Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs on Doing More Than Sexy Cutouts

Not that the cutouts aren't important, but the designers have come a long way since launching mid-recession five years ago.
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Not that the cutouts aren't important, but the designers have come a long way since launching mid-recession five years ago.
Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Whitney Museum of American Art

Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Whitney Museum of American Art

It was a hard sell. Crop tops and cutout dresses, in 2008, were an afterthought to the precipitating global economy. The stock market was the only thing losing its shirt — and not quite so stylishly. But Parsons alumni Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs, the duo behind Cushnie et Ochs, had a product they truly believed in. They stuck it out and listened to their customers, steadfast dedication trumping willful woes. “And now it’s caught on,” said Ochs, proudly standing in front of me Wednesday on the third floor of Bergdorf Goodman, where their resort 2015 collection is currently displayed. They were there to greet shoppers and promote their latest range of sexy dresses, just in time for the holidays.

As young designers, it's one thing to have your line sold at Bergdorf Goodman, but it's another for the retailer take you on in the midst of a recession, exactly when Cushnie et Ochs got its induction, in 2009. “We have our check from Bergdorf framed in the office,” said Cushnie, laughing. She continued, clarifying: “A photocopy of it because we did deposit it.”

Cushnie and Ochs have built their business on body-conscious silhouettes that stun on the runway. Their clothes, clearly, are meant to turn heads.

“It’s a very clean aesthetic,” explained Cushnie, “a woman who wants to be sexy, but at the same time wants to be elegant and timeless.” Her words set off a buzzer in my head, the one that winces at fashion-speak tropes like this. I ask if their clothes are designed for some women and not for others. “I mean, there are definitely some dresses that are for — maybe — a slightly younger customer compared to a slightly older customer,” said Cushnie. “Not every dress can be for every woman.”

Ochs, who was rather quiet until now, chimed in, authoritatively: “I think it speaks a lot to the collection that it touches a lot of ages and works on all levels. That’s the best thing: the more women who wear our clothes the better. It’s not so niche. I think people can think that our clothes are very niche but [we have] quite a large range. I know we’re known for dresses and cutouts but we do have separates and knits and swim, and I think more people are discovering it — they’re coming for the sexy cutouts and they’re discovering the other pieces, which is really great.” 

Listening to customers is one of the processes that have helped make the Cushnie et Ochs brand a global, marquee name. Said Ochs, “A lot of the business was built on feedback because I think a lot of it was customers discovering us. So, I think, retailers were growing with the customers as opposed to coming in and saying, ‘This is the direction that you need to go.’ We all grew together.”

Even with the all the recent growth, the designers manage to stay true to their roots and their love of elemental beauty with a tantalizing twist. There’s a real rigor to the clothes hanging on the racks today: spongy knit dresses in white with circular cutouts; straightforward neoprene shifts in cobalt blue; and, the Bergdorf Goodman holiday exclusive, a strapless black velvet dress. “With a nice thigh slit,” added Cushnie. “Just in case.”