Why Shirt Designer Cinthia Menolascino is Not Over the Top
By Laura Blum
Cino's rise among devotees of funky chic flows, like a hot air balloon, from a jettisoning of extra ballast. Owner-designer Cinthia Menolascino began with a broad collection, and eventually tossed off all but the standouts: shirts and tops, with the occasional jacket in the mix.
Monomania has its rewards. The brand has steadily expanded since officially debuting in Spring 2005. Today it pops up in choice boutiques around North America, where it has become a favorite for women of all ages who like layering their femininity with a tomgirl vibe (as seen in photos 1 - 3).
"Sophisticated bohemian" is a Cino mantra. And that's pretty much what came to mind when I first stumbled on the crinkled-cotton shirt line in florals and paisleys. It romanced the vestigial hippie in me, yet was manifestly respectable for a woman past the half-century mark. That's no easy feat. If I had a daughter, she and I would fight over it. She might pair it with torn denims, whereas I'd hew to venerable black jeans and surely a sapphire or two.
A dungaree gal herself, Menolascino left her native Nebraska to study Fine Art and Textiles at the University of Oregon and then fashion design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. She took with her a frontier aesthetic that still rears up in details like stitches and ribbons. Vintage-style fabrics and tapered waistlines also tell of her nostalgia for Victorian-era fashion. Were Calamity Jane around today, she'd surely be a customer.
Yet West meets East with Cino's signature blend of early Americana and flourishes from India, where Menolascino sources textiles and manufactures her pieces. Tropical Africa and Hawaii also color the collection, among other influences that give it its casual, ethnic edge (as seen in photos 4 - 7). The twist is Cino's classic contour. Chalk it up to the Italian tradition of tailoring; Menolascino's forebears hail from the heel of Italy's boot, and that ethos of fitted elegance runs in her blood.
The Montebello, NY–based designer recently sat down with thalo.com to reflect on her foray into the fashion business, on the love of wearable art that led her to launch an initial line out of college -- and on how her work has evolved since.
thalo: How did you get into fashion design?
Cinthia Menolascino: I was always interested in tactile surfaces and color and yarns and fabric. One of my mentors growing up was a woman who owned a gallery, where I used to show some of my wearable art pieces. I had a line of sweaters and scarves that were all hand-crocheted with crazy patterns and big, chunky mohair yarns, and I would have shows across the country. But I wanted my creations to be affordable and not just a piece of art that hung in a gallery and cost a lot of money. So I decided to learn about design and how to manufacture overseas and be able to bring the cost down, but still have integrity of the creative vision.
th: How would you advise a fashion designer fresh out of school?
CM: I would say learn from other people. And instead of being thrown in the fire, learn ahead of time about the fashion business: how to manufacture; how to ship; how to work with a manufacturer; and how to work with a warehouse.
th: How did you launch your own line?
CM: After my wearable art business, I went to work for other companies for 25 years, including The Avenue, The May Department Stores Company and Liz Claibourne. I was head of design and sourcing and finding new products and fabrics. I travelled overseas five times a year. I loved it and I learned so many things, but it was grueling. I always knew I'd have my own business again, I just didn't know when. I started small and grew, and I learned as I went along. At first I was working out of China and India. I had an agent in both places, but I slowly moved 100 percent of my business to India.
th: How did India come to be such an inspiration?
CM: Of all the places I was traveling to in my corporate days, I loved India the most -- just going to their factories, which are small and family run, very hands on. The people are so creative. There's a lot of color in the fabrics and embellishments like beading and sequins that you can interpret into Western goods. I was fascinated by it and I always had a lot of creative ideas when I was there. Plus cotton voile is the fabric of all of my shirts, and India is the number one place to make it, so it makes total sense to be working there.
th: What was the biggest thrill about starting out on your own?
CM: In the corporate world there were always a lot of naysayers around me: "Oh, we can't do that; we tried that last year and it didn't work." After working for so long for someone else's collection, I wanted to see what what my vision would translate into.
th: How would you describe that vision?
CM: To design a line of women's favorites. Fashion is a wonderful way for people to express themselves. When you find those things that you feel good in, that feel right on you, it makes you happier and it makes you respond to other people better. So I always wanted to develop clothes that had that kind of love affair. You would want it. It would be that shirt you'd go to, your favorite shirt.
th: Why shirts?
CM: It was what my customers were most responding to from my collection of jackets and sweaters and knits pants and skirts and dresses. My shirts were by far my best margins. I did a little research and realized that there weren't a lot of great shirt companies. In particular, very few were doing shirts in a contemporary vein. There was a big opportunity. I decided to make myself a player -- and try to make myself a leader -- in that category.
th: Is this a tip? Is it best not to diversify?
CM: Whittling things down to tops was better for me business-wise, and creatively it let me explore lots of things in one category. If you want to avoid expensive mistakes upfront, starting with one category and nailing that and then adding other categories is good advice. But a lot of people are very collection-oriented, so I don't know that it's right for everybody.
th: Do you research trends?
CM: When I started my own line, I thought I would do a lot of trend research. But I realized I feel trends in my gut. There are a million things out there that look exactly the same, and I don't want to follow the pack so much. I have always had this sense about what I feel is current and how far I can push something or when something starts to look old. Call it collective consciousness. The world is so global today. Every art show is shown online. We read so much about politics everywhere. We're thinking about the same things and fashions without even realizing it. There are enough people out there who want to wear my vision of what's relevant.
th: Who is the ideal Cino woman?
