How I Got to Camp…
I was having a really bad week, to say the least. I was directing my film Swerve, and everything was falling apart. I could not find my lead actress and I was running out of time. There was a woman at my job, where I was creating my film, who had a personal vendetta against me and would constantly cut me down at every chance she got. I ended up getting transferred, against my will, to another worksite.
I was sitting in my room crying again. I had to scrape myself off the floor to go to work the next day and start getting ready to film. While I was chilling at work, I received a notification, “Gigi Hadid would like to send you a message”. I automatically thought it was spam. I saw her page, she had over 40 million followers and a blue verification checkmark. I tapped on her story, there she was. She said my name, “The Harlem’s Fashion Row Scholarship recipient is SASHA YATES! I can’t wait to meet you!”
Wait, did Gigi Hadid just say my name? I was going to an over 2,000 dollar fashion camp in Florida. I started screaming uncontrollably and I called my mom. Then I called all my friends. My Instagram went crazy and I got 20 k views in a day. The next thing I knew I was planning on what I would wear and how I would carry myself while I was there. My outfits had to be perfect.
The week before I was flying out, I shot my film. I found my lead actress and we shot for 5 days straight.
I was exhausted on Saturday night planning my outfits. I honestly thought my bag was going to go over the 50-pound weight limit.
Sunday, June 23rd
I put it on the scale. It was so early in the morning at the Memphis airport. My bag was exactly 50 pounds. My mom laughed, “You’re so lucky!”. I got on the plane and landed in Tampa. I pulled up to IMG in Bradenton, Florida. It was such a random place. IMG was beautiful with the palm trees.
The first person I met was Jibran, who had been my travel coordinator. There was so much chaos. I didn’t know that IMG was for sports and that I would be coming to a sports camp. There were hundreds of people running around in jerseys with basketballs. I went to my dorm where I met my roommate. She was from LA. Her name was Aylin. We went to the cafeteria and I saw a girl sitting by herself. I welcomed her to sit with us. She told us she was from Panama and her name was Keythlin.
We went to the first meeting which was with Jeni Rose and David Cunningham. They are the modeling scouts for IMG. The meeting was in the field house that was across the campus. It was about a mile walk. IMG stands for International Management Group. Rose is based in Paris and runs IMG’s agency there. Cunningham runs the agency in New York. Cunningham is the founder of the fashion camp and 2019 was its third consecutive year. They told us who we would be meeting throughout the week and then we were released for dorm orientation.
We stood in the lobby of the dorm. There were fashion and sports girls. A lady came out and told us that there was a dress code at IMG. She said, “I only want to see 2 cheeks and those are the ones on your face, and no crop tops!” She added, “Oh and no thong bikinis at the pool and you have to wear a cover-up when you exit the pool. There are so many different religions and beliefs at IMG that we want to be respectful.”
A girl stated, “Well there goes all my outfits for the week.” I was so annoyed. Why is there a dress code at fashion camp? They should have told me this before I packed. Nobody abided by the rules throughout the week. Everyone still wore their crop tops and booty shorts.
Monday, June 24th
Christian Cowan and the American Dream
The first speaker we had was Christian Cowan. Every day we waited until they opened the doors to the room. People sat in long lines trying to get good seats. I wore a green sequin jumpsuit. It was inspired by his Powerpuff girl collection. The main colors used were green, pink, and blue representing the characters. His collection included sequins and feathers so I thought the jumpsuit was befitting. Ivan Bart, the president of IMG models interviewed Cowan. Cowan was wearing an all-black outfit from head to toe. His last name is pronounced COWan, not COan. Like moo moo, I’m a cow. I did not know that until he was introduced.
“It’s not about looking good for other people, it’s about looking good for yourself.”
The interview began with Bart introducing Cowan as a person who was raised during the age of the internet. Bart asked Cowan about a quote. Cowan stated previously, “If I wouldn’t click on it, there’s no point in making it.” Cowan agreed with his statement and said he had centered his career around the internet. Cowan stated how he grew up around the internet and TV. His career had been affected by the influence of both.
Bart continued to discuss that the internet is an easy outlet to determine the consumers’ reactions to products. Bart asked, “Do you find yourself, like when you design things, like looking at what the feedback is?”
