In Conversation with Carly Cushnie
I was lucky enough to cross paths with the remarkable Carly Cushnie last fall when we spoke on a panel together and, as fellow entrepreneurs, we fell into easy conversation which led to a wonderful friendship. Even before we met, I was well-aware of her fashion brand, which icons like Beyoncé and Michelle Obama proudly wore. But never have I been more amazed by her than over the course of this year. In the spring, she gave birth to her second daughter (one year after welcoming her first) amidst the descent of the pandemic. Only months later, she was forced to navigate the difficult decision to close her eponymous label, Cushnie. Grace and fortitude are two words that come to mind when I think of Carly. Her journey has already been such an inspiring one, and I can’t wait to see what this new beginning will bring. In a recent public letter she wrote: “The desire to set an example for young women of color has always been a driving force in my career, and I am confident and hopeful that the distance I have traveled will help to pave the way for the next generation of talent. As one of the few Black female designers to achieve this level of success, I am both humbled and empowered by the undeniable mark that I have made.” Undeniable indeed.
It was a treat to catch up with Carly at this moment to talk about motherhood, beauty rituals, and taking some time to catch her breath. Thank you for being here with us and I hope you get as much from our conversation as I did.
Thank you so much for taking this time! To start, would you mind taking us back a bit? I’d love to hear the story of what led you to start your own label?
Well, it was always something that I had envisioned, but I hadn't really mapped out exactly how I was going to do it. It all happened quite organically and naturally, and then it just kept growing from there. I went to Parsons and studied fashion design and I interned at some great fashion houses. I was at Donna Karan, Proenza Schouler and Oscar de la Renta, and I learned so much being there and seeing the inner workings of these different businesses. They were all very different in the way they operated, especially Proenza, which at the time was super small and had this little studio in Chinatown. Then going to Oscar de la Renta, they had a full atelier and two floors in a building on Seventh Avenue. I ended up partnering with a friend from school at the time and out of blissful naivete, we started a label.
I know how that works.
I think sometimes when you're young, you think you can do anything, which is a blessing at times. You just don't look as far down the road, thinking about what happens if this or that doesn't work out, or over-analyze as much.
Were there certain mile markers along the journey that really stood out?
Obviously there were so many moments that have meant a lot to me, especially dressing Michelle Obama, which was amazing. She called me out onstage during her book tour when the host asked her about her outfit and I just said, "Oh. My. God."
That is a huge moment. She is just such a shining light of humanity. The highs and lows of entrepreneurship are no joke. What parts are you happy to not be dealing with right now and what do you miss?
I started my business because I love to design. Starting a new collection every season was the highlight of my job, and then when the collection finally comes together on the runway it’s the most exhilarating feeling. But the demands on creatives in the fashion industry are unrelenting and the amount of product we put out each year is insane. So as much I dearly miss creating for my customers right now, I don’t miss the grueling schedule and the endless need for newness 24/7.
I am not going to ask you what is next, but I would love to know how you are finding your way to a place of reflection, perspective, gratitude and/or learning after what you have gone through?
Right now I’m taking some time away with my family. It’s great to spend so much time with my girls and be surrounded by nature. Living in New York City you forget sometimes how therapeutic nature can be and how much your body craves it. I'm also using this time to get some head space and perspective, plan my next moves, evaluate where I am now and what I want to achieve going forward. The world, the fashion industry, and I myself, are all in a very different place compared to when I started my business. I've learned so much over the last 12 years, and now with the experience of one business behind me, and as a mother of two, my outlook and what drives me have changed considerably. I still love design and I love to create and I will be back at it shortly. I'm just processing it all.
Just curious, do you remember how you first discovered Vintner's Daughter? Was it when we first met?
I'd heard of the brand before but I had never tried it. Then we met at In Good Company when we were both speakers and I just loved your story and everything about your brand. I was amazed at how painstakingly long it takes to make each bottle and how much love goes into it. I thought the level of integrity of everything you do was just incredible. I was so excited to meet you and try Active Botanical Serum, which was everything that you said it was, and more. So rarely do I try something new that I really, really love and can see a noticeable difference, so when I started using it I was floored. I've also been pregnant for what feels like forever, so my hormones have been up and down. I started using your Serum while I was pregnant with my second child and I noticed a big difference in my skin from when I was pregnant with my first child. As soon as I gave birth, my skin broke out. But when I got home and I went back to my routine it cleared up in just a couple of days, and I was like, "Wow. I'm never, ever not using this."
Isn’t it amazing how it works like that?
