Christian Cowan grew up idolizing pop music’s biggest stars — and now he’s dressing them

Christian Cowan stars on In The Know’s digital cover for February 2022.

Growing up in the English countryside, Christian Cowan dreamt of life in New York City, designing clothes for the world’s most preeminent pop culture icons and celebrating the party that we call life.

Suffice to say, he’s living his dreams.

On set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for In The Know’s February cover shoot last month, Cowan is matter of fact as he unpacks how special it is that, at the age of 25, he has already dressed many of the women who inspired him to pursue design in the first place. Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton are all era-defining stars whose music videos Cowan fed himself on growing up. Now they’re clients and friends and collaborators: Paris walked in his first fashion show, Gaga wore one of his designs while he was still in college and he dressed Miley for her tour at the same time.

While he refers to his good fortune as “luck” multiple times throughout our 30-minute interview on set, the path that Cowan has taken thus far feels a little bit more like destiny. Armed with his vivacious, campy, color-filled sensibility, his work is born to stand out, enabling whoever wears his designs to shine, be the life of whatever chic party they are no doubt the center of attention at.

Christian Cowan on In The Know’s February 2022 digital cover.
He’s wearing a Bottega Veneta sweater and a Christian Cowan logo necklace.
Photo by Jasper Soloff

It’s also clear that Cowan, who partnered with Yahoo last year to bring his NYFW show into another dimension, is always looking forward, thinking three steps ahead of the current moment, all while staying true to his brand. His shoot for our inaugural Iconic Issue came on the heels of the Christian Cowan Essentials launch, the designer’s first foray into everyday clothing that includes sweatshirts, underwear and T-shirts. True to form, the line was unveiled in a manner that caught people’s attention. In the raunchy campaign photos, models showcase the new thongs and briefs in a series of sensual poses. As he told In The Know during our interview, the photos showing two men together resulted in a sponsor dropping out of a future show.

For Cowan, it was a telling moment that confirmed his own values and those of his brand, which are inextricably linked. The endless party being thrown by Christian Cowan is inclusive and celebratory and, yes, sexy.

Want to join the festivities? Come on in — it’s iconic.

Gibson Johns: I read somewhere that when you were growing up, you were fascinated by insects and you wanted to be the next David Attenborough — fair to say that we’re kind of far from that at this point! When did the interest switch to fashion? When did that become your singular focus?

Christian Cowan: I like to think that I’m still just on a slow trajectory towards that point. I’ve just gotta make it big in fashion; then I can, like, fund research trips. [Laughs] But I think for me, I always liked exotic reptiles and insects because they were the most expressive forms of creativity within the natural world, and they were so wild and [had] different colors and textures. I think as a child, that just translated into women’s wear as a no-brainer. I just had such a good time with the idea that I could create a form of my own, and then I think it kind of just went off from that.

Gibson: Is there a moment or a look that either somebody in your life wore, or you saw somebody in a magazine wearing that stuck with you and made you go, “Okay, I want to make that?”

Christian: There were a few moments, I would say, that kind of compounded my interest in fashion. The first being my mother. She’s a Spanish woman. She’s fabulous. She wears pencil skirts and kitten heels that are pointy-toed. And she always used to wear all black, which I know isn’t very me, but it just looked chic. She [also] has kind of an iconic haircut. So, I think she was a big inspiration.

Then honestly, when I was like 14, 15, Gaga first broke out with her first tracks. And as a queer, closeted kid in the countryside, she was this huge, exciting expression of creativity that I just was so, so inspired by. I remember watching the music videos over and over and over again. I think that was what really set it off.

Gibson: And a lot of those early looks for her were her brainchild, and she had this sort of incubator around her and there was a homemade aspect to it all. But it obviously still really worked — that must have also inspired you.

Christian: 100%. Do you remember she would wear those crystal, dual dresses? That all felt like — not that I could remotely make it how it was done on her — but I felt like I could. I didn’t even need to know how to sew at the beginning. I could just glue it together. It was that creativity that she kind of sponsored in all her fans that I think has impacted so many people.

It was so special that the first person who wore my outfits was Lady Gaga. She was the person who kind of inspired me, and then to see her wearing it? I was 18 or 19 at the time! I think it kind of grounded my belief that this was what I was going to do. It was very lucky.

Gibson: That’s the ultimate co-sign that you must’ve always wanted.

Christian: Oh my God. I died when she wore it. I was with my best friend, and we were full Little Monsters!

Christian Cowan in a Dzojchen suit jacket and pants and a Wolford turtleneck.
Photo by Jasper Soloff

Gibson: You eventually moved to New York after university. What did that change for you in terms of who you were or what your outlook on your work was?

Christian: I remember I came to New York when I was 10 for the first time with my family, and I told my mom then, I was like, “When I graduate, I’m gonna move to New York.” I was like, “That is just 100% the place I need to be.” And so then, when it came to the time of graduating, I was like, “Right, this is the next step. I’ve gotta go.” And I literally had no plan. I had no funding, I had no connections. And I kind of knew that just throwing myself into it, the fear of it not working was the thing that was gonna make me make it work.

