One of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful American fashion designers of the twentieth century, Bonnie Cashin (1907–2000) was revered for her intellectual, opinionated, and independent approach to ready-to-wear. She designed exclusively for herself and appealed to women who shared her nonconformist attitude, such as clients Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Vanderbilt, Louise Nevelson and Mary Quant. She worked with companies ranging from Hermès to American Airlines, and was handpicked for projects as diverse as advising the Indian government on export design and launching Coach as a maker of women’s accessories. Through her contagious passion for her work, she crafted a life full of storybook tales of discovery and madcap adventure and became a design icon.
A “nomad by nature,” Cashin grew up in a string of California cities, fascinated by the jostling of Asian and Latin American communities. She adored Chinatowns and fairy tales, and dreamed of becoming a dancer, a painter, or a writer. These early passions – for travel, “ethnic” exoticism, dancing, drawing, and storytelling – combined with her extraordinary design talents and modernist spirit to form a series of creative careers on both American coasts. Prior to her mid-century launch as a “name” on Seventh Avenue, Cashin’s credentials included, but were not limited to, a decade of designing costumes for New York’s “Roxyette” chorus girls, an under-cover assignment to design women’s uniforms for World War II, and a stint in Hollywood designing wardrobes for over sixty films at Twentieth Century-Fox.
At the vanguard of high fashion for nearly forty years, Cashin’s design hallmarks are still heralded as welcome sartorial innovations. They regularly reappear on twenty-first-century runways and in collections at every price point. With a personality that was at times summed up as “difficult,” Cashin was an outspoken advocate for originality in fashion design. Of her copyists, she shrugged off as much of the frustration as she could, realizing “the moment you think an idea, it is no longer yours exclusively,” and declaring “let them be copyists – let us be better.” She also scolded those in the fashion industry that kept their “noses pressed against the rear view mirror . . . seriously pronouncing it all new, creative and beautiful! All hail the emperor’s new suit of clothes!” She advised designers to read that story at least once a month.
Cashin’s innumerable “firsts” range from inaugurating “layered” dressing in 1951, introducing the use of leather and suede to high fashion in 1953, incorporating industrial hardware as functional embellishment for women’s clothing in 1955, turning Coach, a wholesale maker of men’s wallets, into a innovative handbag company in 1962, and launching the concept of “Seven Easy Pieces” of mix-and-match separates in 1975. Above all, she was a pioneer of American sportswear. Without lapsing into redundancy, “the Cashin look” is instantly recognizable, regardless of its date of manufacture. She glamorized casual wardrobes, purifying shapes to their simplest form, dramatizing them with imaginative uses of fabric and color, and designing collections of pieces that worked year-round and through the years. Aware of the impact of her contributions to the fashion world, she felt “intense satisfaction in feeling one is helping mold the look of our century.”
Per her wishes, upon Cashin’s death in 2000, the bulk of Cashin’s estate was gifted to the New York Community Trust, which distributes annual charitable gifts through their Bonnie Cashin Fund. Her personal effects, art, furnishings, journals, photographs, and her entire clothing archive was given to design historian and Cashin protegee Stephanie Lake.
Cashin’s oft-stated credo, “chic is where you find it,” summed up her belief that a “habit of wonder” and an ability to see relationships between objects and ideas far removed from the fashion world were vital tools for the generative designer. Rather than look at fashion history, she was apt to cite the rhythm of poetry, a new mathematical theorem, or a bird’s nest as inspiration. That Cashin avoided gimmickry, and instead imaginatively translated these unrelated source materials into decades of consistent, connected, and highly functional garments, is a testament to her belief that the enthusiastic pursuit of individuality is always timeless.