Bonnie Cashin (September 28, 1908 – February 3, 2000) was an American designer, she is considered to be one of the pioneering designers of American sportswear. She created innovative, uncomplicated clothing that catered to modern, independent woman of the post-war era through to her retirement from the fashion world in 1985.
Bonnie Cashin was born on September 28, 1908 in Oakland, California to Carl Cashin, a photographer and inventor, and Eunice Cashin, a dressmaker. The family lived in several towns in northern California during Cashin's early years, and in each, her mother would open a custom dress shop. In a 1973 interview, Cashin explained her interest in fashion: "My mother was a dressmaker and before I could write I could sew."
During high school in Hollywood, Cashin was hired by a Los Angeles ballet and theatrical revue company, Fanchon and Marco, to help make costumes for its productions. After she graduated in 1925, Cashin became its full-time designer.
In 1934, Cashin moved with the ballet company to New York City to work at the Roxy Theater, where she created three costume changes per week for each of the theater's 24 dancers, known as the "Roxyettes." Owing to her deceivingly youthful appearance, Variety is reported to have described Cashin as "the youngest designer to ever hit Broadway."
In 1937, at the urging of Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, sportswear manufacturer Louis Adler offered her a job. She was hesitant to accept, stating, "The profit-conscious, business-like atmosphere of Seventh Avenue seemed very different to me from the atmosphere around the theater. I felt more at home with dancers, actors, artists, musicians, writers--people like that--than I did with most of the business men I met in the clothing industry."
While in New York, Cashin studied at the Art Students League of New York.
After the U.S. entered World War II, Cashin designed uniforms for women in the armed force.
In 1943, Cashin returned to Hollywood and costume design. In the early 1940s Cashin was married briefly to Disney illustrator and art director Robert Sterner. The marriage ended in divorce, and they had no children.
After producer William Perlberg recruited her, Cashin joined 20th Century Fox and created clothes for about sixty films including Laura (1944), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1946).
Cashin enjoyed the work in Hollywood, explaining: "I wasn't designing for fashion, but for characteristics, which is the way I like to design clothes for daily wear. I like to design clothes for a woman who plays a particular role in life, not simply to design clothes that follow a certain trend, or that express some new silhouette."
In 1949, Cashin returned to New York City. There, she designed the first sportswear collection with her name on the label for her previous employer, Adler and Adler.
In 1950, her introduction of her term an concept of "layering" led to winning both her first Coty Award as well as the Neiman Marcus Award, an unprecedented feat in the fashion world.
In 1952, she opened her own business, Bonnie Cashin Designs. Cashin was the first designer chosen for Patterns of The Times, American Designer Series, which was a monthly feature in The New York Times during the 1950s that made designer patterns available for home sewing.
Cashin was a rare female CEO, and her mother was her company's only other major stakeholder, with a one-percent stake. Up until her mother's death in 1963, the two lived in adjoining apartments in midtown Manhattan, where her mother sewed Cashin's samples for major manufacturers.
Cashin was famous for her witty and ingenious approaches to designing for mobility, including a dog leash skirt: a long wool skirt that could be instantly shortened for walking up stairs by latching a small brass ring sewn at the bottom to a small brass clasp sewn into the waistline. In an interview with National Public Radio, Cashin explained the origin of the skirt: "My studio, out in the country, in Briarcliff, in the old carriage house, had steps that went up to a second floor. And I was constantly holding my skirts going up. I entertained a lot. And I'd be running up stairs with a martini in my hand. And so I thought I'd better hitch my skirt permanently."
In 1962, Cashin was hired by Miles and Lillian Cahn as the first designer for Coach, a newly-formed women's accessory business. Coach was a division of their wholesale men's accessory company, Gail Leather Products, and internally, it was referred to as "the Bonnie Cashin account," as she was a contracted designer, never a Gail Leather or Coach employee. Her classic designs for Gail's Coach division during the early 1960s included the shopping bag tote, the bucket bag, shoulder bag and a clutch-style purse with a removable shoulder strap.
In 1964, Cashin introduced a brass turn lock/toggle fastening that was featured on her designs produced by the Cahns as well as on all garment and accessory collections produced by a range of manufacturers in the US and abroad, including Philip Sills, Meyers, Crescendoe-Superb, HBA, and D. Klein. Cashin designed two small collections for the Cahns each year to complement her garment designs for other manufacturers until 1974. In 1975, Meyers Manufacturing took over the production of her signature handbag designs.
Cashin designed for over thirty-five firms including Hermès and Ballantyne, always with her signature on the label. She also created the first-ever designer flight attendants’ uniforms for American Airlines.
In the 1970s, Cashin met Amy Vanderbilt's then-husband Curtis Kellar, who was head counsel for Mobil Oil. Follwing Vanderbilt's death, Cashin and Kellar began a romance that lasted until Cashin's death. They never married.
In 1972, Cashin founded The Knittery, which produced limited edition collections of coats and handmade Scottish sweaters. That year, she was inducted into the Coty American Fashion Critics Hall of Fame.
In 1979, she established the Innovative Design Fund, a nonprofit organization based in New York that gave up to $10,000 to designers with original ideas in home furnishings, textiles, and fashion so they could transform their sketches into marketable products.
Cashin died in Manhattan on February 3, 2000, due to complications from open-heart surgery.
Toward the end of her life, Cashin granted exclusive and unrestricted access to her personal design archive to design scholar Stephanie Lake, whom Cashin described as her "little sister".
The Bonnie Cashin Archive, the designer's personal design archive, is privately owned in its entirety by Dr. Stephanie Lake, who published a definitive monograph on the designer, Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find It in 2016 by Rizzoli.
In 2019 (as reported by Women's Wear Daily), Lake and her husband Cory opened the archive to collaborative partnerships. The Bonnie Cashin Archive and its projects have no affiliation with any Cashin trademarks registered in the decades since Cashin's death. Cashin herself never registered her name.
Bonnie Cashin's work is housed in over forty museums across the US and she is often cited for creating both the concept of layering clothing and for coining the term. The idea of layering came from time she spent in living near San Francisco's Chinatown as a young girl. She also pioneered the use of leather, mohair and hardware in her design. Inspired by the brass turnlocks that secured the top of her 1940s convertible, the hardware became a signature feature of all of her designs, including her Coach handbags.