Cowan responded, “Completely, so when I started designing I looked at what things did the best online, what things resonated with people.” Cowan believes, “…the internet is kind of everything…” In Cowan’s day in age, he never had to wait for publication to determine the success of his work, he could use the internet at his own will. He goes off of what makes people smile and laugh and that determines whether or not he is on the right track.
Bart asked next, “You’re a self-proclaimed feminist and you’re designing for the modern woman. Tell me who that is.”
Cowan answered, “The modern woman is someone who owns whoever she wants to be.” Cowan reminisced on his childhood and stated that he was raised around women who were powerful and owned and accepted every part of themselves unapologetically. Cowan stated, “It’s not about looking good for other people, it’s about looking good for yourself.” Cowan believes the modern woman should focus on herself and stop being a doormat for patriarchy and I love that about him. He continued to describe his mother as, “A super fabulous, Spanish lady.” He painted her as being a force to be reckoned with and that she makes whatever she wants to happen, happen. When he described his mother, it reminded me of mine. His mother is the inspiration for his work.
“The modern woman is someone who owns whoever she wants to be.”
Bart questioned Cowan on his decision of attending Central Saint Martins, a prestigious fashion school in London, England. Cowan went because “…all of my icons went there.” His icons include Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. It was the only school he applied to. He did something unique with his application. He got a tin can and put all of his paperwork in a spiral that rolled out and inside was a big fold-out paper. He described it as, “cheesy and lame,” but I thought it was brilliant. That uniqueness and creativity landed him in the university. He was under the misconception that the university would give him all the tools to become a designer, but he quickly learned that he would have to figure that out on his own. Like anything, he stated the university had its challenges he had to overcome. He stated, “You’ve got to make it happen yourself.” This resonated with me because it was true. Whatever it is in life, whether it be fashion or film, you have to do it for you.
“You’ve got to make it happen yourself.”
Bart alludes to the attention from celebrities like Cardi B and Lady Gaga Cowan got before he graduated college and how unusual that is for young designers. Cowan describes himself as, “an impatient person,” he stated that he almost got kicked out of the university several times for this trait. Cowan came from a world completely opposite from fashion so he desperately scrambled for the knowledge he had been deprived of. He got started by looking through magazines and combing through the internet, specifically, Instagram to find people in the industry. Cowan Dm’d stylists in search of a part of the action. Cowan began reaching out to a plethora of people and he still did not even know how to make clothes. But he knew what he wanted. Without a sewing machine, he glued together his outfits and put together what he described as, “a makeshift presentation”. His friends gathered and became his models and help. They helped him create a photoshoot that grabbed the attention of a famous drag queen in London named Dinah Lux.
She was friends with a UK magazine editor who Instagrammed some of the looks. Lady Gaga saw the look and he got a dm from her team two days later and then a week later she was wearing it. Bart asked where she wore the outfit to and Cowan did not know. He was invited by Gaga’s team to come to parties and events to meet her but he was in London studying and his education meant more to him. He was doing coursework. He wanted to learn everything he could then dive into the fashion industry. Bart inquired on how the outfit got to Gaga and Cowan said that her team sent him the FedEx details. Cowan did not have a box big enough to fit the hat so he just tapped boxes together.
Cowan transitioned from being in school full time to completing school and setting sights on America. Bart inquired Cowan on why he came to America. Cowan stated that American is one of the largest markets for fashion. He added that Asia is an equally large market for fashion, but he does not know the languages. Cowan believes London is congested with budding designers and New York was the place to be for him to stand out. Cowan described New York as the place for commercial designers and London as a place for young people. Cowan told his mom when he graduated, “I’m going to New York.” It seemed like his dreams of moving to New York were manifested through his dialogue with his mother. Bart asked if Cowan had ever made a mood board. Cowan has never made one, but he stated that he keeps posters and pictures all over his room and walls which are a constant source of inspiration. Bart suggested that Cowan should invest in making a mood board or at least writing down his intentions. A mood board is a poster with pictures, fabrics, and other items that can help one layout their intentions and goals for the future. We made them later that week. Bart believed when Cowan stated that he wanted to move to New York it was manifested into him actually moving to New York. Cowan defines himself as more of a list person. He creates lists that help him cultivate his dreams into reality. Cowan believes he is a visual person so he believes it is odd he has never created a mood board. Bart and Cowan both have different ways of organizing their dreams, but both ways are valid. There is no right way to do things, it is whatever way you like the best.
