Empowering Women Through Wearable Art, with Cushnie et Ochs
Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs are the brilliantly sexy minds behind the noted fashion house, Cushnie et Ochs. Frequently worn and adored by Karlie Kloss, Reese Witherspoon, Rihanna and Michelle Obama, Cushnie et Ochs does more than understand the woman's body; they respect it with every tailored line, every drape and every side-hip cut-out that layers her body — as it's those elements that prove her grace, and strength. We sat down with these visionary, modern women to talk work life, home life, the balance between the two, and...rap songs.
Can you talk about the journey that led to Cushnie et Ochs?
Carly: Michelle and I met while we were at Parsons. We were both doing our BFA in Fashion Design. We met in junior year, and became very close friends because we both had this shared, similar aesthetic. But we never thought about collaborating while we were in school. We worked alongside each other and that sort-of thing. It wasn’t until we graduated that we really decided to come together. We graduated in 2007, and officially started the business in 2008, so Spring 2009 was our first collection.
Michelle: It was a very interesting time to start a business (laughs).
C: Yes! At the time, we felt like there was this gap in the market for something that was minimalist but at the same time, sexy. We wanted to strike that balance between the two.
How does a woman’s body play into the creation of Cushnie et Ochs?
M: There's a definite edge to our clothing, or a graphic quality to it, because of the tailoring. But, you know, the body plays such an important role because as women, and as female designers, we want to look attractive and sexy. That's why we say it’s often hard to find something so minimal, because with minimal, you think androgynous. Femininity does play a role in our clothes, because we want our women to look attractive. She’s getting dressed and wants to be seen.
C: And she wants to feel like a woman. We are very conscious of how we design and how a woman feels in the clothes. Whether she feels supported, or if you can't wear a bra in it, or something like that. For us, it’s about proportion, and making sure that, say, if it's a low neck line or cut-out up top, then maybe it's a longer length. It’s not like everything is all exposed at once. It's really about striking that balance all the time. And for us, it's really all about the female body. Because we're female designers, and unlike a lot of male designers, we don’t have just one muse or fantasy-girl to speak of. For us, she’s a real woman. She’s both of us. She’s every woman in our office and any woman that we design for. It’s really about highlighting her body and making her feel good.
Speaking of bodies, can you tell us about the relationships you have with your own?
C: I think that as women, we all struggle a little bit with our bodies, no matter what. I like to think that Gisele maybe sometimes struggles with her body too (laughs). Surely she must! I would say, I have quite a good relationship with my body now. I try to take care of it as best I can. I’m very conscious, and I have a good understanding of it. When something is wrong, I definitely know immediately. I have a good sense of what feels good, whether it’s food, exercise, or even beauty things. I am quite attuned to it. I’m very conscious of what I put in it as well.
M: I’m opposite…I mean, I do know my body, but I feel like I push it more to extremes, especially if I'm indulging in food. I think everything is good in moderation, but when it comes to exercising or indulging, I go hard. I find my balance in life by being active — with what I put into my body and what I don’t. I’m very go-with-the-flow.
What has it been like to start and run a business as women?
C: It's unfortunately something that's still quite a rarity. Especially in fashion, even though it is an industry for women, essentially. For us, we feel very fortunate that we were able to start this company together. The majority of our office, until recently, was all female. For us and the people that work for us, it’s about growth. We want to be able to empower our employees and feel that they have a place to grow in the business and really see through the future of Cushnie et Ochs. I think there’s probably still not enough female voices out there. We’ve even heard directly from customers that they can tell that this is all designed by women, because there are certain things that women think about in terms of whether something is lined or not, because you don’t want to buy something else to wear underneath it, and things like that. We’ve never been driven by the ‘Oh, we only hire women’ sort of thing. Not at all! It just happened that way, and it’s now a very female-strong office. I’m very pro girl-power.
What appeals to you so much about the art of fashion design?
