Bonnie Cashin’s lasting influence on American sportswear is evident from one season to the next, and Stephanie Lake’s new book will only give further definition to that legacy.
In New York for a signing for “Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find It” (Rizzoli), Lake — who designs her own accessories collection — spoke with WWD about some of the unknown personal history of Cashin, whom she first met in the Nineties as a graduate student. A Hollywood High School grad, Cashin started her own label at age 43 after designing for the Roxy Theater’s in-house dancers and doing costumes for 20th Century Fox films. Shrewd about the power of youth, she fudged her age, claiming to have been born in 1915, even though Census data indicates circa 1908 is closer to the fact. “It was kind of a rolling situation. As it went on, the date kept creeping up until 1915,” Lake said. “I didn’t know until she died. It was a shock. She was a youthful beauty so she could get away with it and she did.”
Cashin, who died in 2000, was an Art Students League graduate in the Thirties and always saw herself as an artist, so much so that at the time of her retirement she said she planned to return to painting as a career. Cashin hand-mixed paints to create — and name — her own colors, which she then gave to dyers and weavers to recreate with textiles and fabrics. To keep herself removed from Seventh Avenue, Cashin lived and worked at U.N. Plaza, where her mother, the company’s only other stakeholder with 1 percent, lived in an adjoining apartment and sewed samples until her death in 1963. “She didn’t play by any fashion rules,” Lake said.
Cashin’s firsts as an American designer included creating flight attendants’ uniforms for American Airlines, selling select designs from her own line in the Hermès Paris store for years and opening an in-store shop at Liberty of London. In the Sixties, she passed up the chance to be in-house designer at Liberty of London. Involved at that time with a British civil servant and mystery author, the designer was more interested in spending her time in London “boating on the Thames or something” with him.
“She always kept her sense of wonder. Even in the very last years of her life, she was such a force intellectually and personally,” Lake said.
Not interested in hosting potted-palm fashion shows in hotels like other designers, Cashin showed a number of collections at the Herman Miller showroom, as well as unexpected spots like the Museum of Contemporary Craft and Serendipity, the Upper East Side ice cream shop. To debut a fur collection that was coined “Money in the Bank,” Cashin staged the show in a bank. “Taste not price” was a motto. Ahead of the high-low trend that so many designers are now so immersed in, Cashin offered items ranging in price from $12 to $12,000 and liked to say, “Prices fall where they may.”
Despite being IMG’s first fashion client, Cashin turned away 60 deals, Lake said. Her influence — hardware clasps instead of buttons, formalizing a system of layering and the use of leather in an array of sportswear styles — “filters through so many collections,” according to Lake. “I see her everywhere.” In addition to creating the items, Cashin’s élan for wittily describing them helped shoppers to understand what were then new concepts. By calling a two-piece coat with a shell and an outer piece as “a striptease in reverse,” Cashin explained things in a way that no one else had ever done.
Very proud of her influence on her century, Cashin took it upon herself to start donating items from her collection to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in the Thirties. After entrusting Lake with her legacy, the designer gave the author “informed” biographies about such creative forces as Ray and Charles Eames, whom Cashin knew personally and admired. But those books were as much about the subjects’ lives, ideologies and influences as they were about their respective crafts, Lake said.
“Enormously proud” at the end of her life, Cashin felt gratified about the influence her career had on 20th century fashion, Lake said. “That was not something she ever boasted about. It was just a fact for her. The only thing she lamented was that she didn’t have another 20 years.”