Cushnie et Ochs on Military School, Tattoos and Tailoring

Imagine if female military academy alumni sat down over jugs of tequila at a downtown New York dive bar with a tattooed English former nightclub scenester and joked about creating a fashion line. It’s a crazy thought. Still, Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs, who also happen to have undisputed fashion credentials—degrees at Parsons and stints at Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Rucci and Marc Jacobs—did just that. Flash-forward a few years and their cult womenswear brand Cushnie et Ochs was born, with fans ranging from the First Lady of Pop—Rihanna—to the actual First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Canadian-born-Maryland-raised Michelle Ochs’ obsessions with fashion took on a whole new dimension when she enrolled in military school. “I remember them showing me all the guys’ crisp, clean uniforms and shiny patents shoes,” she said. “I just thought everything about it was fabulous.”

Carly Cushnie also does not immediately strike you as a typical fashion designer: With a loose black tank and gold jewelry, she sports a club kid vibe pulled together with precision elegance—perhaps due in part to her stint working in nightclubs to pay her way through Parsons. “Occasionally I was the cashier, but actually I basically just got paid to chat to people, which was great!” The other thing I notice upon meeting her is tattooed numbers on her forearm. “They’re my parents’ names in numbers,” she said. “For example, A is 1, and N is 14 in the alphabet.”

The day I meet them is Cushnie’s birthday, but celebratory self-indulgence in further bodily mutilation isn’t an option when you’re preparing for one of the most hotly anticipated shows of New York Fashion Week—one that also involves make-up queen Charlotte Tilbury, at that. “Had it not been fashion week, I would have gotten another one,” Cushnie said. “I want this feather turning into a sword going down here [points from outside of her hand going up the middle of her arm]. In tarot the sword represents the mind so it’s kind of like ‘freeing your mind.’”

A theme begins to emerge during the conversation—“out of darkness cometh light”—a quotation originally derived from ancient Mayan spiritual practices. From this mad backdrop of tattoos, military fatigues and poetically sinister references comes a body of work that is exquisite, sophisticated, modern and resolutely elegant—think Tom Ford’s cleaner offerings at Gucci.

Their first collection, inspired by "American Psycho," was shown to legendary Bergdorfs buyer Linda Fargo. Shortly thereafter, their ready-to-wear was housed on the shop floor. Ochs describes other inspirations: “‘The Skin I Live In,’ ‘Belle de Jour,’ ‘Ancient Aliens’—that weird show on The History Channel. It’s about aliens and royalty cross breeding,” she said. “Our sales director is just terrified every time. But it’s funny enough because all the buyers knew about it and they were like, ‘This is crazy!’ And Michael Jackson has made it onto a lot of boards. I don’t know why! People have called our boards menacing and violent but it becomes very clean. We always start very big and refine.”

And refined it most certainly is. Thanks to close attention and tailoring, Cushnie et Ochs manage to walk to walk the fine line between being minimal and tastefully sexy. Ochs spoke to filling a gap in the marketplace: “I just think the pendulum of being conceptual and then being sexy was so far apart, that we could fill this niche.” Being women, they also pay close attention to how they clothes will actually be worn: It’s not about throwing out killer pieces that leave the customer in a quandary on how to pull it together in real life, needing to seek out orthopedic underpinnings. They’re made with an intended mindfulness. “What people don’t know is that there’s a lot of tailoring that goes into most pieces,” Ochs said. “We always get quotes that our pieces ‘defy the nip slip.’ You know, there’s a reason her nipple didn’t come out!”

Keep an eye out for their show this Friday, as some dazzling rays of light will surely emerge from the dark. Just hopefully no nipples.

Photography by Mario Torres

Photo direction by Erick Ruales

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