CM: She's someone who isn't afraid to stand out a little and who wants a bit a bit of excitement. She's drawn to more pattern and color and texture and interest than what's available in the market, but the Cino woman isn't flamboyant and she doesn't need to try too hard. She wants a cool shirt that can be seen from across the room without being crazy, bold, in-your-face. It's not about what age a woman is: I wear the line; my mother wears the line; my sister, who's 12 years younger than I wears the line. It's about what a woman wants out of her clothing.
th: There's a boy-meets-girl look to your shirts. How did you come to match the feminine with the androgynous?
CM: My own sensibility is very much like a rock-n-roll girl. The jeans and black leather jacket look is always at the back of my mind (as seen in photo 8). I always think: will these shirts go well with jeans? It's hard for me to imagine them with a pencil skirt or with a long, flouncy skirt because my mind doesn't go there because I don't wear these things. But the shirts are customizable to pretty much anybody's style. You can dress them up. And the beauty of the crinkle is that it fits any body type. Where you need it to expand, it expands. And it doesn't expand in the areas where you don't need it to, like your waist.
th: Nature loves a double helix.
CM: The other thing the crinkled form does is to bring the colors down and make a print softer. My Hawaiian shirt is a good example. If you pull it out, you see it's actually florals and an animal pattern. But with the crinkle it becomes a field of color rather than a print. It's colors being blurred, like watercolor effects. Or think Mark Rothko. That takes it from being a commodity-looking tropical print and it gives it a different element. The crinkle abstracts it in a way that makes it cool and less identifiable.
th: What character would a Cino shirt be at a party?
CM: Hip and cool. It's very easy going because it's wash 'n wear and crinkle, twist, rock 'n roll. It's easy to fall in love with. So that character would have a bit of an edge, but still be very relevant and not too crazy fashion-forward, not a walking trend (as seen in photos 9 -11)
th: A sophisticated bad girl -- but also a history lover. Are you consciously mining the Americana of yore?
CM: I love the Victorian or Baroque era: all the little multiple buttons, the corsettes with all the wiring and the seaming and the great riding jackets. Especially my earlier collections were more about that. But I also have the whole military side. Military also goes back to other eras and wars when the regiments looked different. That's the feminine-masculine thing too.
th: Where do you go for your research?
CM: I look in books, in costume libraries, old period pieces on websites. A couple of weeks ago I realized that the prints I was picking for my Fall 2015 collection are all 18th- and 19th-century prints. I saw those at fabric companies. I love going to The Met and seeing the first textiles made, like the old Peruvian textiles.
th: How do you get inspired to create a new collection?
CM: I usually start every season with color. I think of the whole season at a glance so I can think about the color flow. I think about what the months are that I'll be delivering the goods. I want to introduce color in January, the first spring delivery. But it's freezing and nobody's ready to wear hot pink or turquoise. I give a taste of spring, but not too summery spring -- blues and corals, for example. As it goes into the warmer months, my colors get deeper and richer and more colorful and intense. At the end of the summer, the colors are more demure, what I call transitional. If you look at my line on a rack in November, you see that my colors are darker and more neutral, like indigo.
th: How does color come to you?
CM: I have these white magentic bulletin boards all over my office, which is a round room with a lot of sunlight. Throughout the season I'm collecting things that I love and that are speaking to me. I put them in a folder, and when I'm ready I start putting them up. I just walk by them as I'm doing other things and subconsciously think about them. I'll do some research and slowly I'll marry the colors with patterns. When I'm ready to land on things I've already pulled many colors down and put many up. And then I start to think about the shirt styles (as seen in photos 12 -15).
th: What's your creative process from there?
CM: I sketch everything out. Then I get all the swatches in front of me and I delineate which prints and patterns and details go for which styles. That's probably the funnest part, figuring out the contrast print, the ribbons, the stitching colors, the buttons. It's like a collage. Robert Motherwell is probably my favorite artist. Then I digitally send the files to my office in India and I give them all the measurements. They'll cut screens for all my prints and send me strike-offs. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. For example, sometimes the colors aren't matched right or they look dirty; the lines are too thick; the blurriness that I'm looking for is lost. When I see the strike-off, that's when it really comes to life. I have a huge FedEx bill every year!
th: Tell us about your upcoming collections.
CM: My Spring 2015 collection is more about florals and less about paisleys than past collections. You'll see a lot of tropicals (as seen in photo 16). My Fall 2015 collection is vintage florals and kimono florals and little ditsy retro florals.
Photo 1: Photo of Burnt Daisy Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 2: Photo of Dark Red Fresco Paisley Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 3: Photo of Dark Indigo Bandana Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 4: Photo of Emerald Ethnic Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 5: Photo of Tropical Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 6: Photo of White Embroidered Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 7: Photo of Zanzibar Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 8: Photo of designer Cinthia Menolascino courtesy of Cino.
Photo 9: Photo of Iris Damask Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 10: Photo of Cambray Ruffle Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 11: Photo of White Jacquard Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Photo 12: Photo of designer Cinthia Menolascino pinning fabrics to boards courtesy of Cino.
Photo 13: Photo of early Fall boards courtesy of Cino.
Photo 14: Photo of soft Fall boards courtesy of Cino.
Photo 15: Photo of Fall boards courtesy of Cino.
Photo 16: Photo of Spring 2015 Hawaiian Shirt courtesy of Cino.
Sincere thanks to the Japan Society for providing use of their space for this interview.