Forget the straight and narrow. Carly Cushnie is so down with curves, her new handbag clasps are shaped like an hourglass—“you know,” she smiles, “like a woman’s body.” They also resemble the infinity sign, which makes sense, Cushnie shrugs, “because I feel like I’ve been doing fashion forever.”
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Technically, it’s only been ten years since she launched her namesake label, known until now as Cushnie et Ochs. (Her co-founder, Michelle Ochs, officially left in August.) Since this New York Fashion Week marks her first solo season on the runway, she’s going big: 37 looks, seven handbag shapes, five denim pieces crafted with Lee, shoes by Stuart Weitzman, and many deep breaths behind the scenes.
But the British-Jamaican designer learned how to stay calm a long time ago—when she was one of Proenza Schouler’s first interns in the early 2000s. “At the time, it was such a small team that I ran errands everywhere, factories and photo shoots, all over the place. Since I got to see so many sides of the business, I learned early how I might want to structure my own brand. I really feel,” she says, “like being an intern was its own kind of business school.”
Now Cushnie has 17 employees, fans like Emily Ratajkowski and Michelle Obama, and a soft stack of chunky knits to sell alongside her famous damn, girl! cocktail dresses. “It’s great that women want to wear us for special occasions,” Cushnie says as we thumb through runway dresses in her Manhattan studio, which shares the block with old-school ribbon and button shops, along with Calvin Klein. “That’s something that I love—being a part of someone’s big moment. But now you should also know you can come to us for a sweater. Come for a nice blouse to wear to work. Come for jeans. Come for your days off, too.” And true to form, even Cushnie’s oversize sweaters have bombshell potential: they’re cut with a deep, skin-baring V-neck for optimal I didn’t even know I would see you! vibes. Meanwhile, the denim—available in October—has been laser-dyed to contour butts and thighs with subtle color shading. “You can look really casual on a date,” Cushnie winks, “but still be strategic.” (Amen.)
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Strategy has been on her mind lately, especially after parting ways with Ochs and rebranding entirely. “It’s like, whew. The whole re-brand [from Cushnie et Ochs to Cushnie] took place in August, officially. But honestly,” she admits, “We’d been working on it for some time before that. We also had a CEO [Peter Arnold] and now, I handle most of the business end, too. So every day, I’m being pulled in many different directions. But,” she asserts, “I’d rather be in control, and know what’s going on in every different aspect of the business. What’s different now is that anyone can come to me, ask what’s going on, and get the same answer. Everything is more streamlined. It’s more fluid, more coherent, more straightforward… it’s hard work, but it’s a lot more efficient, too. There’s just one vision now.” I ask Cushnie if Michelle Ochs will attend her fashion show. She smiles and shakes her head. I ask if they’ve spoken since her departure. She shakes her head again. And we move on.
Someone who is on Cushnie’s speed dial this season is Kate Young, the Hollywood super-stylist who dresses Michelle Williams, Natalie Portman, and our own September cover girl, Selena Gomez. “A few seasons ago, her agency reached out to me,” says Cushnie. “They said she was interested in working with the brand. At the time, we already had a stylist, but she’s on board now. She helps with show concepts, silhouettes, what kind of feedback she’d expect from her clients and other women… she’s really amazing.” Isn’t she also insanely expensive? “We pay her partly in hugs.”
So… can we pay for a new Cushnie piece in hugs? “I mean, who doesn’t love hugs?” Cushnie asks sincerely. “But I also love being an independent designer, running a small business, and making really great pieces. Besides hugs, I think that’s worth a real investment.”