The Mad Genius of the Incomparable Bonnie Cashin: The Gift that Keeps on Giving!

February 1994 — Fashion designer Bonnie Cashin – also known as the mother of American sportswear for her “dog leash” skirts, ponchos, and roomy turtlenecks – sits in her studio among paints, sketches, and photographs. — Image by © Alen MacWeeney/CORBIS

There is so little in fashion that is original, and Bonnie Cashin (ca. 1908 – 2000) was a true original. I continue to be in awe of her incredible talent and her unparalleled contributions and was fortunate to have met her and see her at work in her extraordinary UN Plaza apartment/studio when I was a young fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar in the ’70s.

 

Among her inspired ideas: referencing ‘humble’ work clothes and using timeless shapes from the history of the world (military uniforms, togas, kimonos, ponchos, tunics, Noh coats). Inventive layering, mixing fabrics and textures (such as leather with tweed or mohair, and suede with canvas. The employment of new and exciting industrial-like metal closures instead of traditional buttons and zippers: dog leash clasps, brass turn locks and toggles (inspired by the ones that closed the top of her convertible). Handbags with double entries (when she worked at Coach, 1960 – 1975, she revolutionized the handbag); and “problem-solving” garments with multiple uses.

Then there were the coats with built-in coin purses and “pocketbook” pockets with latch closures. Her use of pockets, a signature, were often so pronounced (they were made for carrying books around), they obliterated the need for carrying a handbag, freeing your arms and keeping you unencumbered: the essence of modern.

She honestly thought outside the box. Everywhere I look, I see bits and pieces of Bonnie. Her work was highly influential but now seems so commonplace. Is it any wonder she has been a reference point for so many designers?

 

Decades ago, Bill Cunningham declared, “Bonnie Cashin should be immortalized by a national monument.” 

 

Dr. Stephanie Lake is on a mission to change that. She wants the world to recognize Bonnie’s work and for Bonnie to get her due credit. If anyone has the credentials and the background to illustrate how influential and relevant Bonnie’s work continues to be, and to create more awareness and appreciation for her unrivaled legacy, it is Dr. Lake who is only the 5th person to hold a Ph.D. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, the foremost Bonnie Cashin scholar in the world, AND heir to and owner Bonnie Cashin’s personal archive, encompassing garments and accessories from the 1920s to the 1980s. She also designs her own line of extraordinary jewelry (www.stephanielakedesign.com). She and her husband Cory Lake reside in Minneapolis with their 5-year-old daughter Odette Elizabeth.

 

Hubert de Givenchy said, “She has style. She is quite different from the others. I think Miss Cashin is one of the greatest designers in the world”

We initially met in 2016 when she was in New York for a book signing at Rizzoli for her 290-page hardcover monograph, “Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It,” Rizzoli New York (the forward is written by Jonathan Adler). If you haven’t read it, you should! It’s truly inspirational, and a must-read for anyone interested in fashion and great design. I promise you won’t put it down and you will want to keep reading and rereading it. Not only is it filled with eye-catching color and black and white photographs and sketches of Bonnie’s remarkable, modern designs (I want it all), it filled with Dr. Lake’s marvelously informative narrative, and Bonnie’s memorable quotes. Dr. Lake is currently working on another book, the ABC’s of Bonnie Cashin.

I interviewed Dr. Lake over the weekend (by phone) a few days after an article appeared in WWD about her plans for a Bonnie Cashin documentary, and other projects in the works (including opening a corporate partnership). She was very forthright about the state of fashion and Bonnie Cashin’s place in American fashion, American culture, and fashion history. And she is so articulate and animated; you could literally feel the love, devotion, admiration, respect, and awe she feels about her subject. As she observed: “Bonnie is everywhere. She was a creative pioneer of truly modern clothes. It’s always a jaw-dropping moment to see the enormity of her influence in what we all wear. Her influence in fashion is unrivaled, as is the lack of awareness regarding the enormity of her contributions to that industry and American design as a whole. That is my role; to secure her place.”

 

Norman Norell once sent a telegram to Bonnie Cashin saying “You are the most original and creative talent we have.