Bart asked next, “What was it like to get to America and establish yourself?”. Cowan responded, “If I sit and wait around until I work out a way to do this, it’s not going to happen. Because there’s always going to be another reason.” Cowan stated, “You just have to go for it and work it out when you’re doing it.” He added, “You’ll never know how to do it until you do it.” Cowan believes that there is no right time: “I just moved. I packed up some boxes of stuff. I borrowed 3,000 pounds from my mum… and I moved out and just started making it happen.” Cowan named Patti Wilson, an iconic stylist from Vogue Italia, who is one of his many idols. He harassed her at every party he could: “Please stall my show”. He said to refrain from “…pestering people to a point where you annoy them.” Cowan feels you have to hustle to get what you want.
“If I sit and wait around until I work out a way to do this, it’s not going to happen. Because there’s always going to be another reason.”
Bart asked, “So when was your first collection?”
Cowan responded, “My first collection was probably 4 or 5 months after I moved to New York.” Cowan commented on the collection,“This is such a bad collection, when I look back at it, oh my word, I really made whatever I could” His first fashion show got the attention of Kathy Horyn. Cowan says, “I had people like Kathy Horyn there who I had no idea how I managed to get there and I didn’t know who she was.” Cowan described Kathy, “Probably one of the most legendary journalists in fashion ever and I asked her who she was which is embarrassing.”
Bart asked next, “There is a lot of like A list celebrities that like wear your clothes and things like that, what’s your feeling about that connection as a young designer?” Cowan did not have an investor or a press release so he had to figure out how he could get the most press for the least amount of money possible. He began making sketches and sending them to celebrities and they could pay him to make clothes for their music videos or events. Then he would get exponential press. A word of advice for Cowan is, “Never be afraid to ask them to tag you” Cowan did Cardi B’s album cover and every time she tags him he gets 10,000 followers. The tags increase not only following but how much you can get paid for projects. Bart asked, “Of the 10,000 followers, how many say, I want that piece… Are there shoppable experiences through your followers?” Cowan responded that the fans of Cardi B and Lady Gaga cannot afford how the celebrities dress or even get to the clothes geographically. He had to find a way to bridge the gap from the high and middle-class consumers. Cowan started his merch business and a collaboration with V files to reach the consumers who can afford lower price points. He also added he has some much larger scale collaborations coming out in October that he could not give too many details about. He believes it is about having “different product categories,” that can cater to different customers. He added that most companies separate the categories and it ends up damaging their high-end line. Cowan keeps all of his levels in the same line. Cowan explained further, “You see the sweatsuits with the gowns. I think fashion is for everyone. I hate when they separate like the lower costs stuff out of the show. There’s people that deserve the magic of fashion week. I like to mix them all up.”
Bart asked next about how the new age and old age of fashion collide. In the old fashion world, a designer had to receive acceptance from critiques, get their work into retail stores, and get buyers. Bart questioned Cowan on what it is like being a modern-day designer, but still having to deal with the more traditional aspects of the industry. Bart asked, “How do you convince people you are a great designer and that the clothes will sell?”
Cowan said it was “super hard” he had to convince all of these old school buyers and editors the clothes would sell. He received criticism about only designing for high profile singers and how that would translate to the average woman. Cowan argued that he had only been designing for singers and that he had not had a chance to design for regular women. He added that he was never taught how to communicate with buyers in school so he had to talk to people and reach out to stylists on how to bridge the gap. He began to slowly break into both worlds by mixing his collection with high profile clothes and casual wear. Jeffrey Kalinsky, the owner of the Jeffery Boutique, was the first person to take a chance on Cowan and stock him.
