known for turning out designers but not necessarily lifelong friendships—through a mutual friend who kept suggesting they all go for dinner, and then kept canceling at the very last minute. “So, time after time, it would just be Carly and I having dinner,” says Ochs. “But it really gave us the opportunity to get to know each other outside all the competition at school.” Soon, the girls were keeping each other company over speakerphone from their separate apartments as they anxiously, furiously worked on their weekly projects late into the night, a grueling part of the schedule at Parsons. “Thursdays were the worst days,” Ochs remembers.

“We stayed up all night on Wednesday and had to present the following day, but we had this idea that, no matter how tired we were, we should power through and go somewhere new every Thursday night.” Cushnie laughs at the memory. “We would literally show up at the club with bags of school supplies,” she adds. “And, at some point late at night Michelle would put down her drink, stand up, and say something like: Okay, I gotta go home and sew some pants.”

Carly Cushnie is physically striking in a way that is both soft and sharp. Her infuriatingly clear, creamy skin, bright features and equally enviable figure (she confesses SLT—Strengthen, Lengthen, Tone—is a current favorite) are offset by insouciant two-tone hair, several prominent tattoos, and multiple ear piercings. When she enters a room, you just can’t help but notice her. Raised in London by parents who came to England by way of Jamaica, she recalls a childhood in which she spent a lot of time watching her mother and her two older sisters (one of whom was 15 years her senior) get ready for parties and events. “Very early on, they remember me weighing in on their outfits,” Cushnie says. “I’d say: No, you can’t wear that!” She bashfully admits to acquiring an extensive Barbiecollection (“I mean, I had the big pink house and everything”) as well as shopping bags stuffed with a massive collection of their clothing before attending the prestigious Woldingham Boarding School (the actress Carey Mulligan was a student in the year below her) where she honed in on fashion design.

“It was wonderful for creativity,” she says. “It was right in the middle of the countryside, so there were sheep and cows and gardens and everyone basically got their own studio space.” It was also when the power and luxury of a uniform become apparent to her. “It was the kind of place where you wore gloves and were given a summer hat and a winter hat,” Cushnie recalls. “It was very proper. You had to have your hat on when you entered and left the grounds—no exceptions.” Upon graduation, she was determined to go to New York to study fashion, but since her two older sisters had already packed off for new lives in the United States, her father was against the idea. To appease him, she took a gap year in Paris (where she took French lessons and studied at the Parsons outpost there) before entering Parsons in New York in earnest in 2003.

Michelle Ochs, by contrast, is the more demure of the two as far as looks are concerned. On this particular morning, her long, dark shiny, hair is blown-out straight, and she is wearing a structured, black, very grown-up jacket from their own collection. One manicured hand is boasting a beautiful, custom-made engagement ring from her new fiancé. She has no tattoos, nor, she says, any plans to acquire some. But despite her pulled-together appearance, there is nothing sedate about her. She is incredibly vivacious and funny, at turns self-deprecating, incredulous and charming. She immediately confesses she neglected to make her bed  on this particular morning, and the thought is haunting her. Ochs grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb of D.C., as the child of a German father and a Filipino mother. Her father was a chef who started his own restaurant, and Ochs spent many hours in the kitchen with him, watching and learning. “He never wanted me to go into the restaurant business. Even though it was creative, he thought the hours were too long, a lot of 18-hour days,” she says. “But, you know, thanks to the high heels, the fashion business can definitely feel like 18-hour days, too.” As a child, Ochs went to the private Catholic school St. Ann’s in Tenley Circle in D.C. (during which time she made her own confirmation dress—the first sign of budding talent and tolerant parents, she says) before attending St. John’s—a prestigious military school—for high school. “We had these impeccable uniforms,” she says. “I absolutely loved it. Everything was perfectly ironed and your shoes had to be shined, and on Thursdays we wore camouflage.” After graduating, Ochs ran into similar opposition from her parents about moving to New York. After cooling her heels for a year at Marymount in Virginia, she was accepted at Parsons and made her way north.

