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.