Cowan said it takes time to build momentum for a brand. He believes it is especially hard because you are spending so much money in the first few years but not making that much and you have to make up the difference. Instagram helped him break even by designing for high profile people and collaborating with brands. Cowan had to learn the business models for most brands and then cultivate them to fit his personal brand. Stores have a larger budget for Resort and pre-fall clothes. He cannot afford to make four collections a year so now he makes a majority of the September show early and he is selling it in Paris right now so it will land in stores just after September. It is like he is doing four collections but it is only two.
Bart chimes in stating that resort is 70% of retail stores. I had to look up the meaning of resort. Resort is the midseason or preseason. It includes vacation and party clothes and it is the most profitable season. Cowan sells four times more resort clothing in his new marketing structure.
Bart continued asking Cowan how he does selling on Instagram. Cowan responded that compared to other brands like Fenty where it is makeup and consumers can just buy off the internet. Cowan says clothes are different because people want to try them on. He said his merch collection helped him eliminate some of the issues with consumers having to try everything on and he hopes to create an accessory line. He does not have the capital at the moment. He mitigated the issue with collaborations like Giuseppe. He created these fabulous heels with watches on them.
Bart questioned how Cowan feels about influencers. Cowan believes people will look at influencers and want to wear what they are wearing while with a celebrity, they just like the celebrity. Cowan prefers working with celebrities over influencers because they give him more press. Influencers work better for bigger brands because they are more willing to tag bigger brands. Celebrities will not tag huge brands unless they pay a lot of money, but as a small designer, they will tag Cowan. He states, “Influencers are for the show and celebrities are for outside of the show.” He believes influences make a bigger impact when they are invited to the fashion show where they will Instagram and get really excited about it. Outside of fashion week, he manufactures mostly for celebrities.
Bart discussed how there is always a melting pot of high profile people at Cowan’s shows. After the shows, Cowan is always busy hugging and kissing people. He described himself as, “emaciated, disgusting and sweaty, and that’s the time everyone wants to film and take pictures.”
The next question Bart asked was, “what is the latest you have been sewing before it hit the runway.” Cowan said, “During the Show!” According to Cowan, there is always a disaster and sometimes he has to rearrange his whole show to put one piece at the end because it is not finished yet. There was one incident where a zipper busted right before the model walked out and so he pretended like it was apart of the design. Cowan believes, “You’ve got to be a perfectionist and not at the same time.” Cowan assures that if you are over critical of yourself then you will scare yourself into not creating. You are your biggest enemy and Allie. Cowan felt as if most designers would have taken the busted seam dress off the runway, but it ended up being one of his favorite looks.
“You’ve got to be a perfectionist and not at the same time.”
Bart inquired on where Cowan’s muse and inspiration come from. Cowan believes his inspiration for his collections comes from the way he was raised. His collections stem from where he is in his life at the moment. His first few collections were inspired by his adolescence and the tendency to party and wanting to have a good time. These looks included sequins, feathers, and loud colors. Now, Cowan is transitioning to a more familial direction. He wants to add more of a backstory to the brand including his heritage. He says he is influenced by what is happening in his life now. He is being influenced by his own community, LGBTQ+, and the new climate of inclusivity and freedom to be who you want to be. He even had a collection with George Micheal’s song, “Freedom”, playing. The next collection is about his family, but that is all he can disclose at this time.
Bart moves onto Cowan’s family and their dynamic. Cowan is apart of a blended family of eleven children. Cowan is the youngest and spent most of his childhood alone. Cowan said he definitely had to carve out his own identity because it could easily be lost in a sea of eleven people. All his siblings went to boarding school or they moved away so he was left fully alone to his own devices. He described himself as, “a weird kid.” He said he was born “in the middle of nowhere” and that “there was no one like him.” He lived in his own world most of the time. He described his parents as super strict but that they would spoil him when it came to arts and crafts supplies. As a result, he became very creative. He lived on the internet and was obsessed with it. He started designing when he was 12. When he was 14, his mom bought him a 30 pounds or 14 Dollar red, sewing machine. He began making clothes on that machine. He would buy clothes from Primark, a store in the UK, and remake clothes. For reference, he compared Primark to whatever the cheapest clothing stores are in America including Ross or Walmart. In the UK they have TK Maxx instead of TJ Maxx, which I thought was quite interesting. Overall, Cowan could not think of the equivalent to Primark in the U.S. and he suggested that we all should visit.
