Designer Profile - Vintage edition: Bonnie Cashin
For August’s Designer Profile I had the opportunity to speak with someone especially special. Dr. Stephanie Lake is a scholar and jewellery designer who holds a PhD in Decorative Arts. Now based in Minneapolis, she spent the origins of her academic career studying and working between London, New York and Los Angeles. Her story may already seem impressive but it is about to get much more remarkable. As you will read, it leads to her inheriting what is now considered the world’s most significant, private, single fashion designer archive.
When she was a post-graduate, student studying at the Bard Graduate Centre (BGC) in New York City, Stephanie also worked for the newly formed Sotheby’s fashion department as a research assistant. Soon after starting at Sotheby’s, a piece of Bonnie Cashin’s clothing came up for auction, and left quite the impression. Stephanie looked to the Sotheby’s library to find out more about this mysterious designer and was shocked to discover no book dedicated to Bonnie’s work existed, but rather only small summaries in fashion anthologies. She found this increasingly astounding as she dug deeper and came to realise the significance and impact of Bonnie as a designer.
“As soon as I started to learn about her [Bonnie] I thought ‘my god, how is this possible?!’" Given the enormity of her influence and the significance and duration of her career it almost seemed impossible that there was nothing explicitly dedicated to her. There were already thousands of articles written about her, but there was no sole “Bonnie Cashin” book, per se. Stephanie saw her gap to fill in design history right then. “That’s when I thought, okay, here is an incredible story that needs to be told.” Thus, Stephanie began her academic exploration on the work of Bonnie Cashin.
The beautiful Bonnie Cashin posed with some of her fashion illustrations.
“One day, at BGC, I walked past my Dean’s office. He was having a conversation with the director of FIT. The director asked me what I was interested in, and I said, ‘Well actually I’m interested in the life and career of Bonnie Cashin.’ She replied with ‘She’s a friend of a friend, let me see what I can do.’” That friend was the late June Weir, former editor of Women’s Wear Daily, and a total fashion industry insider and icon. “She [June] contacted Bonnie on my behalf, which led to me calling Bonnie directly.”
Stephanie wasn’t expecting all that much as she went to ring Bonnie - certainly not that she would soon become so tied to this mysterious figure. She speaks of picking up the phone to make the call first call to Ms Cashin, “I was thinking ‘This will be amazing, I will get to talk to her and then write my thesis on her work.’” Stephanie didn’t really know what to expect but being the academic and working researcher that she was she went about the conversation in a professional and direct manner. “I said to her ‘I want to redress the historical neglect of your career.’ All Bonnie did was laugh.”
Bonnie then invited Stephanie over for tea and for a chat. Stephanie was thrilled that she would be able to meet her glamorous academic subject in the flesh! For many years Bonnie had been based between two extremely chic apartments in the UN Plaza - overlooking the beautiful UN gardens - one being her studio and one being her residence. Stephanie arrived at to their appointment and as soon as they sat down with each other their conversation flowed. “We talked and talked and talked for hours… I remember going to press the button for the elevator, and the elevator would come and then give up on us whilst we kept chatting.” After that they met once a week, every week, until Bonnie’s death in early 2000.
During these meetings Bonnie would simply share stories, stories from her life and about her career, with Stephanie, as though she were a younger family member of hers. “I was never an employee or anything like that… We had an immediate rapport and she would say ‘I am just your big sister.’ I revered her immense significance but I never fawned over her. We spoke together as if we had known each other all our lives.”
Image from Bonnie Cashin's chic apartment in the UN plaza where she resided until her death in 2000.
Stephanie obviously learnt an enormous amount from these weekly encounters. Upon Bonnie’s death she considered her experience to be rather extraordinary as it was, and certainly didn’t expect much beyond that. “When she died I thought ‘I may never walk through those doors again.’” However, when Bonnie was laid to rest, Stephanie was informed that she was set to inherit Bonnie’s entire design archive. Stephanie was shocked as there was no prior discussion that she would be Bonnie’s heir.
