October 01, 1979 12:00 PM

When she was at 20th Century-Fox designing costumes for Hollywood beauties like Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter and Dorothy McGuire, Bonnie Cashin hung a Hindu proverb over her drawing board. It read, “He who arrives at perfection dispenses with a vulgarity of clothes.” Nearly four decades later, five-time Coty award-winner Cashin, 64, is still turning out some of the least vulgar clothes in the business. A pioneer in American sportswear, she was the first major designer to make ponchos for women and invented the layered look. “Whatever is going on in Paris or New York, is beside the point,” explains one Cashin-watcher, “Bonnie keeps on doing Bonnie.” Bill Blass concurs: “Bonnie is simply the enduring American designer.”

In a fall fashion season dedicated to the shoulder pad and the rediscovery of constructed suits and coats, Cashin is not swerving from her own elegant, loose-fitting look. Among its admirers are such customers as Cloris Leachman, Ingrid Bergman and Lee Radziwill. Not all of Cashin’s clothes actually get worn. Curators at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum are squirreling away classic examples of her work for their permanent costume collections.

With football weather settling in, Bonnie’s all-wool ponchos, melton cloth car jackets and camel’s hair and fur-lined poplin coats—many trimmed in leather and suede and fastened with distinctive turnlock metal clasps—are again selling well in major department stores. At the Bonnie Cashin Knittery in her United Nations Plaza studio, Bonnie also produces a line of handknit sweaters.

She grossed some $25 million worldwide last year. But unlike Halston, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent and nearly every other fashion star, Bonnie has steadfastly refused offers to license her name for perfumes, furs, shoes, linens and other items. “She could have been the richest designer in America,” sighs one insider, “but she has always been so bloody uncompromising.”

Cashin has traveled far abiding by her own rules. The daughter of a struggling artist, she was born in Oakland, Calif. and grew up in San Francisco and L.A. She used to sit on the floor of her mother’s custom dress shop after school, stitching together doll’s clothes from left-over scraps of fabric. After graduating from high school at 16, she moved east to New York to study dance and take courses at the Art Students’ League. On a lark, one afternoon she answered a call for dancers at the Roxy Theatre. At the last minute, too terrified to go onstage, she showed the drawings she had with her to the director. He hired her on the spot, and she was soon turning out three costume changes a week for the 24 dancers in the chorus.

Lured to Hollywood in 1943 by producer William Perlberg, Cashin spent the next six years designing costumes for some 60 films including Laura, Anna and the King of Siam and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. By 1949 Bonnie was back in New York where her first postwar collection was a huge success. The next year she won her first Coty. “I didn’t even know what the award was,” Bonnie recalls. “I was that green.”

These days she lives alone in a six-room apartment with a commanding view of the East River and Manhattan. (Her marriage to Bob Sterner, an art teacher she met during her early years in New York, ended in divorce in the early 1950s.) At her small parties—Cashin stocks them with writers, painters and thinkers like Buckminster Fuller—she tries to steer clear of fashion-world gossip. “I don’t care who slept with anybody,” she says briskly. “I get high on ideas.”

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