The Decadence Of Dressing Up: A Chat With Nashville Designer Cavanagh Baker

A trench-coat cape. A sequin-tee dress. A hand-woven leather shawl. To graze Cavanagh Baker territory is to make acquaintance with a luxury most distinct—practical meets extravagant, red carpet meets hunting lodge. Baker’s eponymous line was launched two years ago, and already the Nashville-based designer is custom dressing high-profile country-music legends and socialites alike. With a studio in Nashville’s historic Cummins Station for fittings, Baker’s collection of limited edition, made-to-order garments betray a maturity of vision beyond her years. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Baker is a graduate of Georgia’s Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), and worked in Boston before returning south to launch her label.

We had a chance to speak with the busy designer in late May.

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You are Cavanagh Baker, obviously, but how did you conceive of the CB label?
We just presented Collection Three—our Spring/Summer collection with a few pre-fall pieces—and we still do a bunch of custom work. The idea behind the brand is related to how I’ve never been able to shop and find exactly what I want. Either the fabric’s cool and the design’s horrible, or this design’s cool but I don’t want to wear the fabric. I really wanted to develop a line for women that’s everything I’ve always wanted to hang in my own closet. I decided to make sure everything was made in the U.S., and that we’re sourcing Parisian and Italian textiles, extremely high-end textiles. We’re designing very classic silhouettes, but taking an edgy twist on them, throwing in a very unexpected fabric.

For example, with our Iris maxi skirt, the silhouette is very easy and wearable, but we offer it in three variations. We offer it in a green cotton, rugged material, we offer it in black, and in a burn-out novelty fabric that’s completely sheer. It’s up to the person as to how to style that specific garment. I get to play with how people look at clothing and look at fashion. The women who shop with me are stylish and know what they want. They know who they are and what they want to wear. What I love doing is surprising them and taking their style to the next level. They’ll come in saying, “I never considered putting on a sheer skirt. How do you wear it?” But I’ll show them how it’s worn, and then really style-forward. They’re pushing the envelope.

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So you’re encouraging a mindful element of risk.
People say “you are what you eat,” and I’m a true believer that you are what you wear. First impressions are everything. And my clothes make a first impression like no other. You need to be wearing what you want people to perceive you as. If you’re constantly wearing workout clothes, people are going to see you as someone who might not necessarily care about your appearance. But with one of my garments, you’re put together. You look good. The textiles and silhouettes are so complementary to women’s bodies. I’m trying to get women to dress up again. The active-wear boom has brought women down from really getting dressed.

You used to work in athletic design at Reebok in Boston, which surprised me at first, given how formal your attire is. But there’s a kind of strength to the looks as well. How did that experience affected your aesthetic or perspective?
I’m from an extremely athletic family, and an extremely active background. At SCAD, Reebok recruits for its apprenticeships every year—it’s an introduction into that world. You get a contract, a full-time job and a paycheck—it’s good! I was actually infatuated with the idea of working with a massive corporation for activewear. At that time at least, active sportswear was more profitable than any other category—more than couture, more than fast fashion. I’ve always been really business-oriented, so I wanted to know, “Why is this so much more profitable?” It taught me what goes on in major corporations, and what goes into a collection. Primarily, I realized that as a massive company, new designs aren’t coming out. Just updates to older designs. It made me appreciate what I wanted to do much more. I wanted to do high-end women’s fashion.

Your instinct naturally seems very sumptuous, labor-intensive and ornate. And there’s also a gothic element—like your collection, “The Raven,” for example. How did the literary element figure in there?
I’m kind of stubborn—very much like my Dad. That stubbornness was in part what inspired this full-black collection. It was not only inspired by Edgar Allan Poe—but by the notion that it isn’t possible to develop a full-black collection that’s still successful. So in reading Poe’s “The Raven,” I took a modern view of the poem, as if Poe wrote it for the modern woman. I took it as, “She’s in all black, a serious, mysterious woman.” I was always told that an all-black collection can’t be successful, but it ended up being extremely successful. That first collection, that storytelling, is what really cemented my love for design. I like to mix fabrics and textures—ponyhairs on hides with acrylic faux furs, then beating it with black onyx then weaving silk chiffon into the mix.

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I noticed that many of your items are made in New York to order—but you’re based in Nashville. What’s the connection between the two cities?
I didn’t want to be another New York designer, straight out of school in the city and trying to start a brand. I would have been one of thousands. I’m a Southern girl, from Alabama, and went to school in Georgia. One thing people would always say is, “I would never have taken you for a true southern Alabama girl.” I liked that people were so surprised by that. And I thought, “Well, I’m going to bring this to Nashville. I’m going to show that we do have style, and we are here. You don’t have to be in New York, and you can have just as big of an impact.”

I do use manufacturing in New York. In Nashville, they can’t work with my textiles. What I make is very trade-driven. What makes sense with our price point and quality is to use very well-known New York City manufacturers, but with a small-batch mindset. So customers are getting the same quality and spending about the same amount—if not less—than they would with Alexander Wang. But because it’s small-batch, there are only so many people who are going to have it. That’s what I wanted to introduce to women who like to shop the way I like to shop.

You often design for performers—who are some of your favorite artists that you’ve dressed?
The main reason I came to Nashville was the option to be able to work with the music industry here. No one in Nashville was doing what I was doing. I wanted the stylists to know that they don’t have to go to New York or L.A. to get what they want. The country-music artists can stop by after recording or yoga and engage in a collaborative experience. I’m a huge country-music fan—but also inspired by theatrical performances and Tim Burton movies, that idea of using clothing telling a story.

I’ve designed for Little Big Town and Kelsea Ballerini—such great artists and individuals, and so genuine. The thing is they’re all country artists, but they all have such unique personalities. That’s what I love for my regular consumer, as well—they all like my ready-to-wear pieces, but I get to dig into what they want in a custom sense, and design exactly what is needed.

What are you most excited about right now?
Women—especially in Nashville—are looking at what I’m doing and accepting it and making a change. I have women who are very stylish and always dressed perfectly, but are seeing that my stuff is so different and [is] another way to present themselves. And I have other clients that are usually more comfortable wearing workout or activewear, but realize my clothing is just as comfortable and easy to wear. I’m starting to catch people’s attention and getting them to think a little differently. It’s like they realize, “This is who I am and what I want to be, and I’m going to express that through what I have on.” It brings on a sense of confidence in women, too, which is an amazing feeling.

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