Before he went to a fashion school, Bart asked Cowan what he was doing to further his career. He turned his home into a fashion house. Before Cowan knew how to sew, he would buy clothes and customize them. He would gather all his friends who enjoyed taking pictures or modeling and do photoshoots so by the time he applied to Saint Martins, he had a huge portfolio. The portfolio included sketches and paintings.
Bart asked, “Where do you see yourself 10 years from today?”
Cowan would like to design for a larger house. He believes it would be fun because they have big budgets. Cowan has big budget ideas but his brand operates on a low budget. He would like to also do more collaborations. He wants to scale his own brand larger as well. He would like to continue to make the brand more affordable. He also wants to do an accessory collection.
Bart asked how his home space affects him being a creative.
“You should never be like, ‘oh I’m done with it so now I can hang out and relax’ you should enjoy it so much that you want to do it the whole time.”
Cowan likes his office and his home to be the same thing. His office right now is two floors above where he lives. Before he moved, his office and living space were the same and he prefers it that way. He only changed the space to accommodate “relationships”. He feels that if the space is one, he will easily get absorbed into the work. Cowan asserts, “Living and breathing what you do is important and it will set you apart from anyone else.” Cowan states,“You should never be like, ‘oh i’m done with it so now I can hang out and relax’ you should enjoy it so much that you want to do it the whole time.” Bart believes it is very interesting how a creative lives. Cowan described his home, “There’s glitter everywhere by the way.”
“Living and breathing what you do is important and it will set you apart from anyone else.”
Bart asked how Cowan felt about being an openly gay man on the quickly approaching 50th anniversary of pride day and if he felt any responsibility as a role model.
Cowan believes he does have a responsibility being an openly gay man. He believes that many people live under an incorrect preconceived notion that being homosexual is accepted now. Cowan explained that there is so much more work to be done because there are so many parts of the world where it is not. He continued talking about members of the LGBTQ+ community being killed and that he does believe he has a huge responsibility. He says A, he has to help people and B, he has to advocate for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. and the U.K. so it stays the way it is. Cowan reiterates, “Things could always revert backwards… You can see it literally with many different cultures and civilizations things become very progressive and amazing and then they go straight back down again.” According to Cowan, “You always have to fight for people’s rights, whoever they are if its gay or trans or anything.”
“You always have to fight for people’s rights, whoever they are if it’s gay or trans or anything.”
Bart is proud of Cowan and encourages him to “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Bart asked, which side of you comes out more since he grew up in England but his mother is Spanish. Most of Cowan’s siblings are step-siblings and he has one genetic brother. His brother is the English sibling and he is the Spanish one. Cowan described himself as, “My mother’s child.” He said his flair and passion comes from the Spanish side. His full name is Christian Cowan San Luis and he shortened the San Luis because it is harder to pronounce.
Bart asked Cowan for “A soundbite of advice” for budding creatives.
“There’s never one big break,” said Cowan. Cowan discussed the incident with Lady Gaga and how after that everyone believed he made it, but he said that was not the case: “You think you’re going to have that moment and things are gonna snowball from there, they’re realistically not.” Cowan continued, “You can have a massive moment and it’s just done. And you can see that for so many industries.” Cowan explained further, “It’s just about like thousands of small breaks…You have to keep hustling for the next thing and the next thing.”Cowan gave words of advice, “So never get disheartened if things don’t come about…80% of the things we start working on fall through.” Cowan continued, “Have faith in what you do, no matter what it is…It’s about how many times you can get knocked down and get back up again.”
“There’s never one big break,”
“We live in a world now where everybody wants to be perfect and everybody wants to be perceived as perfect.”
Bart quoted, “In order to appreciate the highest mountain top, you have to be in the valley.” He added, “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.” Bart reflected on the world, “We live in a world now where everybody wants to be perfect and everybody wants to be perceived as perfect.” Bart believes you have to “Pick yourself up, move through it, and get to the other side.”