Clearly, something like this is practically unheard of. It’s then that I take a moment to digest quite how amazing that must have been. I asked Stephanie how she felt about it, “I think for Bonnie it was a tremendous relief as there were no children nor plans for succession. Really, I was the only person who knew exactly what she wanted for the future of her archive and her legacy.” Bonnie had already donated extensively to various museums and academic institutions over the course of her life, but she hadn't made plans for what to do with her personal effects and design archive until Stephanie entered her sphere. As a design scholar, Stephanie was aware of the importance of objects in preserving history, and recognised that for a designer of Bonnie’s rank, even the seemingly mundane could become an object of fascination over time.
Image from the Bonnie Cashin archive, housed in Stephanie Lake's home in Minneapolis, as it exists today. Image credit: Charles Lee.
So, who was Bonnie? Bonnie was a fashion designer, the fashion designer, in-fact. She is central to 20th Century, American design, often referred to as the “mother” of America sportswear. She spent her career working extensively in film and ready to-wear. She pioneered sportswear and fashion design for the modern woman. She is literally the point of origin for many (now universal) fashion terms and modes of dress, including layering (she also coined the term), the tote bag (she invented the ‘it’ bag’), the use of hardware on garments and accessories (another term that she also coined) . . . She created the modern way of dressing long before it was even known. Everything funnels back to Bonnie.
Born in 1907, Bonnie came from humble beginnings. Her parents were Armenian immigrants and the family moved throughout California, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Whilst Bonnie was still very young her parents’ marriage was so troubled that her dressmaker-mother, Eunice, left her husband with Bonnie and her younger brother in tow and opened a small dress shop in Beverly Hills, then quite a rough part of town. Because of this, since the time she was a toddler Bonnie could sew. Her mother taught her all the skills she would later need to design clothing, and she became a part of her mother’s business when she was young. “She credited her mother for everything” says Stephanie.
Bonnie Cashin, modelling to us that simplicity always equals chic.
As a busy teenager, Bonnie was learning a lot as her mother’s apprentice, but equal to that, she was taking in her surroundings as a student at Hollywood High School. Bonnie had told Stephanie about her adolescence spent in LA, “The entire city was embedded in film culture at the time - literally they went on high school field trips to Hollywood movie sets.”
In her later teen years, she began successfully freelancing as a fashion illustrator, as many other great designers of that day did. Amongst her freelance work, Bonnie one day decided to attend an audition for chorus girls for Fanchon and Marco, a live variety show performed in cinemas in conjunction with film screenings. When she got on stage it was clear she wasn’t getting the showgirl part, being all of 5 feet tall. But as she stood before the panel of prospective employers, she instead showed her design portfolio, and she was hired on the spot to costume the show.
From there she was recruited to go over to New York and work for the famed Roxy Theatre. With her mother in tow, the two of them relocated East and began producing costumes for the Roxyettes (rivals to the Rockettes). A lot of people attended this theatre and the theatre itself was practically a palace, a mecca of entertainment at the time.
A showgirl costume design by Bonnie Cashin.
One evening Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, went to the Roxy to see a fashion-themed show. Bonnie had designed a performance wherein every dancer stepped out of stage-sized pages of the magazine, each performer wearing a fashionable look of (extra space) Bonnie’s design. From the audience Carmel could see Bonnie’s skill and knew that this girl needed to become a proper fashion designer. Ms Snow made it happen for her to, when she called up Louis Adler, a major dress and coat manufacturer, and told him to hire Bonnie as his new chief designer. In this, Bonnie joined a prestigious list of notables whose careers were launched by Carmel Snow, including Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, Richard Avedon, Diana Vreeland, and Andy Warhol.
This suited the ambitious, young Bonnie well - she already had plans set on becoming a fashion designer. A retired Roxyette dancer once spoke with Stephanie and said, “I remember hearing Bonnie backstage saying ‘The designers at Harper’s can’t live forever.’” Not-so-subtly implying that she was ready to take over the fashion industry as soon as she got a chance!
