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The New York Times: The Forgotten Designer Behind Some of Fashion's Biggest Trends

May 10 2016 – Stephanie Lake

The New York Times: The Forgotten Designer Behind Some of Fashion's Biggest Trends
The New York Times: The Forgotten Designer Behind Some of Fashion's Biggest Trends

Bonnie Cashin, in 1961, wearing one of her creations: a black-and-white tweed cape with leather trim typical of her designs. CreditBill Aller/The New York Times

As the leather goods and apparel company Coach celebrates its 75th anniversary this year with an ad campaign focused on its heritage, a battle has been going on in the United States Patent and Trademark Office for the rights to the name of perhaps its best-known designer, Bonnie Cashin.

Call it a tempest in a bucket bag.

For anyone under 40, Cashin’s name doesn’t exactly resonate, though some fashion scholars go so far as to credit her with inventing American sportswear.

The designer, who died in 2000 (Cashin maintained that she was born in 1915, though the census for 1910 puts her birth year at “abt 1908”), left a legacy of hard-working ponchos and wizardly “carriables,” a.k.a. handbags.

Stephanie Lake, a protégé of Cashin’s who owns her vast personal design archive and is the author of a recent monograph, “Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It,” filed an application in the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2012 to obtain the Cashin trademark, which had never been registered. It was approved by the trademark office the next year, pending opposition.

Bonnie Cashin for Coach, 1962-1967. CreditStephanie Lake Collection

This opposition has come partly from Coach, whose original parent company, Gail Leather Products, hired Cashin in 1962 as Coach’s first designer. Coach has since grown into a behemoth with net sales of $954 million in the last reported quarter, but it was not Cashin’s only client. She also designed for Hermès, Ballantyne and Aquascutum, among dozens of other firms, as well as under her own label.

Ms. Lake, 41, a jewelry designer based in Minnetonka, Minn., says she notices Cashin’s impact, unattributed, everywhere. “Everyone from Miu Miu to Rachel Zoe has something in their collections that is specifically Bonnie,” she said in a recent interview.

Isaac Mizrahi, who has explicit affinities with Cashin, acknowledged that “oh my God, yes, she influenced me profoundly.”

Cashin also won the praise of her contemporaries, including those with alien aesthetic sympathies. “You are the most original and creative talent we have,” Norman Norell, who dressed ladies who lunch, said in a telegram to her in 1965. She is often cited not just for creating the concept of layering, but for coining the term, as well as for her pioneering use of leather, mohair and hardware. The brass turnlocks that kept the top of her 1940s convertible down became the innocent detail that has sold a zillion handbags for Coach. The clasp at the end of a dog leash found its way not only onto baguettes and feedbags, but also to the waistband of a fuzzy ankle-grazing blanket skirt, Cashin’s answer to the hostess’s need for mobility. D-rings below the clasps could be attached, hitching the skirt so madame could pass the canapés.

The matter of rights to her name has been complicated by the trustees of the Bonnie Cashin Foundation, which has joined Coach as the opposition in the trademark office filings. Ms. Lake was creative director of the foundation until 2012. She said the end of her term was triggered by a change in trustees, to Lucia Kellar and David Blum.

“Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It”, by Stephanie Lake.

L. Donald Prutzman, the lawyer for Ms. Kellar and Mr. Blum, and Victor Luis, chief executive of Coach, declined to comment.

Fashion generates disciples, but rarely ones as devoted as Ms. Lake. She can tell you the value of Cashin’s first contract with Coach ($2,500 for two collections) and the color of the Nelson Marshmallow sofa in her studio (yellow).

Were Ms. Lake to prevail, she said Isabel Toledo would be among the first designers she would call to reinvigorate the Cashin brand, observing that she shares the founder’s “fascination with transforming geometric, even architectural forms into kinetic art.” Ms. Lake is also weighing re-editions, in the manner of Cashin’s fellow modernists Ray and Charles Eames.

But it is worth noting that a little reverence goes a long way when exhuming a fashion idol. Successful revivals usually have an element of blasphemy, as with Chanel, universally held up as a house that did it right.

Mr. Mizrahi had no trouble envisioning himself as Cashin’s successor, saying that “the name has bearing only if pushed to an edge that matters.” Unaware of Ms. Lake’s dispute, he said it would be “supersmart for Coach to launch a Cashin module, but not just things she did. It could be Coach’s ‘black label,’” he said, employing the term for a high-end collection within a brand.

A Bonnie Cashin ensemble, mid-1970s.CreditStephanie Lake Collection

Ms. Lake tends to romanticize Cashin’s years with Coach as a love fest with the company’s owners, Lillian and Miles Cahn. Cashin “designed some very expensive bags,” Mr. Cahn told The New Yorker, “and they didn’t really sell.”

Reed Krakoff, who stepped down as Coach’s designer in 2013 after 17 years, said that “from Day 1 we looked at Cashin’s work. Many times we reissued her bags, knitwear, outerwear and recreated product from her history.” In 2011, Coach appears to have sought to formalize its claim to the Cashin name by licensing it t according to Ms. Lake’s lawyer, Kyle Peterson, the license was never the foundation’s to issue, as it did not hold the trademark. This may explain why Stuart Vevers, who replaced Mr. Krakoff, has thus far left Cashin out of the marketing hoopla and product introductions attached to Coach’s current anniversary.

In any case, one has to dig pretty deep on the Coach website to find a mention of her. The turnlock on the Dinky bag is attributed to Cashin but not the Duffle, which is described in a Coach filing in support of its challenge as a “brand anchor” “introduced” “under Cashin’s name” and on the website simply as “quite possibly the most iconic Coach silhouette of all time.”

Were all the legal latches and leashes unlocked, could Bonnie Cashin re-emerge as a stand-alone brand? “It’s the million-dollar question,” Mr. Krakoff said. “My sense is that there is not a whole lot of recognition outside the industry. It doesn’t mean there couldn’t be over time. It all depends on who is doing the rediscovering.”