Cushnie et Ochs on Snuggies, ‘Carly and Michelle Dates,’ and Gel Manicures

Cushnie et Ochs
Photo courtesy of Cushnie et Ochs
Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs

Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs are their own best models.

The Cushnie et Ochs design duo are as gorgeous as any girls walking their runway and are hardly seen at an event wearing another's designs.

But their lives weren't—and still aren't!—always that glamorous. The two met as juniors at Parsons, where they were both busy pulling all-nighters. And Cushnie and Ochs still find themselves donning their Snuggies (really!) and settling in for long nights of work.

It's paid off. They've been nominated for awards from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and the Fashion Group International, count Reese Witherspoon and Olivia Wilde as fans of their sexy dresses, and received the endorsement of a lifetime when the first lady wore one of their numbers to the (televised) White House's Christmas event.

Cushnie et Ochs will show their Fall 2012 collection at Milk Studios on February 10, and Carly Cushnie took the time to chat with FashionEtc about the early days, the movie they’re currently obsessing over, and that big Michelle Obama moment.

How’s the preparation going for this upcoming fashion season?

Good! It’s busy, and hectic as always. 

Any routines? Favorite late-night meals at the design studio?

There are lots of late nights—Michelle and I are always the last people in the office. We get the space heaters going, we get the Snuggies out while we make our patterns … and there’s lots of eating, of course!

During Fashion Week we have dinner catered for everyone. It makes things easier; it’s family style, everyone sits down and has a little break—then it’s back to work! The caterers always find it funny—they think that fashion people just want salad. Once they just gave us salad and we were like, no. What is this? We need hot food!

What do you listen to while you’re working?

It depends on the mood! Sometime we want something more chill, sometimes we’re dancing around making patterns and want house music. Sometimes there’s reggae playing. But the whole studio has to listen to it!

What can you tell us about your Fall 2012 collection?

It’s very much about skin—a second skin. About looking at the idea of a second skin, body armor—there are the details and the lines and cuts are influenced sort of a wetsuit thing. We also took second skin in a sort of plastic surgery way—like those lines on the face. We looked a lot at the Almodóvar movie The Skin I Live In.

Aside from The Skin I Live In, what’s inspiring you these days?

Lately, we’ve been really drawn to movies. Pre-Fall was inspired by Belle du Jour, and then this season was The Skin I Live In. We also looked at The Girl on the Motorcycle—[Marianne Faithfull] in her tight leather one-piece. That motorcycle outfit was inspiring.

One of your style signatures has become those cutouts. Should we be expecting those in the new collection?

There’s some of that, but in a different way. It’s revealing layers of fabric rather than revealing skin.

Last season you were all about lighter and brighter colors, with that pink and yellow. Are you still feeling brights?

There are hints of color in this, but it’s not quite as bright as spring.

What’s the work dynamic like between you and Michelle?

Our work dynamic is pretty organic. We both do everything. We both sketch. We both work on patterns. There’s very much a back and forth, and we’re both deeply involved in all aspects. We were friends first, so there’s that relationship. It’s a very easygoing working relationship.

I know you met at Parsons—any fun stories from the early days?

We met in our junior year. We were in class together, and—I don’t know if it’s still like this now—but there was a section, and you take the same classes with the same group of people. We met the first day because we had a mutual friend, but we didn’t become good friends until later in the year.

Our mutual friend kept arranging time for us three to all hang out and grab dinner or something, and she would never turn up—it would be just Michelle and I! Then it got to the point where we didn’t wait for her any more. [Laughs] We had a really good time. It was a lot of work; we were pulling all-nighters probably twice a week. We felt that by our junior year we hadn’t gotten to know New York very well, so every Thursday night we’d go to a new restaurant or a new bar that we’d never been to. It was Carly and Michelle’s date night! [Laughs] We really got to know New York that way. Raoul’s was a favorite that we used to go to a lot. Thursday night was one of the first times we discovered La Esquina.

Do you try and keep it up now?

It’s too hard now! We tried to keep it up for a while. Sometimes now we’re like, "Ooh it’s Thursday!"

What advice would you give to college kids today trying to break into the business?

Intern as much as you can. At internships, when your employer asks a lot of you—and you have your own schoolwork as well, and you’re asked to stay late, and take this package to the middle of nowhere Brooklyn… if your employers can rely on you, that can really help with getting a job. Maybe not at their company, but a great reference goes a long way if you went that extra mile. Also, certain parts of internships can be mundane, but you’re really learning—I didn’t really realize that before starting the company.

Also, keep in contact with everybody that you meet: this designer, this factory, these connections. They’ll remember you in a couple years time when you decide to do your line! 

Between you and Michelle, you’ve worked for some amazing companies—Donna Karan, Proenza Schouler, Marc Jacobs. Did you get any great advice?

Great advice and great learning experiences. I learned so much from being at Proenza—I got to see everything. Like them then, we’re such a small company, so our interns get to see everything—sales, production, design. We’re one floor, one room, everything in one place. And Michelle learned a lot at Isaac Mizrahi and Chado Ralph Rucci—especially in terms of construction. Chado has his painstaking 120-piece patterns, so she really got a good understanding of couture. 

So, Michelle Obama wore one of your dresses in December.

That was amazing. We made the dress for her, but it wasn’t confirmed whether she was going to wear it. On Sunday night—the night she wore it—we got pictures in from our publicist. But the event she wore it to, the Christmas in Washington event, was televised. So that was very, very, very exciting. And weird to watch the airing of it, with her sitting there!

Cushnie et Ochs

Photos courtesy of Cushnie et Ochs

Looks from Cushnie et Ochs Pre-Fall 2012 collection.

What do you think of her style?

I think it’s fantastic the way she, through what she wears, has been able to propel designers’ careers and really highlight American fashion. There are many great designers, and a lot of the big European designers get press in magazines, but she’s really highlighting American brands especially. She catapulted Jason Wu, and even J.Crew, which was a big brand already! I think her style is really strong and sophisticated.

Have you seen an effect on your business?

First of all, there was a lot of traffic to our site and Facebook fan page! But we did get a lot of international store appointments for the upcoming fall collection. That really helped bring in international retailers and some more retailers here, too.

Who’s been your favorite person to dress?

Other than Michelle Obama? We dressed Reese Witherspoon, and she looked fantastic. Teresa Palmer and Lake Bell have worn our stuff several times. Olivia Wilde we love to dress. We met Kate Bosworth recently and she’s worn one of our pieces recently. It was so exciting to meet her and hear her say "Oh, I love your stuff!"

Who’s on your to-dress wish list?

We’d love to dress Penelope Cruz. And January Jones is another one.

Who are some of your favorite designers these days?

I think we’ve always been a big fan of Jil Sander, and what Riccardo’s [Tisci] doing at Givenchy. His couture shows are very exciting. And we’ve always been a big fan of Alaïa—he stays so true to his aesthetic, and he’s adored in the industry.

From a business perspective, where do you see your company headed?

Some of our immediate goals are to expand the line, add accessories and shoes, have a whole wardrobe for our customer. That’s the next step for us. We really want to grow the brand. Eventually, we’d like to have a freestanding store, but that’s still a way away.

One last question and I’ll let you get back to work! The black caviar nail polish you did last year was so cool, and nail art has become this really cult thing. What are you loving these days?

We haven’t decided on nails for the next show! We’ve been working with Pattie Yankee with Dashing Diva—she comes up with some great ideas. The black caviar was a lot of fun—not too outlandish but super sparkly. Recently, though, Pattie Yankee got me addicted to the gel manicures. A general manicure only lasts a couple of days on me. I have crappy nails! So I’m kind of addicted to the gel.