M: It’s the evolution. With our brand, it's constantly evolving, but in a very focused way. I say that what we love about fashion is that you can have a DNA, but it can always be evolving, and we want our clothes to evolve with us. We don't want to make season-specific clothing. We want her to be able to wear a top from one collection and then wear it with the next season's pants. I think it's still that female sensibility — where we know what we want from our clothes and we give it to the woman as well. It's an evolution, and you can always switch it up. We have the craziest mood boards that don't even relate, but the clothes always relate, and I think that DNA is strong.
What is your relationship with each other like?
C: Obviously, we met as friends first, and then it evolved into this business, and I think that works well in terms of how we design and the things that we feel that the collection needs. Also, having an understanding of what we both bring individually, design-wise, is important for the day-to-day runnings of the business. I have an understanding of what Michelle’s good at and what she brings to the table, and also of what she particularly likes to do in her lifestyle — things that she feels like she wants. I can know, ‘Ah, she wants a top to look and feel like this, because it’s what she wanted to wear to brunch on Sunday…’ or whatever it may be. So it’s really just about being able to have this constant back and forth, and have this trust in someone and know that we can both speak for each other.
We have to know how each other works, because at the end, we all want to get to the finish line, and getting there is about knowing that people have different processes, and learning to understand those. We have to know what it is that helps each other to get there. And we do bring different things to the table — it’s these two perspectives. That’s the whole point. But we do share a very strong aesthetic, and I think it’s when they join together that it’s the strongest.
M: In our collection, there's always this idea of hard and soft, and I don’t think it’s necessarily that one person’s hard and the other person’s soft, but I do think that with the mix of us both together, you get that balance in the collection.
C: Generally, we’ve always said that if we cut it down, Michelle’s probably more tailored that I am. I'm probably more drapey, and fluid. For Michelle, I would say that she's super militant in her organization, and I think that is really strong from a ground-zero perspective. She’s good at laying foundations for structural things in the business. But that’s just one of her many strengths...
M: Carly is very good at relationships. She's definitely the point person to go to. I'm very organized, but everything comes out kind-of scattered and not always in full sentences. She just has this way of communicating. So she handles a lot of the PR and relations, and getting those things done. She can start something, and I’ll take it through with both of our visions from start to finish. Once she gets things started, I can chop them down to size. It’s like passing the baton. She brings such a finesse to situations.
How do you keep a work / life balance?
M: I think there has to be a separation. We definitely need it for mental sanity. We've interned at places or worked places and seen the lifestyle of it all, and it was really important for us to have our company feel like a family, and have strong people, but also, to find that balance and not work people into the ground. You're not going to get anything accomplished by that. It doesn't help anyone, and you burn yourself out, and I think we're very mindful of knowing when to take time off for yourself. The workload is divided in a way where you feel like you have ownership in one thing, but you're also participating in a way that is meaningful.
C: Definitely. And now that we’ve been in business for eight years, it was obviously much harder in the beginning. Now, we have more time because we have more employees than we did first starting out. There was less balance then. Now, we don’t want to burn our employees out. We want them to come to work feeling like, ‘Okay, I can get this accomplished, and I don’t have to be working here until 10:00 at night.’ It’s just unnecessary. Even our CEO, this fashion week, was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so calm in here…’.
M: We’ve never been in the business of micro-managing…we’re not into that at all. So, it's like, ‘This is your role, I’m trusting you in that role, so own it.’ If we all work like that, we can get a lot more done. Because we don't need to sit around and talk about it.
What’s a day in the life of Cushnie et Ochs like?
C: I make a green smoothie every morning. It’s normally spinach, apple or pear, lemon, avocado, some hemp seeds, a little coconut oil and Super Elixir. I don’t have many routines at night, other than washing my face before I go to bed. Sometimes if I’m planning ahead, I’ll prepare my smoothie the night before so that I’ll have more time.
