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Fashion's Unsung Designers; Bonnie Cashin

Sometimes shocking, often game-changing, always visionary, certain designers become the name on everyone’s lips for a millisecond. Then they’re gone, no longer part of contemporary conversation, and barely even a footnote in the fashion history tomes that threaten the slender legs of the chicest coffee tables. If we stumble upon their names, we sit back and wonder, How can we not be talking about them anymore? In this series, Fashion’s Unsung Designers, I will spotlight some of those who I believe deserve, not only to be remembered, but perhaps name-dropped over cocktails.

Don’t know who Bonnie Cashin is? Let’s begin with arguably her most famous position by today’s standards: she was the design visionary behind Coach. In 1962, already a highly regarded designer in New York, she accepted the offer by Miles and Lillian Cahn, owners of the men’s leather goods company, to design a range of women’s bags for them. Their offer was already two years old but Cashin had originally turned them down. Not content to settle for any other designer, the Cahns didn’t regret their wait: under Cashin at Coach, the “status” handbag was born.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Bonnie Cashin

High kicks and kimonos

Born in California in 1908, Bonnie Cashin had no formal training in fashion, but she apprenticed with her mother who owned a dress shop. Throughout her career, she returned to her childhood for inspiration, in particular the experience of growing up alongside bustling Latino and Asian communities. She brought that cultural mix into her designs introducing layering into fashion in the early 50s, one lightweight wrap on top of another, in kimono shapes and vibrant colors.

Examples of her early drawings while still at high school revealed a natural flair for fashion. But in her senior year, she attended an audition to become a chorus girl. At barely five feet tall, and unsure her high kicks would impress, she decided instead to show her sketchbook of drawings and was immediately hired to design costumes for the dance troupe.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Bonnie Cashin

She moved to Manhattan with the hope of continuing costume design but, in 1938, was discovered by legendary fashion editor Carmel Snow, who put her forward for the job of designing coats for a furrier. It was around this time she also turned her hand to designing women’s uniforms for civilian workers during World War II as one of a small top secret team that also included fellow sportswear designer Claire McCardell.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Bonnie Cashin

Among the silver screen sirens

In 1943, she returned to the West Coast to design costumes for Twentieth Century-Fox, and received screen credit for over 60 movies including “Anna and the King of Siam” with Irene Dunn, “Laura” with Gene Tierney, and “The Snake Pit” with Olivia de Haviland. Accomplished in cultivating the glamour associated with silver screen divas, but with a desire to translate the Hollywood look for everyday women, Cashin returned to Manhattan to the city’s ready-to-wear industry.

In the years to follow, she designed everything from gloves to knitwear to rainwear, won recognition and awards, and was contracted by a veritable A-Z of companies from American Airlines to Liberty of London, from Bergdorf Goodman to Macy’s, all without ever licensing her name. In fact, when hired to design for Hermès, only to discover her name was not on the inside label of each garment, she walked away.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Bonnie Cashin

“Accepted practices in any business are not sacrosanct,” Cashin is quoted as saying and, as a founding member of the American sportswear tradition, she is known for many pioneering decisions: she brought leather to high fashion in a way it hadn’t been used before; she incorporated what we have come to know as hardware into clothing––brass and gold clasps and toggles. Eschewing gimmicks, she wanted embellishment to be functional, and one of her signatures was a turnlock inspired by the hardware used to secure the top of the convertible sportscar in which she used to zip around Hollywood. It was a natural fit in her designs for Coach’s bags.

Let them be copyists

Cashin’s advice to young designers: “the moment you think an idea, it is no longer yours exclusively,” is surely what kept her competitive and in great demand throughout her career. Of those she influenced, she said: “let them be copyists – let us be better.”

Cashin died in 2000. i-D magazine recently referred to her as “the most copied fashion designer you’ve never heard of” and although it may have been conceived as an attention grabber, there is some truth in the headline. Fashion insiders will be aware of her place in U.S. sportswear history; students of costume design will have come across her contribution to film. Owners of Cashin originals apparently hold on tight to their pieces. “I worship at the altar of Bonnie Cashin” gushes American interior designer Jonathan Adler in the forward for the book “Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find it.” It is written by Cashin’s friend and archivist, Stephanie Lake, and was released earlier this year as perhaps the definitive record of Cashin’s lagacy.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Bonnie Cashin

Without a house to call her own

Outside the creative industries and serious collectors’ circles, and certainly internationally, Bonnie Cashin is overshadowed by other twentieth-century American designers. Her decision never to license her name, combined with the reality that she was a designer-for-hire, and not the founder of a “house” that could be passed on to an heir, effectively signaled the end of her name.

But when we consider the question of which other designer could transition so smoothly from capturing a showgirl’s tantalizing glitz to embodying the disarming allure of Marlene Dietrich to outfitting the war effort at home with utility aprons and air raid uniforms, we cannot fail to be impressed. Brave in her business dealings, bold in her thinking, sassy in her style, she set her own rules. But the curiosity that propelled her creativity can perhaps be captured best in her own words:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if I could get a tweed by spinning together a bird’s nest and a spider’s web?”

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Bonnie Cashin

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.