Christian Cowan is New York’s rising prince of pop culture fashion. He’s collaborated with Lil Nas X on a capsule collection, designed the coat immortalized on Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy album cover, and everyone from Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey to Real Housewife Meredith Marks and Drag Race’s GottMik have been seen in permutations of his feather sleeved pink dress on television. Cowan cemented his status as a celeb fashion fave by making his Met Gala debut this year dressing Saweetie, Ben Platt, and Brazilian model Isabelle Boemeke. It’s a fitting path for a designer whose trajectory really took off back in 2014 when none other than Lady Gaga casually stepped out in a glittering pink suit and gigantic matching hat of his design.
The Gala came just days after Cowan presented his spring-summer 2022 collection in a riveting show in which he encouraged his models to vamp it up and show their personality on the runway (“I get why like a Peter Do model would do a more straight walk because it suits the aesthetic. But for us, it's like its feathers and crystals and texture. It’s the aesthetic”). That show also saw Cowan partner with BMW to co-design a special model of the fully electric iX model alongside NFL player Victor Cruz. “I've always been obsessed with where fashion and pop culture intersect with technology,” says Cowan of the partnership. “I was in the car, and was like ‘I want crystals for buttons.’ It's really designed not just as a car, but as an experience. And for me, that’s a reflection of our clothes. We designed pieces that work in people's wardrobes for events, but they've also got practicalities to them.”
So, where does the increasingly busy designer whose clothes can be found on just about any screen you look, go when he wants to unplug? Well, The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum of all places. Yes, that’s the maritime museum located on a decommissioned aircraft carrier in the Hudson River, a place about as far from current pop culture as one can get from Midtown Manhattan. For our One Fun Thing column, Cowan expands on taking the time to get away from pop culture for a moment and reconnecting with your childhood, even if it’s at a dog park near a sea museum.
So, why of all places, the Intrepid Museum?
My office is not too far away. Sometimes I get the ticket and I just go on and I walk around, I look at all the planes and stuff and read the things, but otherwise, just the surrounding area is lovely. It's kind of like a no man's land. There's no pop culture reference really insight. It's just like a dog park and kids running through fountains. Everyone just comes there to escape the city to some degree. Plus, I like dogs. I like to hang out with dogs.
My father was in the Navy. All my childhood, he would talk about different ships. It kind of brings it back to a familial level of relaxation and stuff. You don't see anything to do with someone's new album, you don't see anything fashion. There's just not that crowd, which I love. Because while I love fashion and pop culture, it's nice to take a breath of fresh air from it as much as we can.
Were you really into planes and ships as a kid?
No, not at all. Literally no interest in it, but my father was so into it. I wasn’t. I was a bug and reptile nerd. That was my gig. I wanted to be an entomologist or a herpetologist.
It feels like a very non-New York City place right next to it.
It's just not trying to be cool in any capacity. Everywhere has this thing that it's pushing and then it's like a different kind of “cool” of people in it. Whether it's Lower East Side with these young, cool, creative kids that you see everywhere. Whether it's Hell's Kitchen, and everyone's in like, tight shorts and tops. There's always an identity. And what I like about the Intrepid area, there's just no real identity to it. It's just calming.
Have you always sought out those spaces?
I think so. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in the English countryside and was so desperate to escape emptiness. Then once you have been in the city for years, you crave that emptiness and that chill vibe, which you can't really find too often in New York.
So, then in your day-to-day job, how much do you find yourself entrenched in pop culture?
I am deeply entrenched but by choice. I adore it. I'm kind of a product of the internet. I grew up online, playing video games, and obsessed with music videos as a kid. I'm on social media a lot of time always, but I also work most of the time. A lot of our relationships that we build from the stores to celebrities to collaborations often come through Instagram. I'm inspired by social media and pop culture, but we also deeply work through it.
It can be hard to find that division when that’s actually part of your job.
A hundred percent. There's very little division between my work and my personal life. They very much overlap.
You mentioned another big part of your daily practice is talking to your mother every day.
My mother is called Mercedes. She is a typical Spanish mother in the sense that she is the main column of the family. Women are really by far the leaders of the family for us. Growing up around amazing, confident Spanish women influences my work a lot. I talk to my mother every day. I always joke that it's almost like reporting back to the board every morning. My mom wants to hear about everything work-wise, she wants to hear about everything personally. She's just such a rock for me.
I didn’t know you were of Spanish descent until looking at your Instagram with Rosalía earlier, but I can definitely see it in your work
My mom often comments on how she sees some things as having kind of a Spanish influence. I definitely think it would be the case because my mom was obsessed with Almodovar movies and Penelope Cruz. That is like the stuff I grew up on. So it's like no shock that it would influence my aesthetic choices.
Have you ever found inspiration at the Intrepid?
It's almost anti-inspiration, which in turn leads to inspiration. We need to have those mental resets, even if it's for an hour, and we'll just approach things with fresh eyes.
The first time I visited New York was when I was 10. I went to the Intrepid with my mom and I did all the other tourist things. I told her, ‘I'm going to move here.’ Then that was like the plan from that moment on, it never changed. I never fluctuated. I did exactly that. So maybe I love it for those different reasons.
There are a couple places that I remember from first coming to New York and if I'm back there, it's “Okay, I'm like that little boy again.”
Totally. I'm perpetually very hypercritical of my own work. I'm very much someone who never can really be like, “That's major!” I think when you go somewhere that links back to your childhood and your first experience with the city, it kind of reminds you of what you have managed to do in a very chill way. You feel great in terms of “Oh, I'm living out the dream that my like childhood self envisioned.”
I imagine this is a time where you keep the phone in your pocket and stay away from Instagram?
I would like to say that that's the case, but it's hard because you have to be there for work.
I definitely try to have more breaks and do more things. So now, as a fun thing for my office to make everyone feel more chilled, I've organized a pig party, like a baby piglet party. So we can have baby pigs come to the studio on Saturday.
You’ve all been busy. This was a really big year for you at the Met Gala. I think I saw at least three different looks from you on the carpet.
We actually ended up having to say no to a few opportunities for it because we're a small team. I was like, “We're going to do a terrible job.” But I'm really pleased. It was really important for us to make a kind of statement of, “We're better than ever.” But also I liked that for the American lexicon theme, me, as a non-American designer who moved to America to make my business, I thought it was nice to be part of that one for the first time. It felt like what makes America fantastic to me is outsiders come here and kind of contribute to culture.