Bonnie Cashin: A Designer Handbag Pioneer April 19 2022

You might not know the name, but I guarantee you know her work—Bonnie Cashin. Ever admired a vintage Coach designer handbag, or expertly twisted a kiss lock on your favorite clutch? You’ve got Cashin to thank for much of that.

Born in 1915 in California, Cashin was first introduced to fashion design by her mother, who was a custom dress maker. She began designing in high school and started costuming a local dance troupe in southern California. Before long, Cashin had moved to New York City and was designing for the Roxy Theater, where an admirer of her work arranged for Cashin to meet with Louis Adler, the owner of Adler & Adler. In 1937 Cashin was named the head designer of the coat and suit manufacturer of Louis Adler’s company, Adler & Adler. Cashin stayed in that position for 5 years before leaving New York for California, where she began designing for the movies and landed a job at 20th Century Fox. After several years Cashin returned to New York, determined to design clothing for the modern woman. In 1953 she started working with leather garments at Sills and Company; she quickly began to be known for mixing fabrics and textures, and stayed in that position until 1977.

Bonnie Cashin 1964

During her time at Sills and Company, Cashin was inspired by everyday objects—for instance, she liked to use dog leash clasps, toggles, ties, and snaps instead of the usual zippers and buttons. She loved garments that had multiple uses (who doesn’t??) and designed with ease of use in mind. The results were really pretty cool—handbags had double entries (or were built into the garments themselves), and hooks were added to skirts so the wearer could change its length at will. Seems like we can appreciate designs like that even today.
In 1962 Cashin went to work for Coach which was, at that point, a new line of leather handbags. She immediately began designing bags with brightly dyed leather and created matching accessories (the wallets and small purses we all know and love today). She created interesting closures and hardware, and really defined a Coach trademark look. Cashin was at Coach until 1974.
The designs of Bonnie Cashin summon up all sorts of images—bright leather skirts, tweed jackets, finely made leather handbags…if you’re lucky enough to own a garment or handbag with a Bonnie Cashin label in it, you can likely rest assured that is indeed one of her designs. Cashin took great pride in her designs and never entered into any licensing agreements or employed assistant designers—I think we can all get on board with that sort of passion.

 written by Heather Cox for Rice and Beans Vintage.