NEW YORK — Designer Bonnie Cashin, who died in 2000 at age 91, was known for her simple, functional and stylish sportswear.
Cashin also had a reputation as a bit of a renegade during a 40-year career. Leather separates were already part of her design portfolio in 1953. And four years later, she traveled to India at the request of the Ford Foundation and the Indian government to give advice on developing an export textile market.
The designer’s friend, Stephanie Lake, creative director of the Bonnie Cashin Foundation, is trying to sustain the vitality of Cashin’s vision.
Lake is on the hunt for designers who share Cashin’s passion for originality and plans to bestow the nonprofit foundation’s first endowment on a like-minded designer this year.
She is trying to spur recognition of Cashin’s work and drum up money for the foundation’s gift-giving by lining up designers to collaborate on licensing deals or to reissue selected items. Lake is also shopping a biography/reference book that uses the designer’s favorite expression for a title: “Chic Is Where You Find It.”
Among the first items to be reissued will be handbag designer Neal Decker’s canvas tote bag in an animal print that Cashin initially used for raincoats. On another front, Coach is preparing to celebrate Cashin’s 12-year run as head designer by introducing Legacy, an updated collection of bags, small leather goods, shoes and outerwear replete with Cashin’s signature features, like vibrant stripes. Even Coach’s signature brass turnlock stems from Cashin, who based it on the rooftop latch on her sporty convertible. When wholesale handbag makers Miles and Lillian Cahn set out to delve into the designer world by starting Coach, they tapped Cashin as head designer and then agreed to wait two years until she was available.
The designer had followed a circuitous route to Seventh Avenue. Born in Fresno, Calif., and named Bonnie Jean Cashin after a beloved family horse, she learned dressmaking as a child from her mother, Eunice, a boutique owner. As a high school senior, she became a costume designer for Fanchon and Marco, a Los Angeles-based dance troupe. Eight years later she was in Manhattan as chief costume designer for the Roxyettes, the high-kickers at the Roxy Theater. That’s where Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow caught a dance number inspired by the fashion magazine and later plucked Cashin from Broadway to be Adler & Adler’s leading ready-to-wear designer.
In 1941, Cashin was singled out once again — this time with Claire McCardell and Vera Maxwell — to design women’s civilian defense uniforms during World War II. After that, 20th Century Fox came knocking and Cashin went to Hollywood to create costumes for 60 films, including “Laura,” “Anna and the King of Siam” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” In 1949, she went back to Adler & Adler and two years later established Bonnie Cashin Designs.
In 1962, she became Coach’s first designer. Two years later, she was spending half the year in Scotland designing cashmere pieces for Ballantyne. In 1975, she introduced the concept of “Seven Easy Pieces,” a core collection of mix-and-match separates. Unlike many of her competitors, she did not plunge into the licensing boom of the Seventies, preferring to partner with companies that gave her complete creative control. During her 40-year career, she collaborated with such companies as Bergdorf Goodman, Liberty of London, American Airlines, Samsonite, Revillon and White Stag.
“She wasn’t a marketer,” Lake said. “She didn’t license her name for anything she didn’t design herself. We’re looking for people who are very individualistic if not mavericks in their approach to fashion and design.”
Lake was a 25-year-old Bard College graduate student working in Sotheby’s fashion department in 1997 when she became friends with Cashin while researching a Cashin coat for a sale at the auction house. Lake was amazed by the limited amount of information available about the designer.
She has spent the past three years fulfilling her commitment as curator of the newly established Bonnie Cashin Collection at UCLA, a gift from Cashin’s estate. Lake has archived the estate for the school, which now houses the designer’s papers and drawings. When the collection opens to the public this fall, visitors will be able to review material but will not be allowed to photocopy or borrow any. With the UCLA project complete, she is focusing her attention on her role at the foundation, which has the copyrights to all of Cashin’s work at UCLA, as well as the trademark use of her name. In addition to Cashin’s personal papers, the estate endowed the Bonnie Cashin Lecture Series.
Hundreds of Cashin’s personal belongings, including one-off pieces and other designs, are housed in Lake’s Minneapolis home. She makes them available on a case-by-case basis. Traces of Cashin’s drawings and writings are etched into her drafting table, which has served as Lake’s desk for years. Lake is always on the lookout for new venues for Bonnie Cashin exhibitions and prefers to include furniture and other objects that reflect “the inimitable aesthetic she created,” Lake said.
Throughout her career, Cashin never had a design assistant, preferring to see through each of her creations “from pen to paper to production.” Lake said. While her competitors jumped into the licensing boom for quick bucks, Cashin stayed the course, seeking her own partnerships for specific categories.
Licensing, however, is a top priority for Lake. Aside from raising awareness of Cashin’s talent, proceeds from the sales of licensed products will bolster the foundation’s gift-giving. This fall, stationery featuring Cashin’s childhood drawings of “la la girls,” more commonly known as chorus girls, will be sold on the foundation’s Web site. Cashin “saved everything,” and, as a result, Lake has 6,000 drawings. Dessert plates, wallpaper and linens are among the items on which she envisions them.
The designer’s intarsia patterns could easily translate into beach towels or accent pillows, Lake said. Then there is the expected and much requested reissue of her poncho or kimono-type coats, as well as her gauntlet gloves and umbrellas, Lake said.
Cashin preached that “the habit of wonder” was far more valuable to a designer than glancing back at fashion history. She was more inclined to cite the rhythm of poetry, a new mathematical theorem or a bird’s nest as inspiration. Cashin was uncompromising about her individuality. “The moment you think of an idea, it is no longer yours exclusively,” she said.