The “big moment,” if there is one at Parsons, is a student’s senior project. This is when every graduating student must present a fully realized collection of six looks to their professors and roster heavy-hitters from the industry. Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, recalls being on the judging panel that year. “I didn’t know they were friends at the time,” says Fargo. “But I do remember they each had individual collections so strong that, when it was time to judge, we all thought they had to tie. I mean, how many pieces of clothing have I seen in my life? Thousands upon thousands! But I still remember this wraparound, layered T-shirt top in Michelle’s collection. I’ll never forget it—and that really says something.” After graduation in 2007, the idea to go into business together came naturally to the women. “We didn’t think about it too much,” says Cushnie. “But I think that helped because—knowing what we know now about the industry—we never would have done it.” Ochs laughs in agreement across the table: “We were naive in the best way!” They set up shop in a small space in the Garment District and turned out their first collection in the fall of 2008.

“I loved the girls and I loved what they were doing, so I took all of my buyers to see their very first show, which was totally them. All body-con, body-con, body-con,” Fargo says. “And they placed an order right away. The Bergdorf customer is many things, but I would say she is feminine first and foremost. And this collection really spoke to that.” The designers put a photocopy of that very first order in a frame, and, after some more early successes, they decided to apply to the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2010, the industry’s most prestigious competition for emerging American designers. “We were really sick of doing traditional projects after Parsons, so we decided to do something a little different for our application,” says Cushnie. They put everything on an iPad—a somewhat newfangled contraption at the time—and even designed a custom case. They were not selected. The next year, they went back to their roots, pulling together an application full of sketches and color swatches. “We went hard-core old school,” says Ochs. When Steven Kolb, the president of the CFDA, called a few months later, they looked at each other in panic. “We thought we were in serious trouble. It was like the principal calling,” laughs Ochs. “We definitely did not think he was going to tell us we were one of the finalists,” Cushnie says. The process gave incredible exposure to their fledgling business, including a spread in an issue of Vogue. “My mom keeps literally every clip in which we are mentioned,” says Cushnie. “It’s starting to get crazy.” But while press and parties are all very well and good, the fashion business is a business like any other, and it takes serious work to transform a rack of dresses—no matter how pretty—into a viable, money-making model. “I really do think discipline and time management are the keys to success,” Ochs says. “We are our own bosses, which is great, but it’s also really scary. In our office, there are a lot of lists. While the duo is primarily associated (and beloved) for their sleek, cutout silhouettes, they have made knitwear and separates a big focus of their upcoming collections—a sign they are courting a wider client base. “You don’t have to be a size 0,” says Cushnie of their offerings. “People don’t realize our biggest sellers are sizes 6 and 8.” Another important consideration when they are designing? Versatility. “You want a dress you can wear again and again, not just one time,” says Ochs. “We do so much nowadays, you really need to be able to rely on your clothes.” In fact, during breakfast an acquaintance drops by the table to say hello and, in the process, asks Carly where she got her incredible blazer. “It’s ours!” she exclaims, and the woman raises her eyebrows in a gesture of approving surprise. “They walk the walk and they live the life of these clothes,” Fargo says. And it’s a busy life that requires pieces for work, weekends and, in one very special case, a wedding. With Michelle’s July wedding rapidly approaching, Carly (who is serving as maid of honor, of course) is already hard at work with Michelle on the look and feel of the event, including what the bridesmaids will wear. And what of this fiancé? “You’re going to have to thank Susan Miller for that one,” Ochs laughs, referencing the astrology website that the fashion industry considers almost a Bible. “I was coming home from Maryland after Christmas a few years ago, and when I pulled into Grand Central Station, I remembered that my horoscope said this was going to be a big day and I should do something unexpected,” she says. So, instead of going home, she called a friend to meet her for a drink at the Campbell Apartment, a grand old dark space nestled inside the station. There was a group of lawyers at the bar, making passes at the women without much success, when finally one of the group tried to put a stop to it. “He said: Guys, clearly these ladies are not interested, so let’s just leave them alone,” Ochs recalls with a smile. “But I was like: Wait a minute—who is this guy?” The two recently bought an apartment together and are in the long process of renovating and decorating it, perhaps even a greater undertaking than putting together the next  collection. As for the future of Cushnie and Ochs, who knows what the next chapter will bring, but if the discipline and precision from these women in the past is any indication of what they can be capable in the future, then I’d say these two are going to be dressing us for years to come.


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