“She is kind of a secret weapon for so many houses because they don’t know who she was (nor does an entire generation). That’s what I want to change. Clearly, we are in an era of referential fashion and Bonnie is such a great part of it. So much of what she created is in the mainstream of contemporary fashion. She deserves credit. The shaming aspect is perhaps inevitable, but it is not of great interest to me. I shy away from finger pointing, preferring to focus on her work, not on the designers copying her. That’s always a challenge with the editorial coverage that comes from this. It’s immediately about criticizing the designers who copied her instead of celebrating how relevant and inspiring her work is and how many revere her and how many devotees she has.”

 

Left: Bonnie Cashin left; Right: Raf Simons for Calvin Klein

“I started cashincopy on Instagram about 2 ½ years ago as a way to honor Bonnie’s unique legacy and trace her influence in today’s world. It was right after Raf Simons, in his first collection for Calvin Klein, appropriated her 1970’s orange cape with big zippers line for line. Diet Prada was all over it, and it became a big thing.”

 

Simon Doonan called her “A titaness of American fashion – a fascinating broad with more style and invention in her little finger than most of today’s designers have in their entire bodies!”

“JW Anderson did it for fall 2019 with a Bonnie Cashin cape from 1949. And it wasn’t the first time. For spring 2018, he showed a jersey and leather balloon sleeve dress from the mid-’70s that I wore and is hanging my closet. I have the only example of it in the world, it’s in my book, and it went into his collection in 5 iterations. After WWD reached out, Jonathan said backstage that he has always been inspired by postmodern design, and by Bonnie Cashin but that was solely the result of WWD asking. But I’m glad he said something. When it happened with Raf at Calvin Klein, there was no comment.” #5

 

Dr. Stephanie Lake and Marilyn Kirschner wearing Bonnie Cashin

“When her work is the source of design, and she is not recognized, it is a lost opportunity. If she is THAT inspirational and you are copying line for line, PLEASE PLEASE give her credit! It should always be a priority to acknowledge and honor pioneers in any field of endeavor, particularly a female visionary like Bonnie, whose work has been central to fashion for seventy years. The number of designers and brands that converge on her oeuvre for inspiration is astounding, and this has been the case for generations.”

“It’s a missed opportunity. Why not say, ‘’Yes, I’m so inspired by her I wanted to create this garment”? Just PLEASE give her credit. In Bonnie’s era (the 50’s) there were knockoffs, but they were done at a lower price range and were obviously done as knock-offs. That is not the era we are in now. There is a major conversation going on about copying, about creative inertia in fashion and a lot of things are spiraling in a lot of negative ways.”

 

W Magazine called Bonnie Cashin “The most influential designer you’ve never heard of.”

“So I want to use Bonnie as an example; holding up the standards of what is important in American fashion and American design and what the possibilities are about being a truly creative, generative designer and what one person can accomplish within the field. And I want to reclaim her craftsmanship, her attention to detail, the personality, and the personal force that she was for fashion. She was so fiercely independent. Her designs reflected only her own interests and needs, and yet she created so much that is the foundation of American fashion, and she is not properly recognized for that.”

“And it goes beyond fashion. It’s about culture and where this country is, and I think she is an antidote to so much negativity. She had so much wisdom and was such a brilliant woman. She is the prism to re re-engage with the best of American design and American fashion, and I want to move forward with her philosophy and her accomplishments. The timing is right. It’s a marvelous time to do that through the documentary and with our plans for a destination for people to reclaim what is positive.”

“Corey and I have what is arguably THE most significant clothing archive of any designer that is in private hands. It is owned solely by us, and it goes beyond just the garments themselves. It is an unbelievable circumstance. It is THE fashion fairytale. It’s an autobiographical and biographical archive. Not your usual archive . The storytelling content alone, the quotes alone are enough to feed a million Instagram feeds. It’s an aesthetic, intellectual, philosophical wonderland that is centered in fashion, and to translate that into film and into social media, and into a physical space that is a national treasure is what Cory and I are focused on.”

 

Cory, Odette, Dr. Stephanie Lake

“The fact that Bonnie designed herself as my big sister said quite a lot about our relationship. One of Odette’s first words was “Bonnie”; she grew up with her like a great aunt. She is so much part of our daily lives. It was meant to be.”

