Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs – Co-founders, Cushnie et Ochs
Tues June 19, 2012

Meeting Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs this Tuesday was a rare opportunity for designer-hopefuls to learn about how to break into the fashion industry. For many design majors out there, Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs are living the dream. When they graduated from Parsons, Michelle was designer of the year, and Carly runner-up. Being close friends with very similar aesthetics, the two make a great team and have a very promising future ahead of them. Already, they appeared twice in WWD, designed a dress for Michelle Obama, and won finalist at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award last year.

For Carly and Michelle, mentorship was a crucial element in their success. “We asked for so much help from Linda Fargo, who was one of the jury members at our thesis competition at Parsons” Michelle said. The pair started their business with an exclusive contract with Bergdorf Goodman, and is now considering expanding their collection into stores like Saks and Neiman Marcus. “We’d also really like the whole look,” Michelle said, “bags, shoes, accessories, everything! But we’re careful not to grow too fast, because growth can be incredibly dangerous if not managed correctly.”

Internships were also extremely important, “to really see the business side of things,” Carly said. During their years at Parsons, Carly interned at Donna Karan, Proenza Schouler, and Oscar de la Renta, while Michelle worked at Marc Jacobs and Isaac Mizrahi. “You really need to pay attention to all the little things you take for granted when you’re just studying design,” Michelle said. “And it was really good to already know the people who run the factories, so that we can continue that relationship when we need to produce for ourselves,” Carly said.

So how do they split the workload? With a small number of employees at their New York office, Michelle handles production and Carly deals with finance. PR is outsourced. Most of the design, however, is done after work and on the weekends. How do the two collaborate? “It’s really about open dialogue,” Carly said, “and removing your ego from the equation.” “But sometimes it’s just about editing,” Michelle said, “because there are always so many sketches and ideas!”

A look around the conference room illustrates the pair’s immense ability to mesh incongruous ideas into something new and unexpected. “Once, for a collection, I was thinking about ancient aliens while Carly was really into Marie Antoinette,” Michelle said, “so we just mixed the two ideas and made a new collection out of it.”

For many up-and-coming designers, the hardest thing about starting out is acclimating yourself to the business side of fashion. “There are certain mistakes you make, but sometimes, you need to make those mistakes,” Carly said. “But the business side of it is actually really interesting,” Michelle said, “the items you think are going to sell the best never do – it’s always something unexpected every season.” And unlike working for another company, when it’s your own company, “you just dive into it,” Carly said, “it’s a lot better when you’re doing it for yourself!” “And getting clothes out there and getting women to wear it – that’s really the most rewarding thing,” Michelle said.

So why New York? Although Carly has lived in both Paris and London, the team chose to start their company in New York. “New York really nurtures young talent better than any other city,” Carly said, “so it was a no-brainer for us.” Any last advice for future designers who want to be like you? “You really have to find something that’s missing out there, and then work hard. Believe in your project,” Carly said, “to do anything well you have to really love it.”

Key Lessons and Takeaways
• Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask for mentorship and advice from those who have succeeded. People are willing to help.
• Don’t be afraid to make some mistakes – everyone has to make them at some point.
• Design with colors and fabrics that have sold well in the past; buyer feedback is also crucial for to ensure wear-ability.
• Remember that your new collection will be hanging with your pieces from the last collection – so the new pieces must be transitional, or cousins of the pieces from the last collection.
• Quality always has to be up to par, or you’re not going to sell again.

*notes compliments of Maggie Jiang


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