September 2021
A Shirt is A Shirt
︎︎︎Published in Encens Magazine

A shirt is a shirt, is a shirt.
A dress is a dress, is a dress.

In 1929 the English psychologist and psychoanalyst John Carl Flügel set down a list of 24 questions in the hope of recording the prevailing attitudes to clothes. Four of them strike me as pertinent, thinking about the modern woman’s wardrobe of 2021:

Do you think that the clothes in which people work should be rather sombre or severe, or do you hold the view that they should be as attractive as possible (consistent with reasonable economy and convenience)?

How long does it take you to dress

(a) for your ordinary work?

(b) for a more festive occasion?

As regards your dress:

(a) Do you chiefly desire the admiration and approval of your own sex or the opposite sex?

(b) Do you chiefly fear the criticism and disapproval of your own sex or the opposite sex?

(c) Would you attach more importance to the advice of your own sex or the opposite sex?

Do you dress yourself carefully and with forethought (as opposed to putting on clothes without much attention as to how you will look in them)?

These are the questions we ask ourselves. Stephanie Danan – co-founder of the Los Angeles born label CO wears one of her pleated skirts with a baby cashmere sweater and a pair of leather flats every day. ‘Almost three times a week’ she might throw on a linen blazer too. Hers is an archetypal international soigné that blends the elan of European textile with the utilitarianism of American life.

A sleeveless tiered dress in crisp cotton poplin, ankle-length drawstring pants, a loose 3/4 sleeve button-down shirt with fishtail hem. A fine cashmere crew neck sweater. CO’s clothes are part-fashion part-livery. The brand was founded in 2011 by Danan and her partner Justin Kern ‘for smart working women for whom fashion is not — and should not be — a financial priority.’ Their seasonless “Essentials” collection reflects a foundational approach to dressing, while the ready-to-wear niggles at the ever-evolving fringes of what might be considered “classic”.

Clothes are part of how we build our character and organise how others see and define us but often we give them too much power. A lot of fashion renders us mute: “Fashion” shouts. “Clothes” – like COs – stay schtum. Danan and Kern offer a look of substance and confidence worn with Californian ease.

Danan’s career as a movie producer and Kern’s as a former screenwriter and model has shaped how they build a world around what they make: ‘As a film producer I was seeing women around me who were very successful financially and otherwise, who love beautiful clothes yet they felt that spending a lot of money on them was the antithesis to how they were living their lives where they were making really grounded decisions in how they were investing their money.’ Danan’s peers – dynamic, strong heads of studios, producers – could easily go to the big brands but were not doing it. ‘And that's because they were buying art and real estate – things that felt more connected to the decisions that they were making as career women because they were making their own money,’ she says. ‘It took a few years once we had launched to get our design voices in line with our philosophy and what our customer needs in her life. The practicalities – dropping your kid off at school then heading into a meeting via the office and then drinks or dinner followed by homework with the kids. It took us time to find that versatility.’

Things clicked when they moved into their first showroom – the Fitzpatrick-Leland house, a 1936 modernist home by Austrian-born architect Rudolph Schindler – three and a half years ago. The house is made of three interlocking, L-shaped tiers that seamlessly blend indoor and outdoor space, nestled into a rugged hillside above the iconic intersection of Mulholland Drive and Laurel Canyon Blvd. ‘The modernist environment really started to influence our design, more and more we started to realise that our philosophy, the clothes and the space needed to talk to each other – the design, the dialogue, the narrative, it is about the whole home.’ At the end of 2020 they relocated to a 1962 home designed by one of California’s most revered modernists, Richard Neutra which channels the same earthy, exacting glamour for which CO is the perfect attire.

COs clothes don’t take over a room or interrupt the view. People can project their own personalities onto the pieces that are, in a sense, neutral. They allow the wearer to do whatever they need to. They don't overtake the scene. ‘You're not walking into a room wearing “statement clothes”, which takes a certain amount of effort that a modern woman doesn't have the time for,’ Danan says. ‘You know, there's one hundred things in the closet but we all go back to the same 25. And they always have something in common – they're super easy, you don't have to think about it in the morning when you get dressed. They're comfortable. They have style. And they're versatile.’ Working in Hollywood, Danan noticed rows of de-facto Dolce & Gabbana suits worn as armour: ‘tight, sexy, sexy, sexy,’ she says. ‘If you're the producer, you're not the actress. You're not wearing the gown; you're not wearing the flashy things. You're the person that needs to be taken seriously, so you have to exude a certain amount of self-confidence, good taste and style.’

‘When you write a script, or you develop a movie, you spend years working on the screenplay – thinking “what do I mean?” – and you spend so much time making the film and thinking about the characters and how people can relate to those characters,’ Danan says, ‘but there's a really profound existential process that is sometimes lost in fashion because it moves so quickly. It doesn't have time to absorb it or care about it as much.’

In 2019 CO began working with Fibershed, an organisation that develops localized networks of farmers, ranchers and manufacturers committed to practices that enhance community and climate. The goal was to create a collection made entirely of natural fibres – climate beneficial wool sourced from California ranches – which launches this winter. ‘I think for us the frustration is that we can get lost in this wave of product. There’s so much and it becomes really hard for wholesalers to communicate our vision of design. The fact that our clothes live and breathe in architectural homes in Los Angeles, that we look at collections, as things you collect, and not things that you just consume. This idea that we wanted it to be treated a certain way just gets lost in the shuffle of 1000s of collections in a department store. It just becomes a shirt is a shirt is a shirt, a dress is a dress, is a dress. I think in our clothes, we try to bring a certain amount of humanity. It's simple and it's rigorous. It has discipline in that sort of minimalist sense but, it's also human.’

After 10 years, Danan and Kern are clear on what CO needs to say. They have never attended fashion weeks or had a runway show. They are based in California, so are away from the clamour of New York, Paris and London; Fashion magazines rarely come through the studio: ‘We really operate outside of the system,’ Danan says. ‘Our growth has been slow but it reminds me so much of film because so many of those kids who direct their first movies at 22-years-old, Hollywood makes them a big star in two minutes and then they never work again, but It's the ones who have been pounding the pavement for 10 years, screenplay after screenplay, rejection after rejection, who, finally, after 10/12 years understand their craft, understand what it takes to get the role, understand what it takes to get the movie, understand what it takes to direct a film and understand what it takes to treat people right. For us, it's the exact same thing. It has taken this long to get to a place where we really know who we are.’

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© Dal Chodha 2023 / Site design by Margherita Sabbioneda
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Site design by ︎︎︎Margherita Sabbioneda
© Dal Chodha 2023