“Cory and I are fully philanthropic, we are art collectors, and I am only the fifth decorative arts scholar in the world. We have a family foundation which the archive is part of. We have a pretty serious foundation within the arts and with American culture and because we have the archive we really want to move towards creating a space where the archive is on view and the content is there. We envision a place where we can have events, where we can have programming, where we can start to create a physical destination as well as an intellectual one. We are taking our first steps and just looking at properties now. In the Twin Cities, there is a robust design community. We have major corporate entities like Target, 3M, and Cardell and there is no lack of support for the arts for really innovative initiatives like this.”

“The film is of course, one big part of it and I have lined up incredible advisors: Executive producer and film financier Stephanie Dillon, filmmaker Liz Goldwyn whose “Pretty Things” appeared on HBO, and Christine Walker, chief executive officer of the John Waters-founded Provincetown International Film Festival, have agreed to help guide her.”

 

Gloria Vanderbilt wearing Bonnie Cashin photo by Richard Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar 1959

“We are talking with the team who is doing the Cardin documentary. Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan, the Toledos, Cameron Silver have said yes to the film, Gloria Vanderbilt who was a client won’t appear on the film but has given us some amazing quotes and pictures of her wearing Bonnie’s designs that appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. I also have quotes from Isaac Mizrahi who was always influenced by her and who has given his blessing for the film. Jeoffrey Banks is also participating. Everyone I have talked to said, “Let me know what to do to help” which is a testament to how important Bonnie is and how important this project is.”

“Moving forward now we are working to create this cultural space; taking the archive and transforming it into a cultural space to provide more access and create a destination. There’s the Foundation Pierre Bergé in Paris, which was established in 2002 as a way to conserve and promote Yves Saint Laurent’s work. There are places where this has been done for other artists of other types of art, but in America for fashion, there isn’t a private institute that resembles what Cory and I are building for Bonnie.”

Bonnie and I talked so much about these plans. I am in awe of how she articulated her vision fifty years ago, and how perfectly it fits within today’s fashion world. She saw the relevance of archives, the significance of history, and the desire for experience and storytelling of the highest order. Yet another way in which she was so ahead of her time.

“There are potential partners I want to start talking to. What I have to figure out is who is the most visionary. Who really sees Bonnie as the asset that she is? Is it through a cultural, corporate, or grant partnerships? Or all of the above. Who do I want to approach to direct the film and who do I want to create the look of that film and who do I approach to participate in the Cashin Institute and the physical space? And who is the best fit in terms of content and media exposure providing an audience for that? Minneapolis is interesting because of the wealth of cultural and corporate headquarters we have here. I think Tapestry which owns Coach and Kate Spade is interesting because they are trying to build this American group”.

“Bonnie’s legacy serves the industry and serves contemporary culture in such a meaningful way that it’s my responsibility to do everything that I can to serve her legacy best and to make an impact in the decorative art world and the fashion world. It’s an extraordinary honor, and a responsibility that I have”.

“Cory and I are young, and we are invested, and we are involved in the world around us and what we do to contribute to it. We want to create something visionary, significant, impactful, that is a legacy within fashion and for American culture, and for our own daughter. Bonnie is a national treasure, and she left her wonderland of an archive, her extraordinary legacy and her wishes in my hands. In revering her, there is only inexhaustible joy and inspiration.” See our earlier article on Bonnie: “Sex Goes With Everything”…. and More of Bonnie Cashin’s Observations on Life, Design, and Personal Style

 

Marilyn Kirschner

I AM A LONG TIME FASHION EDITOR WITH 45 YEARS PLUS EXPERIENCE. AS SENIOR MARKET EDITOR OF HARPER'S BAZAAR FOR 21 YEARS I MET AND WORKED WITH EVERY MAJOR FASHION DESIGNER IN THE WORLD AND COVERED ALL THE MAJOR COLLECTIONS (INCLUDING HAUTE COUTURE) IN NEW YORK, PARIS, MILAN, AND LONDON. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories. AS EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF LOOKONLINE, I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO USE MY TRAINED EYE, MY WRITING SKILLS, AND PHOTOGRAPHY.

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