Four young businesses, a quartet of distinct American fashion sensibilities, united by an unpretentious commitment to excellence and craft: Cushnie et Ochs, Ohne Titel, Joseph Altuzarra and Eddie Borgo define what is very best about the next generation of American designers.
“American fashion is all about ease—a sense of pragmatism, the idea that clothes should mold to your lifestyle. In France, how you dress can be a little more challenging intellectually,” says Joseph Altuzarra, and he ought to know—the designer possesses dual citizenship: he was raised in Paris, went to Swarthmore and worked with, among others, Marc Jacobs (here) and Givenchy (abroad). Now based in New York, Altuzarra, who won first prize this year in the CFDA/Vogue Annual Fashion Fund competition—has recently received accolades for his fall 2012 collection, with its coin-bedecked parkas, light-hearted knitwear and slim trousers. Reflecting his own background perhaps, the designer says this season is meant for a global nomad: “It’s a vibe that pretty accurately reflects what is going on in fashion now.” He confesses that another inspiration was Corto Maltese, a French comic strip character from the 1970s. “He’s a sailor, his mom is a gypsy and his dad is Venetian—he’s a famous style icon, he’s even been in Dior ads!" Though his work is not meant for a woman of any particular age, Altuzarra is often referred to as a “young” designer. But he laughs when he is asked his opinion on how young is young? “I’m 29—so maybe I’ll be a ‘young’ designer until I am 35?” Then he pauses and becomes more thoughtful. “I think maybe young is more like where your business is, and I think we are on the cusp!”
Cushnie et Ochs
“I’m a woman! So I ask myself—would Carly wear it? Would I wear it? It’s no good if it’s falling down, or I think it looks cute but it’s so uncomfortable,” says Michelle Ochs, one half, with Carly Cushnie, of Cushnie et Ochs, when asked to describe the design aesthetic behind their young line. The sleek, sharp, tailored offerings they are known for—the trademark of which is the judicious placement of cutouts—may appear taut and sexy, but since the pair try on everything themselves, you can be assured that each piece offers superb wearablilty. “We like to celebrate the female body!” Ochs explains. The pair honed their skills by interning for an eminent roster of designers—together, they count Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Rucci, and
Donna Karan among their mentors.
Though they mount exciting runway shows during New York Fashion Week, they are also no strangers to another, much ballyhooed way in which the shopping public learns about new designers: namely, by seeing these labels sported by celebrities. Cushnie et Ochs have happily dressed not only Kristen Stewart, Leighton Meester and Eva Longoria, but a certain very forward-thinking First Lady: Michelle Obama wore their green halter-neck dress for Christmas in Washington. One last question, ladies—what’s with the et? “We didn’t just want an ‘and,’—we wanted something to set us apart,” they giggle. “It makes us special.”
“I went to school for art history and costume theory,” recalls the extraordinarily talented jewelry designer Eddie Borgo. “It all comes back to adornment—the special ways we differentiate clan, tribe and family.” Borgo, who describes his work as “high end meets street,” started making jewelry when he worked as a stylist assistant fresh out of school, beginning with simple pieces of studded leather and then sitting with a metal smith and apprenticing himself to various craftsmen. Borgo had been fascinated with jewelry since his childhood, especially the audacious 1980s costume pieces his mom collected. “They were really gaudy with rhinestones and metallic paint, but I could see there was an individual hand in them.” His own hand is evident in everything he creates: the collection for fall 2012 was inspired by the work of the photographer Steve Duncan, who specializes in what Borgo calls “the underground subterranean New York—abandoned sewer system, waterways, the way expansion joints join one pipe to another—feats of engineering that are really beautiful!” He says he would love to expand to fine metals and maybe gemstones, but at the moment his trademark geometrical shapes are still considered “costume”—albeit with a difference. “Each piece is hand made, hand polished and hand crafted. The style can be rock and roll, it can have a subcultural aspect, but at the same time the little details we add—the kind of closure we use, and other touches—are just like the ones you find in fine jewelry.”
One day about a decade ago, Flora Gill and Alexa Adams, school chums from Parsons The New School for Design, sat down and showed each other their sketches over bubble tea, and just like that, a business was born. “It’s nice to have someone you trust to work with. We’re both collaborative people,” says Adams of their decision to form Ohne Titel—German for “without title.” “Alexis has a tailoring background, and I have a textile background, so we inspire each other,” Gill adds. The duo is known for their inventive knitwear and strong graphic patterns—their aim, they say, is to create a silhouette with textiles and techniques, something to suit the iconic women they imagine as their customers—people like the wildly eclectic nonogeniarn Iris Apfel and the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. Their inspirations are as far-flung as the women they idolize: they cite a 1968 Soviet film called The Color of Pomegranates for its use of tones and texture. Their references may be arcane, but they have all four feet on the ground when it comes to building their company. (In Adams’ case, the feet are today clad in a pair of extraordinary feathery sandals from their own line). Sunglasses launch next spring, and they say they’d love to do menswear and swimsuits. Whatever they embark upon, Gill insists, “There’s a timeless appeal to the pieces that’s part of their value. Fashion is really about individuality.” But they’re still green enough to almost swoon when they see a stranger wearing one of their designs: “It’s like your children out in the world!” Adams exclaims.