Gibson: Who were some of those early champions of your work that you feel like really helped you along and helped you gain your footing once you moved here?

Christian: It was a huge amount of luck, again. Anna Wintour became supportive really, really quickly, and then being put into the Vogue Fashion Fund by her and all of that was a huge seal of approval and also [generated a lot of] connections. Stephen Kolb and Diane von Furstenberg were also helpful; I’d say they were huge helpers. Drew Elliott of Paper Magazine was a huge help. Then I think Miley [Cyrus] and a lot of the singers. Because where fashion doesn’t have the budget to often support new artists, music does. So, I would not have my brand today without the Cardi Bs, the Nickis, the Gagas, the Mileys…

“I feel so insanely lucky that the people that I love ended up loving my work. I think it’s because I’m so inspired by them that I ended up creating stuff for them, really.”

Gibson: With Cardi B specifically, though, I mean, she’s wearing one of your looks on her debut album cover. You dressed her before “Bodak Yellow” and obviously a million times in between. Something about that really works. Do you guys just see eye to eye on a lot of things? It seems like there’s a fearlessness on both sides of that equation.

Christian: It’s a few things. One, I just think she’s amazing and she’s so talented, but also she’s the nicest person and has always been that from the beginning ’til when I bump into her at things now. She’s still just so lovely and takes the time to congratulate you on things. You’re kinda like, “Oh my gosh, you knew that I did that?” Female rappers [also] embody confidence on a whole new level, which is what I’m so inspired by. My mother is a really confident, strong woman and, even though they’re so different, I kind of see that same energy in Cardi.

Gibson: You describe your brand as being inspired by New York nightlife but also being for the Saks woman. Where do those two things meet? How do you see them working together?

Christian: Inspiration-wise, growing up in the middle of nowhere in the UK, I dreamed of that New York nightlife and I idolized it in such a way. I would look at all the old pictures, and I’d be so inspired that that was always gonna be part of the identity. Fusing the two, I’ve really found that that wealthy customer who wants to spend a lot of money on clothing or the customer who doesn’t want to spend as much, they both want that fun, creative spirit at the heart of it. That’s what they’re really excited by. So, if you can find a way to translate that into beautiful textiles, into a fit that’s really flattering and something that works for all age groups, then you’ve already hit the Saks Avenue [woman] and the creative club kid.

“The thing I hate the most is people who just endlessly say everything’s fabulous and amazing. Then you’ve got nothing to build upon there. I want an outsider’s eye. I don’t want to get stuck in a rut.”

Gibson: What’s your relationship like with criticism? Obviously, being a designer and showing your work, that opens yourself up for opinions. If somebody reacts negatively to a piece or collection or a celebrity look that you are involved in, how do you respond to that?

Christian: Honestly, I think it probably sounds so defensive to say that I kind of love it. It sounds like I’m overcompensating, but I kind of do, because the thing I hate the most is people who just endlessly say everything’s fabulous and amazing. Then you’ve got nothing to build upon there. I want an outsider’s eye. I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. So, obviously, sometimes if there’s a negative critique and I don’t agree with that, I’m like, “Well, that’s rubbish. Whatever.” But I do like to look out for people’s opinions that I really care about and what they’re saying. It’s gotta be constructive criticism.

Gibson: You recently released the Christian Cowan Essentials line, which is a pretty big departure from the ready-to-wear collections that we’ve seen you show season after season. Why did you do this now? What about it felt right for the expansion of your brand?

Christian: I found it interesting. I released that campaign, and some of the images show two men being romantic. We’ve actually had a sponsor pull out of sponsoring our show because they felt the images were too erotic, which I think is nonsense because, let’s face it, if it was a man and woman, no one would be saying anything. So, I think that’s a prime example [of] where we have to show our values and then if something else falls through, [so be it]. But, in terms of the campaign, it was just important for me to have stuff that other people can access and purchase. We want stuff that is for people who can’t afford a $5,000 dress but still want to be part of that fantasy.

That was really our push. I saw on Instagram, we have a 37% male following. So I was like, “Let’s get stuff [for them].”

Gibson: Thinking about the future of the Christian Cowan brand and a year, five years, 10 years into the future, what do you hope it looks like? What are some immediate things that are on your list to accomplish next?

Christian: Oh my gosh, how much time do you have? [Laughs]

There’s a lot for the brand. We want to open stores. We want to release new lines, accessories, handbags, all that type of stuff. We wanna do more unexpected campaigns. I’m so excited to show the ones that are coming up. We want to do more philanthropic efforts, as well. We set up a fund with Lil Nas X and Rachel Cargle, which is called the Christian Cowan Fund. I want to rename it ’cause I think it’s cringe, but that benefits Black trans youth in Atlanta, which Nas and I both really care about. And that’s just the beginning.

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Go behind the scenes of In The Know’s cover shoot and interview with Christian Cowan below:

If you enjoyed this story, check out In The Know’s January 2022 cover shoot with Chlöe Bailey here!

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