Normally, I’ll do a morning workout. I’m much better in the morning, because I’ll never do it at night, unless I can coerce a friend to go workout with me and then get dinner, which is a nice thing to do every once in a while.
M: I moved to New Jersey, so I try to cook as much as possible. I don’t really have a morning routine except for trying to sleep in as much as possible. I do try to cook a minimum of three times a week. Moving has been nice, because out there, I really changed lifestyles in that regard. I feel like if you cook for yourself, you’ll tend to eat a lot healthier. Out there, I’m kind of being forced into it because there’s no take-out, or good restaurants.
But it's really nice. It's my zen. Driving in and out can be stressful, but when I come home, I’ll still be in my full work outfit cooking before I do anything else. It just puts me in such a calm mood, where I can focus on something that’s not fashion-related — not anything-related. My mind goes quiet. I’m also in the car a lot. I always say that I get the best ideas when I'm driving and when I'm working out.
What are some other ways for you to take time out to re-charge?
C: Lunch time. And shopping. I also like to workout as much as I can. I feel like when I don’t, I really notice a difference. There will be times when I notice I haven’t worked out for a week, and as soon as I do, I feel 100x better. I know that as I start getting agitated, or I’m not sleeping great, that I need to workout. It makes a ton of difference. I try to workout four times a week. I love Nicole Winhoffer’s classes…she’s so much fun. Then, sporadically, I’ll do some hot yoga or a SoulCycle class.
M: I ate a burger before going to Nicole’s class once, and I was like, ‘I am literally having a heart attack right now’. But I was so hungry before, and was like, ‘Okay, I can not eat anything and die, or I can eat something and die.’ So I went with the eat something.
For me, SoulCycle is a no. I once went to a class where the guy was making us ride side-saddle with one foot…he kept looking at me like, ‘Are you okay?’. That was the worst. Now if I do go, I’ll take the last seat in the last row, so no one can look at me nasty. When I lived in the city, I used to bike to work. So for me, I’m just like, ‘Why don’t we all just go on a bicycle outdoors?’
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
C: Before I started contemplating looking for jobs and stuff, someone told me, ‘Don’t settle for something you don’t want to do, otherwise you’ll end up being stuck in it, probably for the rest of your life. Because once you head down a path, it’s hard to backtrack, and it takes a lot of courage to jump tracks.’ So now I think, if something comes up that you don’t initially want to do, then go with your gut and don't be afraid to say no to it. You’ll see, eventually, the right thing will come along.
M: My favorite quote is by Dolly Parton that says, ‘It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.’ I really like that because A) it’s funny, and B) it’s about not judging a book by its cover, especially when it comes to fashion. It’s about giving people a chance and not writing them off right away for how they look. It also applies to life, and business, and relationships. In an industry where things are very on-the-surface, I think you’ve got to take a minute to read the situation, and go deeper than you normally would.
What are your ideas of legacy?
M: Just going to bed and knowing that the decisions that I made today made me happy, and that I didn't do anything to have to second-guess myself. You never want to have to make decisions to second-guess. I would also like for every woman to have a Cushnie et Ochs dress in her closet, and have a moment that she remembers in it. We get a lot of fabulous-moment stories about our dresses. Oh god, if our clothes could talk…they’d all be fighting to speak at once.
C: Our DNA and our aesthetic is so strong, I want that to live on. Even if decades down, someone is doing something Cushnie et Ochs-esque, that would be nice. I want for our DNA to live on beyond us. And for a personal legacy, I would want to inspire women to take more risks and to start their own businesses — do their own thing, carve out their own career, whatever that may be. And it doesn’t have to be about starting your own business…whether it's working for somebody else, it’s about carving out your own identity in that field, and owning it.
M: I would also personally like someone to rhyme Cushnie Et Ochs in a rap song. That would live on forever for me — ‘Tissues and crocs, Cushnie et Ochs…’ just throwing it out there. When you’re a fashion brand and you get a shout-out in a rap song, that’s when you know you’ve made it.