Bonnie Cashin born September 28, 1908 is considered one of the most significant pioneers of designer ready-to-wear, more commonly called sportswear, in America. Among the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful designers of the 20th century, Cashin was revered for her intellectual, artistic, and independent approach to fashion. Treating clothing as collage or kinetic art, she sculpted designs from luxurious organic materials including leather and mohair, both of which she first championed as appropriate for high-end fashion, as well as tweed, cashmere, and wool jersey. She initiated the use of industrial hardware on clothing and accessories, most famously with the brass toggle that she incorporated into her handbag designs for Coach, where she became founding designer in 1962.
Favoring timeless shapes from the history of world clothing, her staple silhouettes included ponchos, tunics, Noh coats and kimonos, all of which allowed for ease of movement and manufacture. Cashin is also credited with introducing the concept of layering to fashion.
One might say that Bonnie Cashin was born to design. Her father, Carl, was a photographer and inventor; her mother Eunice a dressmaker. Born in Fresno, California in 1908, as a young child Bonnie played with her mother’s fabric scraps and drafted clothing illustrations. Eunice fiercely encouraged her daughter’s creativity, and she would prove to be a lifelong mentor and design partner.
In 1950, Cashin received the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award and Coty Fashion Critic’s Award for her first “return collection”. Displeased, however, with her manufacturer’s control over her creativity and frustrated with designing only coats and suits, she began working with multiple manufacturers to design a range of clothing at different price points. This enabled her to create complete wardrobes for modern living. In the 1950s, her prices ranged from $14.95 for a plastic raincoat to $2,000 for a fur kimono. At the time, it was unheard of for any designer to work for a variety of firms in so many different sectors of the business.
In 1953, Cashin teamed with leather importer Philip Sills and pioneered the use of leather for high fashion. Designing for her globetrotting lifestyle, she developed “layered” outfits, inspired by traditional Chinese dress, with the objective of creating a flexible wardrobe for modern nomads, whether a day’s travel was from country to country or city to suburb.
In 1962, with Miles and Lillian Cahn, wholesale manufacturers of men’s wallets, she launched Coach as a women’s handbag and accessory firm. Her designer cachet and her inimitable aesthetic kept her in constant demand. She designed for companies ranging including American Airlines, Samsonite, Bergdorf Goodman, White Stag, and Hermès; she was the first American designer to have a boutique in Liberty’s of London.
Without licensing her name, Cashin also designed knitwear, gloves, totes, at-home gowns and robes, raincoats, umbrellas, hats and furs. Among many other honors she received the Coty Award (the precursor to the CFDA Award) five times, entering their Hall of Fame in 1972. Bonnie Cashin retired from design in 1985 and devoted herself to painting and philanthropy.
She had always been known among friends and colleagues for her generosity, and had long demonstrated her commitment to nurturing a new generation of innovative thinkers. To that end, she established a scholarship fund in her mother’s memory at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and an arts-focused lecture series in her uncle’s name at California Institute of Technology. In 1981, she started the Innovative Design Fund, a New York City nonprofit created to support educational and cultural institutions that promote creative thinking in design arts and encourage dialogue with creative minds in diverse disciplines. In 1988, the Innovative Design Fund was moved to The New York Community Trust. When she died on February 3, 2000, she left her estate to charity, and her executors created the Bonnie Cashin Fund in The New York Community Trust, “to be used for grants for educational, cultural, charitable, or scientific purposes, including libraries, museums, and schools, or for the rehabilitation and training of the poor and homeless, or for advanced scientific research.”