Every September New York City comes alive. Slinky summer dresses are replaced with structured black frocks and strappy sandals with red-soled stilettos. The occasion: New York Fashion Week. For most of us, it’s an opportunity to sip Champagne, nibble sweets, and of course, see pretty clothes (worn by even prettier people). But for the real stars—the designers—Fashion Week involves months of intricate planning about everything from fabrics and models to music and makeup.
“I think that by the time you get to the runway show—unless you’re having some kind of disaster—it’s pretty much smooth sailing,” explains Carly Cushnie, one-half of the design duo behind the luxury label, Cushnie et Ochs. “Some years, we’ve finished things the morning of, and then last season, we were in bed by 10 PM, which very rarely happens. So you never know.”
With fall Fashion Week rapidly approaching, Cushnie and her business partner, Michelle Ochs, have been working round the clock gearing up for their eleventh presentation—a distant cry from their first runway show in spring 2009. “It just seems like forever ago, but also, not that long ago,” Ochs muses. “We’ve been working with the same team for so long, which is really important for us, so it feels more like family at this point. We all know each other’s schedule and pace, so that makes it a lot easier.”
As the two mill about their Manhattan design studio sketching outlines, comparing fabric swatches, and pinning ideas to their overarching mood board—a large white canvas plastered with images ranging from movie stills to musicians—it’s clear that their bond goes well beyond business. They finish each other’s sentences, respond to questions in unison, and have successfully mastered the art of conflict resolution without bruised egos or hurt feelings. “A grain of salt, move on,” Ochs says with a laugh. “It’s about making clothes and selling clothes. It’s about approaching everything with the understanding that there’s going to be another collection… and another collection… and another collection.”
We come up with the concept together and then talk about colors, direction, and the overall silhouette we’re thinking, and then we both sketch. Then we go back and forth and see what works and what doesn’t,” adds Cushnie. “If we really can’t decide on something, our sales director is the tie breaker.”
But there was no disagreement when it came to the inspiration behind their pre-fall 2014 collection, currently in stores. “We’re both big fans of Salvador Dalí. It’s a subject that we always wanted to do, and it finally made sense for us,” admits Ochs. “It’s not super, super literal,” Cushnie continues. “There are aspects that we took from his work like the oval eye shape he does over and over again, and the pearls. Some of the colors came from his paintings as well.”
Though the duo may draw inspiration from classic realms, they definitely design with the modern woman in mind. Featuring sexy side cutouts, plunging necklines, and a form-fitting contour, their dresses are not for fashion wallflowers. “She’s confident. She’s global. She’s refined,” explains Ochs. “She wants to look like a woman,” adds Cushnie. “And she likes a lot of black,” quips Ochs.
Despite the famously fickle nature of the fashion industry, Cushnie and Ochs have remained true to their design aesthetic, even if it meant being a harder sell to buyers. “We did crop tops in our first collection,” recalls Ochs. “When we were doing cutouts in the upper abdominal section people were like, ‘Oh, you’re so exposed!’ And we said, ‘Well, not really.’ It’s not really showing any more skin, it’s just showing a different part of skin,” Cushnie clarifies.
Luckily, times have changed. These days it’s hard to turn the corner without spotting a sliver of midriff, a style the designers deem both fashion-forward and reflective of our changing culture. “People have become more open to exposing other parts of their bodies. That wasn’t the case before, especially when it came to buyers. I think they really understand the appeal now,” Ochs reveals. “It’s become more acceptable in a sense.” Another trend the designers are eager to embrace for its sex appeal and femininity: longer hemlines. “Being sexy was previously just about wearing a short dress,” confesses Cushnie. “But I think you can still be sexy with a longer hemline. If you highlight the body in the right way, you can be sexy even entirely covered up.”
But true sex appeal, the designers argue, only comes when a woman feels comfortable with herself and what she’s wearing—even if she’s not a size zero. “For us, it’s really about creating silhouettes that a woman can continuously wear and go back to,” divulges Cushnie. “Pieces that she can mix and match and continue to wear years down the road.”