On the fourth floor of a residential building on Lexington Avenue sits the studio of 23-year-old industry protégé Christian Cowan. It's New York-small and sits atop a quartet of stairs carpeted in a trail of forgotten sequins. Guests are greeted by Mango — his loyal Dachshund and confidant who's 22-and-a-half years his junior and not to be referred to as a Weiner Dog ("gross") — and a hug from the man himself.
The Cambridge-born designer is on a high after another round of dressing Cardi B, this time for her debut album Invasion of Privacy. That, and a slew of high-profile editorial and celebrity placements. His workspace, lined with racks of his collections (so far, just three), houses a team of interns, a studio manager, and a seamstress. That Cowan is an amateur is debatable; that he's like anyone before him is bollocks.
Though they’re both newcomers to the music and fashion industries, Cowan and the Bronx rapper go way back. "I got the call from her team a long time ago, before 'Bodak Yellow' came out. I put her in a cropped sweatsuit and the reaction was insane. I’d never seen anything like it on my Instagram: I didn’t have mass production or sales setup yet, but I’d gotten 600 orders in two days," Cowan reveals. Since then, he's dressed the rapper nearly a dozen times. "She’s just a total babe and is there to support people who support her. A lot of brands wouldn’t lend back then, so it meant a lot that she chose me. When we met, I said, Hey, I’m Christian Cowan, and she was like, You made me go viral!" He notes that Offset is friendly, too.
Cardi may have been destined for Instagram fame, but recognition is still new to Cowan. "I wanted to be David Attenborough until I was about 12 years old (still do, to be honest)," he says of his previous interest in entomology. "Insects have the most varied range of designs, textures, and colors." And then, out of the blue, he "just decided" he wanted to be a fashion designer. "My parents only spoiled me when it came to my hobbies. For example, there was a time when I wanted to be a fine artist, so they bought me all the oil paints I needed," he recalls. So when it was time to try his hand at making women's clothes, his mother bought him a "rickety, 45 GBP sewing machine" that he'd eventually break.
After moving to London and completing his foundation year at Central Saint Martins, Cowan transferred to the London College of Fashion to get his degree in fashion design. He didn't fancy either, but giving up wasn't an option (his "hardcore" mother wouldn't have it). "I didn’t pass with flying colors because while I was studying, I was making things for Lady Gaga and doing Miley [Cyrus]' tour, so I’d get to deadlines and they’d be like, Where’s your work? and I’d be like, I’m so sorry — it’s in L.A. with Miley right now," he says.
Cowan's love for Gaga runs deep. The singer was the soundtrack to the early days of his namesake label. She'd be the first person he'd ever dress. "She’s a huge supporter of young designers, so I hate when people knock her fashion from back in the day," he professes. "She literally started career upon career upon career." Like most of her Little Monsters, as a kid, Cowan considered himself the odd one out. One of 11 children, he felt separated from his surroundings — but it was Gaga who got him through it. "When I made my first few outfits, I was listening to her the whole time. And then she wore the outfit! It was a full-circle moment."
Back at university, his professors were fed up with his elusiveness and sharp tongue — not to mention misuse of his homework by loaning to celebrities. "I’d get kicked out of the sewing machine room for working on stuff outside of the university and I got in a lot of trouble. They didn’t love me," he remembers. "What I’d secretly do is make whatever the fuck I wanted and then try to pass it off as part of my schoolwork, too. They did not find it funny. I had an argument with a tutor once who said I couldn’t do Miley’s tour and to concentrate on my university work. I got quite sassy and said, How do you expect me to pay for this expensive course if I can’t take jobs that give me money to do it? He shut up and now they use me in all of their brochures and social media pages."
These days, Cowan is a regular in the pages of magazines. But despite finding success at a young age, the real world hasn't always been so kind to him. "There’ve been times when I’ve suffered from too much tunnel vision and too much of a bubble," he says of his tendency to shut the door behind him, adding that growing up, he ran away from home, struggled with his sexuality, and even overdosed — none of which, now, are allowed to disrupt his creative process. "The thing is: From ages 14 to 18, I went hard with my social life. Like, hard. I did it all: every music festival you could think of, I went out all the time, I’d DJ at clubs — at one point I tried go-go dancing — I just did everything you could do. But by 18, I was just done."
Really though, Cowan was just getting started. After making the jump to New York, where he lives with his boyfriend Drew Elliott two floors below his studio, he's shown at New York Fashion Week for the past three seasons, the industry watching his star rise with each spectacle. His first, in the blistering cold at Pier 59 Studios, included a mini dress featuring a portrait of Caitlyn Jenner that put his name in the papers (“A lot of people dislike her, but you can’t deny that she brought a topic into every household in the world”); his second, an intimate affair at Indochine with a skintight guest list; and his third, a more traditional, larger format show at Spring Studios, with more rows and seat crashers than ever before. All of the above, by the way, were styled by close pal Patti Wilson.
Cowan differs from the flight of designers who've traded New York for Paris and has his sights set on a growing customer base in the East, starting with Shanghai, Seoul, and Kuwait. On the retail side, he's just secured his first window display in Jeffrey New York. And as for where he sees his brand in 10 or 50 years, it's no surprise a house like Versace comes to mind. "I think mid-range [retail] got obliterated. I think people are into either super high-end and luxury, or really low and fast fashion. I really want to do both," he says. "But in order to do fast-fashion, you have to have capital. It’s annoying when people on Instagram are like, Why do you make things so expensive? It’s like, because you need to spend a lot of money to make things cheap."
When asked to define the Christian Cowan woman, it’s simple: anyone is eligible. But when asked to define his brand, it’s complicated: "When you start a brand at such a young age, it grows with you as you change. I think some people find deciphering my brand hard because it keeps shifting a bit, and though there’s always this bright, energetic, disco, fun element to it, it’s really changed leagues from what it was," he explains. (In terms of paraphernalia, Cowan would say his brand is an upper.) "I’ve gone from the hard, pink, glittery, giant sombrero to a lot of wearable looks. But, at the heart of it, I want it to remain that way and to focus on the joy in the world. I just want to put a good message out there: it’s inclusive, happy, and just meant to bring everyone up."
What you won't see, however, are haughty displays of political propaganda; Cowan prefers to separate church and state. "I have my own political views and I generally don’t like to leak those through the brand. I don’t hate every woman who doesn’t believe in my own political values. That’s so harsh," he says, noting that a large number of female Trump voters are loyal customers to young designers like himself. "I don’t think it’s fair for me to do a T-shirt that alienates all these lovely women who also want to feel empowered through wearing clothes. Besides, I’ve done some of those before and I’ve felt bad about some of the reactions. Some people are really nice and they have a different political view, but that doesn’t mean they’re, like, the devil." When asked if he'd ever dress First Lady Melania Trump, he replies with a full-throated no. ("That would be an insult to the people who’ve supported me and who my brand is devoted to.")
At a time when many might say entering the fashion industry is a crazy idea — and just an idea, at that — it’s Cowan’s bad-kid background that makes him the perfect guy for the job. May his hair be green, pink, orange, or purple; he’s “totally cool” with people not liking him — he’s just here to have a good time. “I think the context of how the industry was originally built isn’t the same, so yes, it’s time to change. But things change. At the end of the day, people still want to wear clothes. No one’s going nude just yet.”
Looking back on where he’s come from, and discussing ad nauseam where he wants to go, he remembers a sour Facebook post from an old schoolmate who asked the question that was once on everyone’s minds: What is a Christian Cowan?
Well, now you know.