At the same time the Second World War was starting. Paris was shut off to its usual American consumers, and the locals began turning their attention to American designers in lieu of their favoured Parisian houses. This was good timing for Bonnie, and she played her part in the war effort too, with New York’s Mayor La Guardia commissioning her to design civil defence uniforms. Bonnie’s celebrity was rising with all of this public display of ability, to the point where she was even featured in a national Coco Cola advertisement. The new age of design and designers was beginning. Prior to this time, a fashion designer was always a background figure, an unknown, but now Bonnie was becoming a famed front person too.
Bonnie Cashin featured in an advertisement for Coca Cola in the early 1940s.
By now America was becoming heavily involved in the war, Bonnie was tiring of the rations and restrictions. But she was soon saved when Hollywood came calling and recruited her to return to the West coast. She quickly became a contract designer in the ‘Glamour Division’ at 20th Century Fox (now that is fabulous!) One of the first films she worked on in her new role was Laura. Not only was this one of Bonnie’s first motion pictures, but it was likely her most famous one. An Otto Preminger Film Noir, which starred Gene Tierney, now regarded as a Hollywood great. The protagonist whom Bonnie was set to dress was a modern woman living in Manhattan. She used the opportunity to create costumes for a character she equated with herself, a modern woman living independently in the big city. It was also where she pioneered many of her looks and techniques she would later become known for - essentially showcasing her first mid-century, ready-to-wear collection on screen.
Gene Tierney in Laura, 1944.
She continued to work solidly in Hollywood until the late 1940s. The world was now healing from the war and consumerism was returning. Already compelled to return to the fashion industry, the final straw was Dior! Stephanie says, “Bonnie was so critical of Dior’s ‘new look’, saying ‘You can’t stuff a 20-pound dress in an overnight bag!’” To Bonnie it seemed absurd that fashion and style would return to the ‘old way’ of doing things. This was an opportunity to modernise and embrace the new way of life! “She really felt that the fashion industry needed her then.” And off to New York she went once more. (Mr Dior commented favourably on Bonnie’s designs in years to come, admiring their modernism and remarking that they were “so American!”)
Upon launching her eponymous fashion brand in 1950, Bonnie introduced her key invention and rule of dressing - layering. Designing the products, the method and the name, she launched an interlocking system of dress that could be adjusted as one’s mood, temperature, and activity dictated. She baffled the industry and the press with her version of a true ‘new look’. She introduced women to the concept of mix-and-match outfits, designing garments that could be worn in multiple ways, together or apart, layered up or on their own, in any season. Bonnie explained her method at the time, “Think of it as a striptease in reverse.” Her layered looks went on to forever change how clothing was manufactured, sold, and worn.
What Bonnie Cashin said, went.
Almost immediately she was a fashion star once more, a highly-publicised designer, stocked in all the major stores of the day, such as Neiman Marcus and Lord and Taylor. Stephanie explains how this moment was pivotal to the industry championing Bonnie’s brand, “All of the major retailers devoted themselves to Bonnie and her fashion philosophy… in her first year of business, she also won both the Coty and the Neiman Marcus awards, the two highest fashion accolades in the country. It was unprecedented to be given both honours in the same year.”
Whilst layering is synonymous with her, Bonnie is responsible for many other innovations in the fashion industry. She pioneered the concept of modular wardrobes, and that one’s wardrobe was collected and collated overtime. She was the first designer to bring leather and mohair to high fashion and to radically combine materials in the same garment, driving manufacturers mad when she asked them to do things like dye a jersey and a silk the exact same colour. She started showing clothes with knee-high boots in the 1940s and mini-skirts in the early 1950s. She came up with hardware - as a term and a practise. Inspired by the industrial closures used to batten down her 1940s California convertible’s soft-top, she repurposed this brass turn-lock into her design signature, today one of the most iconic garment and handbag closures of all time. And then, with this, came her it’ bags.