Cowan quoted, “My greatest failures are my greatest lessons”
“My greatest failures are my greatest lessons”
Cowan warned, “Protect yourself.” He says, “It’s easy when you’re so eager to do whatever you’re doing to just give everything for free and you have to at first for a while but then there’s going to be a state where you need to start applying some protection.” Cowan says, “Do not show your designs to a big fashion house without a contract” He advised us to not work with someone without being paid upfront. “I won’t be doing that again,” Cowan reminisced.
“Have faith in what you do, no matter what it is. ”
Bart asked, “What could we expect from you in the coming year?”
Before revealing his plans Cowan stated, “I’m the most forgetful person, hence the list, I don’t remember much.” Cowan will be releasing sunglasses worldwide. He is also launching a high street fashion line. After that, he will be releasing a jewelry line. Next is a partnership with a famous singer. Lastly, he is doing a lot more commercial and diverse collections.
Q & A
I was the first question. Cowan complimented me on my outfit and I nearly died. I told him I had been a fan since his Powerpuff collection. Ever so often a designer does the Powerpuff collection. I loved how the Jeremy Scott collection a few years ago juxtaposed his collection this year. I found out about Cowan through the collection and had been following him ever since. So when I found out he was coming to fashion camp I nearly died. I asked, “What’s your why? Why are you so passionate about designing, what keeps you going?”
Cowan answered, “I’ve chosen something and I’m dedicated to it” He described his work, “Fashion is art you can live in and you can take on a persona and be whatever you want to be.” Cowan quoted RuPaul, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.” Cowan says that every day what we wear reflects us and who we want to be. “I can design things that allow people to be their best and fullest self,” Cowan said. Cowan continued,“ I always see women trying on the clothes and smiling and having a good time. I’m like, ‘success’”
“Fashion is art you can live in and you can take on a persona and be whatever you want to be.
Cowan discussed how there are no originals and you just have to find things you like and put your own spin on them. Sometimes you have to say, “Screw that, I’m doing me.”
One person asked how Cowan goes about people stealing his designs. Cowan discussed that people stealing your designs is inevitable, unless you have a huge team of lawyers like Chanel. He said you just have to keep going and hope to make something even better the next time. Early in his career, he made the mistake of sending his sketches and watching them be made without his input. He recommends sending everything in an email so if the ideas are stolen and reproduced you can dispute it with proof.
Cowan’s business model includes many small boutiques. He places his clothes in small boutiques instead of department stores because he wants to get feedback. When he puts his clothes in boutiques, he is able to receive feedback from his customers. He has his clothes in 16 stores internationally. His clothes perform the best in the Middle East. In October, he is having a fashion show in Dubai.
One person asked if age set him back because he is so young. He said that it did and he would constantly lie about his age. Eventually, he got offered to work in Alexander Mcqueen’s fashion house. He declined and made his own brand.
Another person asked how he was able to design the watches on the shoe with his collaboration with Giuseppe. He said he believes we live in a world where it is about flashing your wealth. We constantly see people showing their wrist with fancy watches. He said putting the watch on the shoe is ironic and it makes fun of the whole idea of flashing your wealth.
Cowan was asked about his sketches and he says that he keeps his sketches as simple as possible. He actually spent hours creating a sketch of a body and he just prints it and draws over it.
Someone inquired Cowan on what he looks for in a model. He said they need to be fierce and unapologetic. Reiterating what he said earlier, the model has to represent the brand. The models have to reflect the Cowan woman, a woman owing who she is.
The next question was how did Cowan become so successful. He said he always had a positive and welcoming personality. He emphasized the importance of being nice to people. He said that having a strong work ethic is important. He also said that you must maintain a social life. He said not to forget to be profitable and make money.
Someone asked why he does not have a men’s line. Cowan responded that the women’s line is a larger market. He also said it is expensive to do a men’s line because that involves a second team and a second budget. He wishes to do men’s clothes in the future.
Another person asked what is the inspiration for his own personal style. He said his mom always wore all black. That day he was wearing an all-black outfit. He also said Dilara Findikoglu and Paloma Spain influence his personal looks.
A Note To Cowan
Cowan taught me a lot. I enjoyed hearing about his life and it inspired me. He constantly commented on his idols and I hope he knows he is one of mine! If you ever read this, I hope to be like you and work with you in the future.
Sasha C. Yates