Clad in a flowing maxi-dress, sheer cardigan, bejeweled necklace (of her own design) and towering platform heels, Stephanie Lake positively glides through her Minnetonka home — despite the fact that her two excitable pug dogs and 2-year-old daughter, Odette, are constantly underfoot. With the recent publishing of her Rizzoli book "Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It," the house is bustling with more activity than ever.

The book, the first to be written about the highly influential American fashion designer, is an intimate, comprehensive overview featuring never-before-seen images from Cashin's personal collection and a foreword by designer Jonathan Adler. Glowing reviews from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the New York Journal of Books have followed.

Little known outside of fashion circles, Cashin was the original designer behind Coach's women's accessories, defining the brand's style and sensibility. But she was much more. Women's Wear Daily noted her "lasting influence on American sportswear," while i-D magazine has called her "one of fashion's greatest inventors and iconoclasts."

Lake is a jewelry designer with a doctorate in design. She and Cashin became unlikely friends in the late 1990s while Lake was a graduate student and research consultant for Sotheby's auction house in New York. It all began with a turquoise leather jacket designed by Cashin, which Lake was tasked to research. She called Cashin, then in her late 80s.

When the pair met, "we just clicked," Lake said. "Even though she was 60-odd years older than me, we were like sisters. She recognized something in me, and I listened to her."

When she realized no one had ever written a book on Cashin, Lake told the designer: " 'I want to redress the historical neglect of your career.' She sort of chuckled and said, 'That will take you years.' I didn't realize at the time that it would be a lifetime project," said Lake.

 

Nor did she realize that Cashin, upon her death in 2000, would leave her complete archive, as well as everything from her apartment, to Lake. While Lake's home is not a shrine to Cashin, you can't go more than a few steps without seeing something created or collected by the designer — an abstract self-portrait, sketches from her 1950s showroom, a sketch of a 1940s film costume.

Bonnie's story

For her dissertation, Lake chronicled the designer's career, beginning in the 1920s when a 16-year-old Cashin landed a job as costume designer for a troupe of showgirls under contract with West Coast impresarios Fanchon and Marco. In 1933, Fanchon and Marco took over the Roxy Theater in New York City, and Cashin became costume designer for the Roxyettes.

After attending one of their shows, Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow was so impressed that she arranged a job for Cashin at design house Adler & Adler in 1937. Soon, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to a secret team to design civilian defense uniforms for female workers in anticipation of World War II. In 1943, Cashin moved to Hollywood to design costumes for Twentieth Century-Fox.

In 1949, she returned to New York and opened her own studio, through which she was contracted by more than 40 companies such as Bergdorf Goodman, Liberty of London, Hermès and Coach. She worked with Coach as a designer from 1962 to 1974, incorporating the now iconic, horsebit-inspired hardware and brass toggle closures.

Throughout her career, she introduced designs that used rugged materials and utilitarian elements. Her fashion "firsts" include introducing leather to high fashion, popularizing the seasonless dress, using industrial hardware on clothing and accessories and coining the term "layering." Many of her jacket designs feature attached "purse pockets," and she is widely credited with introducing the first leather tote bag, modeled after a paper shopping bag. Her work is currently represented in more than 40 institutions — and her archive happens to reside in a Minnesota suburb.

The Minnesota connection

Cashin's Minnesota connection goes decades beyond her relationship with Lake. A retrospective of the designer was the first exhibition presented by the University of Minnesota's Goldstein Museum of Design in 1976. Her longtime companion Curtis Kellar was a notable graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School and the pair made frequent visits to the Twin Cities.

In 2003, Lake, then living in Los Angeles, was asked to curate another Cashin retrospective at the Goldstein, three years after Cashin's death.

"I said yes to it because my family was here, and that's when I called up Cory," Lake said of her now-husband, with whom she went to high school in Minnetonka. "I like to say that the turquoise coat is the reason I discovered Bonnie, and that Bonnie is the reason I married Cory. Our daughter is a direct line from that turquoise coat."

Lake is now embroiled in a legal battle for ownership of the trademark to Bonnie Cashin's name. For Lake, securing the trademark is vital to protecting Cashin's legacy.

If she is granted it, Lake intends to launch a Bonnie Cashin label, which would feature reissued designs and new pieces inspired by Cashin and interpreted by an appointed designer.

"We always circled back to the idea of legacy," said Lake of her conversations with Cashin. "We never talked explicitly about her being gone — we always just talked about future plans."

Lake offered a positive spin on the legal proceedings: "I spent decades fighting for her and now I have people fighting over her," she said, "so I succeeded in getting long overdue recognition for her career."

 

Jahna Peloquin is the style editor of Minnesota Monthly and a freelance writer and stylist in the Twin Cities.