Introduction of layering, thanks to Bonnie Cashin.
In 1960, Miles and Lillian Cahn, who owned a company called Gail Leather, were responsible for producing wholesale men’s accessories. They ran a successful business, but Mrs Cahn wanted to manufacture women’s accessories as well. So, she called Bonnie, literally by looking her up in the phone book. She asked a hesitant and busy Bonnie to create a line of women’s handbags with her. Mrs Cahn said to Bonnie, “You are the only designer of interest.” This new women’s accessory business finally launched in 1962, when Bonnie decided that it would solve her own long-standing problem of not finding handbags on the market that complemented her own clothing collections. That company was named Coach.
The design of Bonnie’s first “it’ bag for Coach was a replica of custom paper bags that Bonnie had created for toting things between her Manhattan apartment and upstate New York country house. She recreated this design in gorgeous dyed leathers in colours that Bonnie thought up in watercolour paint, and custom-loomed fabrics selected by Bonnie herself. This style of bag was easy to carry, un-fussy, had nothing rigid about it - and it went with her clothing designs. Stephanie speaks of this bag breakthrough, “Bonnie started by asking herself ‘what is a good thing to carry things in?’” Paper shopping bags ranked high on her list as did buckets, feed bags, and baskets, all of which also inspired her. At that time those types of carriers had all existed for ages, but had never been translated to the world of high-fashion. As soon as it launched it exploded, everyone had to have one and it became colloquially known as ‘fashion’s snob tote.’
Bonnie then furthered this concept by layering the bags, as she did her garments, offering matching mini bags, cosmetics bags, wallets and compartments. Nobody had done a coordinated range like this. Shops didn’t even know how to display it! Prior to this each of these items would have been displayed in different parts of the department store, not all together in a set. In fact it was so confusing to them to the extent that Bonnie had to send instructions and props to these stores, so they had an exact method of display for these pioneering products. This bag concept is yet another go-to part of modern fashion we can thank Bonnie for. As Suzy Menkes declared, “She [Bonnie] revolutionised the handbag industry.”
Bonnie Cashin designed bags.
I queried Stephanie as to whether Bonnie was known in Europe. It turns out she was, by a select few, that is the few you want to be known by - Liberty of London and Hermès. Approached by Liberty to design in-house for them (an offer which she politely declined) she was then invited to have a ‘shop-in-shop’ concession stand in the famed British department store. She was the only American designer to have the privilege at the time. To add to the modernity and simplicity of it all, when she first showcased the collection to Mr A.I. Stewart of Liberty, she personally modelled her fashions herself, as he dictated purchase orders to his assistant.
Many English 'it' girls collected Cashin in the 1960s, including Jean Shrimpton and Mary Quant.
The set up at Hermès was similar. They’d never worked with an American designer and invited Bonnie to design one of their in-house lines. Whilst she never collaborated with them (again, she politely declined) her clothing was ultimately sold through the Hermès flagship store in Paris. “I have all the letters and correspondence between Hermès and Bonnie from that time” says Stephanie. “It has been fascinating to discuss the relationship with their archivists, largely because they were unaware of it before I shared the documents. It is not an exaggeration to say that as Hermès has learned about this part of their history, they are shocked by the singular deal that was struck with Bonnie.” Clearly the company held her in high esteem. They even allowed her to have her pieces manufactured in her existing workshops in America, rather than with the artisans at Hermès. “Hermès did and does not sell other brands. The only exception in their entire company history when they sold Bonnie Cashin.”
Bonnie Cashin bags. Not only were her designs sold at the Hermés flagship store, but it's clear she inspired the french fashion house too!