I couldn't believe it. Even my mother has been complimenting me lately saying how amazing my skin looks. Anyone who tells me my skin looks amazing, I always say, "Hands down, if there's one thing I'm going to recommend, it's Vintner's Daughter."
That’s incredible and thank you! Speaking of skin and beauty and becoming a mom, how has your approach to beauty, however you define it, changed over the years?
In terms of beauty, over time I've become really focused on my skin. It's been more about my skin care and less about makeup, whereas when I was younger, I owned a lot more makeup. Now I would rather my skin just look great so I only need the odd thing here and there. I don't want to be wearing a face full of makeup, especially given that I'm playing with my kids and they're all over my face. So for me it was really about getting my skin right, using clean products as much as possible and getting to a place where I felt confident enough to be out without a full face of makeup.
That's so surprising to me because your skin's gorgeous.
Thank you. Well, that's thanks to you.
I'll take a little bit of credit, but I think genetics probably have a lot to do with it too.
My mom has fantastic skin, but she does put the work in. I have found that if you put the work in, you do reap the rewards, and I’ve become more conscious about wearing SPF every day or exfoliating when I need to. At one point I had cystic acne and I've had the odd breakouts here and there with hormonal changes and pregnancies, so I've had my fair share of skin issues. I really wanted to get to a point where my skin just looked really good without having to cover it up because that should not be the point.
Besides skincare, are there any other beauty rituals that you swear by, like food or exercise or meditation?
I love green juices or celery juice, or I'll make a green smoothie with collagen. I try and do that as much as possible throughout the week, which is also just part of an overall effort to create a good habit. My eldest daughter, who is 18 months, loves green juice too and gets excited when I make a green smoothie. I like that she's 18 months and I can get her to drink spinach, so I try to keep that up so she also learns the importance of that.
Pre-pandemic, I loved to exercise but I haven't been exercising as much, also because now I have two kids. I used to love going to SLT class, which was one of my favorites. We did get a Peloton, which has been helpful just to get in a workout for 20 minutes. I would love to say that I meditate, but I can't find the time right now. When both kids are finally asleep I just collapse in a pile.
I always try to remind myself that meditation doesn’t have to be sitting on the floor with your legs crossed and your eyes at just the right angle. Your meditation can be sitting there feeding your child. There's no right or wrong. This is definitely the time to have compassion and love for yourself and know that you're managing it all as best you can right now.
Absolutely. Two kids is definitely a juggle. I know you know all about it.
Is there any bit of wisdom you would tell your 20-year-old self?
I would definitely tell her to trust her gut and follow her instincts, because the times when I've gone against my gut it has never worked out. Also, I would tell myself not to worry about what other people think and just do what is best for you.
That's good for every age. Now for some last, quick questions. What's something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Surprised to learn about me? I guess that I can't drive and I don't have a driver's license.
Oh my gosh. That's a good one. What’s your dream holiday destination?
I'd like to go to Greece. I'd like to go on safari in Africa. And I would love to go to Japan for the first time.
What are some of your most kind of beloved and cherished things?
Most of my beloved and cherished things are jewelry pieces. I have my daughters’ first initials on a necklace that I wear every day, and I have this beautiful ring that my best friend gave me for my wedding that used to be her mother's, so that is a very cherished something of mine. I also have the little jumpsuit that my mom was wearing the night she met my father.
I’d love to know where you look for inspiration.
Anywhere, really. A lot of art and architecture because my aesthetic is very clean and very much about the body and creating beautiful lines, shapes and silhouettes. In addition to that, it's often been a movie or a travel destination or a combination of things that come together as I’m thinking about a certain time period or historical figure. Inspiration can just jump off from a single image, like a painting that inspires the colors of a collection.
That's so interesting and something I’m always curious about. Do you have a favorite charity or non-profit organization?
I recently became a founding member of an organization called RAISEfashion. It’s a non-profit that offers pro bono mentor services to black-owned businesses and individuals in fashion. We're doing some work with Harlem's Fashion Row and working with some of their ICON 360 applicants. It's literally just started but we have an amazing roster of volunteers across the industry who offered to lend their expertise to mentor individuals by offering career advice. For business owners, we ask them to identify the areas of the business that they feel they need help with and we pair them with an appropriate mentor for that part of the business. It’s something I'm really excited about.
Congratulations! Okay, last question, which might be my favorite question by the way because I just love to hear what people say. If you could have anyone's singing voice, who would it be?
You know who's got an amazing voice who I saw live is Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes. Her voice is just insane.