By Evan Ross Katz
"Christian Cowan really brought Ms. Bellum to life… I’m screaming," one Twitter user remarked. Some also caught the references to HIM, the flamboyant demon that regularly wreaked havoc on the people of Townsville. And of course there was the opener, featuring fully realized, high-sparkle versions of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup.
Less than a month after his New York Fashion Week FW19 runway, designer Christian Cowan debuted his latest work, a collaboration with Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls, before a Los Angeles crowd that included Heidi Klum, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tinashe, Erika Jayne, Skai Jackson, Kim Petras, and Betty Who. Paris Hilton, who walked in Cowan's debut NYFW show back in 2017, closed out this show; Cowan took his final bow alongside Hilton, grabbing his mother at the mouth of the runway and walking the remainder of the multi-colored pastel catwalk arm in arm with both women. “Really my mom is the root of it all,” he tells me backstage minutes before the show.
That the collection inspired by a trio of crime-fighting young women was rolled out on International Women's Day was nothing close to coincidence, but rather in line with the ethos of a brand that seeks to celebrate the beauty and power of women. Cowan's love, appreciation, and emulation of women is expressed verbally in our interview backstage moments before the show, where he recounts influences including his mother and best friend. But it's in the smaller, less self-aware moments where this comes through more pointedly: watching him run between models, personally making sure they not only look good, but feel good in what they're wearing. "You feeling good?" he asks one model. "Of course. Are you feeling good?" she asks, almost to underline another momentous moment in the career of one of fashion's buzziest names.
Cowan’s managed to artfully maneuver multiple levers in order to gain status at the age of 24. There’s the industry cred, which includes being a 2018 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist as well as collabs with designers Giuseppe Zanotti and Eugenia Kim. But there’s a less trodden path for a designer as young as Cowan: that of celebrity dressing. From Beyoncé to Gaga, Cardi to Ariana, Normani to Charli XCX, these days it seems the list of celebs Cowan hasn’t dressed outweighs the list of who he has. Need more proof? There’s Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Dua Lipa, Lana Del Rey, Rita Ora, Janelle Monae, Hailee Steinfeld, Beth Ditto, Gwen Stefani, Remy Ma, Camila Cabello, and more.
“I often think about this,” Cowan admits to MTV News when asked about gay men’s long-mused-upon iconography of women as opposed to other gay men. “This is a society that’s driven by straight men and so it’s like women are marginalized and gay men are marginalized and so I think we come together on that. But more importantly, I think it’s often women who have supported us in our lives. I definitely will attest to that whether it be my mother, my best friends, or even female editors in the industry, they’ve all been there and helped push me out of my box of being a shy gay kid."
Cowan (center) with his mother (left) and Paris Hilton (right) at the Christian Cowan x The Powerpuff Girls fashion show
And that support has been reciprocated by many of the female celebrities who not only wear Cowan, but continue to wear and support the brand. Take, for instance, Cardi B, who chose a Cowan look for her debut album cover. She then wore a lavender leather ensemble from his SS19 runway at her performance at the Etam lingerie show during Paris Fashion Week. Most recently, she chose a custom look for her recent “Money” video that featured 90 watches fashioned into a bodysuit and headpiece. The look, according to Cowan, was at Cardi’s request. (Fun fact: Rihanna once passed on a similarly designed look from Cowan, calling it “the most ghetto shit [she’d] ever seen in her life.”)
It’s this sort of loyalty from celebrities with as much clout as Cardi that’s established Cowan as no one-trick pony. But it’s a loyalty that is earned through a symbiotic relationship, one that is established through conversations with the celebrity and their stylist about the image or message they wish to convey through clothing. “I never want to create something and just shove the person into it; it’s always a collaborative process,” he says. To that end, Cowan worked with Cardi to create the custom look she wore during an April appearance on SNL, a design that would serve as a pregnancy announcement mid-performance.
Cardi B performs on Saturday Night Live
“Christian Cowan empowers women through fashion in so many ways,” said RuPaul’s Drag Race star and transgender advocate Gia Gunn, who was in attendance at the show. “I personally love how sexy the pieces are, taking the cartoon concept and updating it for a modern woman. We all know if a woman can feel sexy but yet comfortable in her attire she’s going to feel the utmost confidence and also quite empowered! His pieces are definitely for the women who want to make a statement without being ‘too much.’”
“Every time a woman wears my clothes I see them smiling or laughing and that’s what I want to achieve for the rest of my career," Cowan says. "When they’re not hiding and they feel beautiful and confident, and I feel like that confidence reveals their personality.”
It’s a message that seems in agreement with fashion, an industry that ostensibly is built on the idea of celebrating women, but one that often gets drowned out via its actions. Take, for instance, Virgil Abloh’s second Louis Vuitton show in January, where Ian Connor, a man accused of rape by 21 women sat front row. “Why do fashion's #MeToo moments keep getting swept under the rug?” Refinery29 asked in October.
“We take very seriously events that happen in the industry, whether in or out of our control,” Anna Wintour recently told the Guardian. And while institutions like Condé Nast — which operates Vogue, W, and GQ — have rolled out new codes of conduct intended to better protect models, and organizations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) have prioritized “wellness” and “privacy,” issues pervade, particularly within an industry that centers the faces and bodies of women, particularly young women.
"I do think there's been huge improvements,” Cowan said. “One small example for instance is that there used to be backstage photographers at every show taking pictures of models getting ready. And now that's become a huge unanimous taboo. We will kick a photographer out of our backstage if they're taking photos of models. However, I do think there can be more done on the corporate level. I have known with many companies that have preached inclusivity and championing women's equality but they've not really had that within the company itself.”
It seems largely to be young designers like Cowan — along with other buzzy names Telfar Clemens and Palomo Spain — whose mindfulness around model safety and maintaining inclusivity as a practice versus solely lip service that are helping to shift the culture toward one that prioritizes the women, femmes, and non-binary individuals central to the industry.
So what’s next for Cowan? "Sleep?" I suggest. No, of course not. "Onto the next collection."