"Cashin designs are the only American rtw [ready-to-wear] Hermés has said it buys for its ultra-luxurious Paris store." - Women's Wear Daily, April 27th, 1966
Bonnie was always in charge, and always independent. Perhaps it was this complete control that allowed her to strike such unusual and favourable deals. I discuss this with Stephanie, “Nobody said no to Bonnie, and she said yes to relatively few offers. She only ever worked in her own private studios with a series of trusted administrative assistants. Her designs were hers alone, from start to finish. She never had design assistants, she never provided creative direction to a team. She never took on investors, she was never anyone’s employee, and she never licensed or even trademarked her name. She was first and foremost an artist, and she always said no to anything she thought would restrict her creativity. She always had to have autonomy and complete creative freedom in all her projects. These were her most fiercely-guarded aspects of her life in design.”
Cut out of an article on Bonnie Cashin, 1963.
Hearing all this, I ask Stephanie why Bonnie isn’t better known now? It just seems baffling to me! “Ironically, it is because her influence is so pervasive. She isn’t known for a single hit or moment.” Stephanie is right that her influence was so constant and long-lasting. It’s not like she's got one spot on fashion’s timeline and that’s it (though really, she should have many). I then ask Stephanie whether she thinks that perhaps Bonnie’s being American factored into her lack of legacy, many people I know being anglocentric snobs and all... “I think it’s more insidious than that. Bonnie was a very driven independent woman who would compromise on anything that affected her creative control. She refused to play by accepted rules and practises. She often said no to important people.” It’s clear that Bonnie really did go against the era - being a female founder and CEO, who chose not to have children nor to marry. Now it seems like many modern women’s list of aspirations! “She was so very vocal and very eloquent about her convictions about design and its relationship to freeing women to both express themselves and participate in contemporary life. Her thinking was so far in advance that it was intimidating for the industry.”
In that mode of thinking Bonnie didn’t just design new items of clothing and accessories, but also new ways of buying clothes. She was really one of the first designers to manufacture pieces that were available at various price points. In the 50s she had shirts retailing for $12.99, and furs for $2,000. You think about this concept and it’s reminiscent of Isaac Mizrahi doing his line with Target in the 90s, but to Bonnie it wasn’t about watered-down versions of her designs, more about getting the best bang for your buck! As she said “Chic is where you find it” (also the title of Stephanie’s book on Bonnie’s life) and “taste, not price, is the great leveller.” Bonnie’s brand was built on this concept in the 50s. And with that her label would pop up everywhere. She also always acknowledged the hands behind her work, always using her own artist’s signature as her logo, and incorporating her various manufacturers’ names on her clothing labels.
I now ask Stephanie about the rather vulgar topic of money. Did Bonnie do well out of all of this? We know she came from humble beginnings after all. “She was a millionaire numerous times over throughout her life, and didn't have to worry about her finances.” Bonnie definitely worked hard enough, however it’s also clear she didn’t sell-out or get greedy. In a People magazine article form 1979, a journalist wrote “She [Bonnie] could’ve been the wealthiest designer in America but she is just so bloody uncompromising.” She didn’t want to build an empire, she wanted to satisfy her own artistic passions, problem-solve for her own wardrobe needs, and constantly introduce distinctive, beautifully-made, long-lasting designs to the market. Quite a contemporary concept if you think about it.
Her fashion career continued until 1985. I wonder how she would’ve felt in the 70s, as celebrity became more involved with clothes and fashion. I’m now thinking of images from Studio 54 and seeing people like Diane Von Furstenberg and Halston socialising with movie stars and musicians. Stephanie told me that Bonnie had “...total disinterest… couldn’t have cared less!” Bonnie’s core friends were in-fact writers, artists, scientists and other designers (though not usually other fashion designers). “She was interested in generative design and innovative thinking. Every year she went to the World’s Fair… She was never one just to socialise for the sake of it.” Around this time of celebrity Bonnie was quoted as saying “I don’t care who is sleeping with whom, that has nothing to do with creativity.”
Bonnie Cashin in her later years.
In 1985 Bonnie closed her doors, on her on terms and in her own time. She was ready to retire and leaving behind her company without her at the helm never crossed her mind. The concept of calling in a new “creative director” to take over the house also was unheard of then. It is also clear that a very independent and proud Bonnie would have never tolerated handing over her name and brand power over to another person.
