Michelle Ochs of womenswear label Et Ochs ruminates on what it means to be a designer, mother, and woman in the present.
For Michelle Ochs, the success of her new brand, Et Ochs, was never a sure thing. Coming back to launch two years after the closing of her former label, Cushnie et Ochs, the Canadian-born designer was ready to build her brand from the ground up.
“Although I still felt that there was this niche and space for us, the response that we’ve had has still completely shocked me,” she tells Vogue Philippines. “I can’t believe that people remember the fit and, to me, that speaks volumes. The work spoke for itself, the product spoke for itself, and the impact endured.”
Ochs may well be surprised, but the reception suggests that she was in the minority. While the designer quietly ruminated over the reception of her comeback, the rest of the industry, and her customers, had also been patiently waiting for her magic to reappear. “When we finally announced the launch, customers were messaging us from the get-go saying, ‘Where have you been? I can’t find a pant anywhere!’” she recalls, grateful for the instant support. “The response was so overwhelming.”
I first met Michelle at a dinner for Cushnie et Ochs in London, during which we bonded over our shared Filipino heritage. She was, at the time, one half of the duo dressing the biggest celebrities in the world—from Jennifer Lopez to Alicia Keys and Rihanna to Michelle Obama—and garnering attention for a unique approach to sex appeal. I, alongside thousands of women, had fallen for the waist-defining cut-outs and figure-flattering fabrics that were the label’s mainstays, setting them apart from other overtly sexy silhouettes of the era.
“When we launched Cushnie et Ochs it felt like we were educating our woman on what it meant to be sexy without being overt or androgynous. I was still explaining the power of cut-outs and hints of skin and working against the grain in that sense,” Michelle says. “Now, it’s all very sexy, which would have made our lives easier 10 years ago! But times have changed and it feels like we’re all moving very much in the same direction.”
And times have changed for us all, indeed, but especially for Ochs. The closing of one hugely successful business, one global pandemic, and two beautiful children later, and she has taken it all in her stride, all the while developing a newfound understanding of what it means to get dressed as a woman.
“These experiences have helped me evolve my vision,” says Ochs. “Looking at how much the world asks of women now has helped me define how she’d like to be wardrobed; what is it that her life requires of her, exactly?”
The world asks ever more of women, she points out. She’s quietly determined to underpin the ever multi-faceted female existence with clothes that equip women from the ground up.
“You’re dressing for this moment, whatever moment it is, and I want you to look and feel good and to have that all handled for you,” she says. “I want to give women that energy.”
While talk of evolution might also suggest a change in design ethos, Michelle feels strongly that her codes have endured. And she’s right to think so: in a world where fashion feels increasingly disposable and ever-changing, it would have been easy to sail away with what feels “now.” Fortunately for Michelle, that is her own design ethos which, she says, is even better suited to today’s world than that of 15 years ago.
“Back then, we were one of the first to start using materials that weren’t even in the fashion dialogue and it was a constant uphill conversation,” she admits. “It’s different now but those codes are still there, and those are comfort, modernity, and sexiness all at once. I want women to be comfortable in their own skin.”
Evolution is coming for her brand’s categories, though—an area in which the designer is determined to diversify in order to accomplish her wardrobing mission. Where fans of her former label might recall occasionwear first, Ochs wants her customer to be equipped for dressing every part of her day. “I’m really excited about our denim,” she tells me, detailing crystal details and cut-outs. “I want those codes to translate outside of celebrity and red carpet and translate to other parts of your life.”
The brand’s Fall/Winter ‘22 collection hits all of Ochs’ design principles. Her signature cut outs feature everywhere from draped gowns to a tailored jumpsuit, while corsetry appears in unexpected ways, defining—but never restricting—the female form. It’s Ochs’ innovation, though, that speaks of her thirst for evolution. From wire-filled hems that create moldable silhouettes to sweater dresses crafted from recycled yarns that are grungy, sexy and sophisticated at once, it’s a multi-tasking collection made for the modern woman.
But it is becoming a mother, it seems, that has been one of the designers greatest driving forces. In a world of multi-hyphenate living, few would dare to argue that the most pressured of them all are the mothers. For Michelle, this has meant adapting, just as any other working mother and the Et Ochs woman would have to do. “I’ve always been a wife, a business owner, a daughter, a sister, and I didn’t know there was any more left inside of me!” She continues, “But there is and you find a way. It’s not just about being a mom; it’s about being all the things required of women and I hope that that’s relatable.”
It’s that relatability that is perhaps one of the designer’s greatest strengths, informing a very real approach to her designs. Ochs is the woman she designs for, and it shines through her work. Since her early days, the designer has constantly pushed the boundaries of design by using tailoring outside of suiting and stretch fabrics outside of leisurewear, seeking innovations in materials to support comfort within her silhouettes.
Yet it’s the fit that speaks for itself, with the designer determined to empower her customer rather than push any romantic narrative. She is, in fact, refreshingly careful not to paint a picture of a “perfect persona’’ or to drive home any sense of “you can have it all.” Instead, Ochs is designing for real life and real women.
“It’s always been about the body. Yes, I want to be a bum on the weekends, but I still want to feel good doing it,” Ochs says. “But becoming a mother has also added a new perspective: I appreciate getting dressed for the times that I do get dressed even more now, and I want to feel sexy.”
That her own mother is one of her greatest sources of inspiration should come as no surprise. A Filipino immigrant to the US who chased and found the American dream, Michelle credits her work ethic to her mom, who set up a restaurant business alongside Michelle’s father. “They lived and breathed it; I watched their passion and dedication and that really stayed with me,” she says.
But it’s more than her parents’ incredible work ethic that has influenced Michelle in her creative journey. Her mother, she recounts, respected the act of getting dressed almost as though it were a tradition; something that has no doubt facilitated Ochs’ emotional connection to dressing her own customer. “There was always this sense of elegance and pride in getting dressed. It was important,” she says. “I’m determined to honor that sensibility… for there to be an ease and an effortlessness in feeling put together.”
It’s that same quiet determination that imbues in her a sense of responsibility to her heritage, too. One of barely a handful of Filipino creative directors on the international fashion scene, Michelle has often been frustrated by the lack of inclusion of Filipinos within the Asian.
“I certainly feel a responsibility to help reroute that conversation,” she says. “I want to make sure that we’re showing Filipino faces of creative directors, business owners, and leaders. That is so important to me.”
As with all the conversations in Michelle’s repertoire, this one is much more vast than we have time for in this conversation. But one thing’s for sure: if there’s one woman with the drive to create that change, you can bet it’s Michelle Ochs.
This article was originally published in Vogue Philippines’ November 2022 issue. Subscribe here.
Photography: Selwyn Tungol, Fashion Director: Pam Quiñones