Vena Cava

lisa mayock & sophie buhai

photo: Jordan Alport
Interview: by Marc Santo

Three weeks after graduating from Parsons School of Design, Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai threw a backyard BBQ to show off the clothes they created from their Brooklyn apartments. Two years later they were in Vogue

Taking their name from the vein that carries blood from the body to the heart, the California-born designers behind Vena Cava use their eye for aesthetics to create clothes inspired by family heirlooms, found objects and a wide range of personal tastes. With inspiration boards that have explored everything from the bold Italian designs associated with Ettore Sotsass’ Memphis Design Movement to hieroglyphic and zodiac motifs of ancient Egypt, the label embodies a cultural awareness for haute design movements and thrift store treasures that trickle down to arty clothes girls look cute in. 

Since their 2003 launch, Vena Cava have expanded from a small line, largely supported by family and friends, to a versatile and consistent brand that has dressed everyone from Brittany Spears to Natalie Portman. As two-time CFDA /Vogue Fashion Fund finalists, the designers have collaborated on collections for a handful of mass-market brands that include the Gap, Bloomindales and Via Spiga. They recently launched their more affordable Viva Vena line and plan to incorporate non-garment based products like books and films into their burgeoning lifestyle empire. 

MARC SANTO: When did you start Vena Cava? 

LISA: We went to Parsons together. At the time, Parsons would pick ten people to show their senior collections and we didn’t get picked. We were frustrated because we worked so hard and didn’t have a forum to show our work, so we decided to make a collection anyways and have our own fashion show. Our line technically started two weeks after graduation in 2003. We chose the name Vena Cava because we didn’t want to use our own names in case we failed. It’s also an enigmatic word that looks good on paper. 

MARC: What drew you to fashion?

SOPHIE: In high school I was a theater dork, but generally artsy and always loved fashion and made my own clothes. When I went to art school, fashion seemed like a way to do something creative that I could actually turn into a profession. You can always make art on the side, but this seemed like a way to get the most from my education.  I find it gratifying because clothes have the amazing power to change the way a woman feels. They can completely change her mood and how she feels about herself, which is such a cool thing to be able to design for someone. 

MARC: What are you doing differently with your aesthetic? 

SOPHIE: Our aesthetic is basically us. It’s the way we dress and the way our friends dress. It’s a mixture of vintage, hand-me-downs, designer pieces and grandma’s jewelry. We really design things that our friends would buy. 

LISA: Most of the designers on our level who are receiving attention are male designers, and I think men design completely differently for a woman. We’re less trend-driven and a lot less age-specific. It’s boring to design clothes for women with the body of an 18-year-old. 

SOPHIE: We spend a lot of time at the library looking at art history, design and textile books. Last season we developed an aesthetic inspired by Memphis Design, Art Deco and things like Bauhaus. We mix our interests with the inspiration we get from our friends and people in general. 

MARC: A lot of celebrities have worn your clothes. Does that matter to you? 

SOPHIE: We’ve had a range of people from Woody Allen’s wife to Brittany Spears and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s cool to see, but it’s most satisfying to me when our friends like something we make. 

LISA: Personally I don’t think it’s that important if Paris Hilton wears our clothes, but it’s important to consumers, which makes it important to stores. They use it as a tool to promote sales because some people need that as directive of what to buy. 

MARC: What are some of the more innovative things happening in fashion today? 

SOPHIE: The idea that brands are becoming less about just making clothes and more about making products that are extensions of their brand is really cool. Exciting brands like Opening Ceremony and Acne are constantly creating different products that aren’t garment-based. It’s really creative and makes people want to be in on the story and participate in the lifestyle they’re creating. 

LISA: Our last show was ’90s inspired, so we did a zine called Zina Cava and got a lot of contributions from very talented and creative people. We’ve done small projects like these and are always looking to do more. There’s been a trend over the last couple of years with designers our size designing for places like Target and Gap, but I think it would be really cool to collaborate with designers like Alexander Wang or Philip Lim, who are at the same price point as us. 

SOPHIE: Collaboration would be a really cool thing because it would help develop a community. It doesn’t happen in fashion the way it does in mediums like film or music, where artists work independently and then collaborate on a project together. The New York fashion scene is cutthroat and most people just stick to their own path, but it would be fun to bring groups of designers together and create a movement. 

Vena Cava's NYC

photo: Jordan Alport
  • Church Street Surplus
    “This is a tiny Army-Navy vintage store just below Canal Street that’s never picked. They have an awesome collection of military clothing and dresses from the ’40s. Military clothes never go out of style. War is always relevant.” –Sophie
  • Bemelman's Bar
    “Bemelman’s is the bar inside the Carlyle Hotel. The have the most beautiful murals and a live piano player. It’s a great place to play cards while sipping an old fashioned cocktail. There’s always some amazing person like Jack Nicholson walking by in the lobby.” –Sophie
  • “This is a store on the Lower East Side that’s owned by a close friend of ours. It’s a great store that features mostly clothes and jewelry, but they also carry shoes and accessories. The way the merchandise is presented is totally unique and doesn’t look like any other place I’ve seen. It’s my favorite store in New York to shop for clothes.” –Sophie
  • “The flea market part is OK, but the food is so amazing that most people just go to eat. In fact, the food is so good they opened a location in Williamsburg that only serves the food.” –Lisa
  • Amacord
    “Amarcord is a vintage store with one location in SoHo and another in Williamsburg. The owner is Italian and the place is filled with old Italian and European designers that he sources in Europe. He has a very specific aesthetic that reminds me of a Fellini movie.” –Sophie
  • “Jungle is a plant store in Williams-burg that lets you hang out in their beautiful gardens. They have nights where they throw parties with DJs, and you can rent out their gigantic and gorgeous gardens to throw a party of your own. They also have an amazing hot tub that’s operated by lighting a fire underneath it, which I just love.” –Lisa
  • “Russ & Daughters has the best lox I’ve ever had. They’re a very old family-run place and you can picture people going in there 80 years ago and ordering the exact same timeless classics that people order today.” –Lisa
    “Breukelen Bier carries hundreds and hundreds of beers from all over the world, and all sorts of different foods and products that are made using beer. Just going inside to look at the packaging is amazing in itself.” –Lisa

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