In her retirement she finally had the time pursue her other passion, painting. “She was always was an artist, always painting. She had attended art school when she was young… long before retiring she would threaten from time to time to quit fashion and paint.” And paint she eventually did. Most of her paintings are now part of the collection that Stephanie owns.
A painting by Bonnie Cashin, now part of the Bonnie Cashin archive.
So we know that after Bonnie’s retirement, Bonnie met Stephanie and left her archive to her. With this collection Stephanie has curated many exhibitions, donated Bonnie’s professional papers to institutions such as UCLA, and written a beautiful coffee table book, Chic Is Wear You Find It, published by Rizzoli. Bonnie’s impact on fashion has lasted amongst the industry too. Donna Karen, Isaac Mizrahi, J W Anderson and Jonathan Adler all cite Bonnie as being a huge influence on them. Bill Cunningham even said, “Bonnie Cashin should be immortalised by national monument.” Basically, those in the know, know.
So now, what is next for Stephanie and the Bonnie archive? Well, she is now looking to take Bonnie’s life to to screen as a documentary or a scripted series, the latter she notes would be “nothing less than the fashion version of The Crown, from 1920s Hollywood showgirls to 1980s international fashion scandals.” Stephanie has been in talks with Ruben Toledo to collaborate on an illustrated book full of Bonnie’s fabulous quotes. “Her quotes are brilliant. She is Oscar Wilde meets Diana Vreelend meets Gandhi.” Examples include:
“I see both sides—like Picasso.”
“What matters most about art is how it affects those viewing it.”
“Every length is good, depending upon the leg and the occasion.”
Image from the Bonnie Cashin archive, housed in Stephanie Lake's home in Minneapolis, as it exists today. Image credit: Charles Lee
Post pandemic it may be that Stephanie even develops an interactive type of exhibition, showcased in vast spaces of empty department stores and malls, now available due to changes in culture and commerce and the rise of online shopping. One certainly hopes this becomes a reality as seeing the archive in the flesh would surely be an incredible experience. “It is all open-ended, and that is a wonderful thing. Her legacy and my role in furthering it is a never-ending part of my life.” The Bonnie Cashin archive is unlike any fashion archive in the world. Because of the collection’s breadth and depth, ranging from Bonnie’s personal treasures to her iconic fashion designs, it offers a rare look at both a life very well-lived and a staggering career that shaped the course of contemporary American fashion.
Lastly, I ask Stephanie what it’s like to have her life revolve around the legacy of another person. “It doesn’t, but at one point in time it did. When I met Bonnie I was a student, and everything in my world centred around her. I was writing my dissertation, curating major retrospectives... but now my life is completely different.” Their relationship was formed years before Stephanie had her own business and family. Life for Stephanie has gone from madly documenting all that she could about Bonnie, to inheriting the archive, to a rekindled romance with her high-school sweetheart (who is now her husband), to translating her decorative arts knowledge to her own jewellery firm, and becoming a mother. “I have never felt that her presence is too big, but part of me will always remain astonished by this fashion fairy tale I have found myself in, and that my family now shares with me. Bonnie took me under her wing, and her influence is profound. Above all, she instilled in me a conviction to always find, create, and preserve my own sources of joy.”
The way I see it Bonnie’s legacy only exists now because of Stephanie’s devotion, and for that she deserves all the joy in the world.
Image of Stephanie Lake with her husband and daughter.
To visit Stephanie's website, view more about the archive and shop her jewellery, click here. To follow Stephanie's Instagram dedicated to the archive click here. To follow Stephanie's personal Instagram click here. To follow Stephanie's (rather amusing) Instagram on Bonnie's influence today click here. To buy Stephanie's book on Bonnie click here.
All images courtesy Stephanie Lake and the Bonnie Cashin Archive. Images of the archive as it stands today were photographed in Stephanie Lake's home by photographer Charles Lee.