Shock Wave Lender Cathy Covell

Cathy Covell is not only a lender, but our liaison for the majority of the local loans shown in Shock Wave. Cathy and her husband, Lawrence, of their name sake Cherry Creek boutique, Lawrence Covell, were instrumental in bringing the '90s wave of Japanese fashion to Denver. Initially drawn from either coast (Lawrence from the west and Cathy from the east) in the late '60s, they met while both attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. The first incarnation of their retail enterprise started 50 years ago when they founded a leather goods (belts, sandals, and handbags) store in Boulder in 1967. Their love of hand-crafted English and Italian leather led them to relocate and expand into high-end men’s and women's wear.

Born and raised in New York, she moved west to study writing at CU-Boulder. An academic at heart, she approaches fashion with an intuitive intelligence. Although, she would deny it, both she and Lawrence are seemingly psychic when it comes to curating brands. They were among the first in the country to debut the Italian masters: Versace and Armani, followed by Yohji Yamamoto, a total wild card at that time. They remained on the pulse of what was happening in Paris, bringing the descendants of the “Japanese School”— the Belgians: Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela to Denver. Cathy graciously gave up an afternoon to reveal how a rebellious trip out west turned her into a fashion pioneer.

Jane Burke: How would you describe your personal style?

Cathy Covell: That’s a hard question to answer because it varies depending on my mood but I would say in general it’s very subdued. I like to feel chic, an overused word—but I suppose that’s the only word. I don’t like too much attention. I like to feel well dressed in my mind. Based on the concept I have in my head. I have dressed the same way for decades. Even though it changes as the clothing changes season to season, but the mentality remains the same.

JB: And how did you develop your own personal style? Especially because you are in fashion, where did your initial interest in fashion come from?

CC: I don’t think that I can claim that I had an interest in fashion initially. I was an academic really. That is what I would have done if I hadn’t bumped into this business. And so I guess it developed through that process of just constantly being around it; being a buyer that’s one avenue, but also as the person wearing the clothing. You try on different things and you say I look like an idiot or I like how this looks—so I think it just developed organically. It wasn’t something I thought about too much.

Florence Müller: I can guess that you had to be dressed very fashionably in the '60s. But it is different now—now you are often dressed all in black. Can you describe this evolution?

CC: It probably developed more as we traveled—that’s a big piece of it. We started going back to New York. And then we started to go to Europe and I’m sure it influenced me tremendously—looking at what other people were wearing. Also, what we experienced in designer show rooms.

FM: Can you describe your style in the '60s?

CC: Hippie, because that was my generation; army jacket, big boots, blue jeans. I was first in New York and then came out to Colorado. I listened to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

FM: Big loose dresses?

CC: Yes, some of that, but I was always working. The store was originally a leather shop like a leather atelier. We were self-taught. So I was wearing jeans and t-shirts. When I was younger—I was preppy—because I grew up in New York and New England and so that was a big influence.

FM: Is there someone in your family who was/is very chic? A mother or a grandmother?

CC: I had grandmothers who were very chic. One grandmother—was European and the other a New Yorker; they were both dressed beautifully always.

FM: And then during the '70s?

CC: During the '70s—yes, there was so much fashion in the '70s, but probably not until the late '70s when we went on our first buying trip to Europe. We first went to Paris and then Milan. And it quickly became all about the Italians: Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace.

FM: Why the Italians? Is it because in terms of style, they are closer to the Americans?

CC: Possibly. I remember going into Krizia and seeing all the animal prints and the shoulders. I thought it was new and exciting and I wanted to understand it. I remember loving Giorgio Armani also when he was first starting. I liked the aesthetic. And you have to remember we were also selling menswear. So, maybe it became more important on the men’s side.

And we loved Italy; the country; the people. This was our way to continue to have a relationship. The two things evolved at the same time. You start to learn about something and you have a feeling. You immediately know what is not your taste. But sometimes, if it’s something different and you’re not sure—it might take a little time to develop an appreciation. As you develop a relationship with whatever it is—you begin to appreciate it more and more. Like anything, it is a process, whether it’s fashion, good food, or wine, or interesting furniture. The appreciation is all learned. You are not born knowing how to appreciate something. You have to study it and pay attention to it.

JB: Are there specific designers that inform your style?

CC: They’ve changed over the years. I did love the Japanese, even though that is an example of clothing that can be too much of a costume for me. I would not be walking around Denver wearing some of it. But that little denim jacket that is in Shock Wave (in the slideshow above)—that kind of funky, I can go to that extent—and like it. But something really extravagant—I can’t do. I’m not going to wear it to go to work. I don’t like too many eyes on me.

FM: You went from Armani and Versace straight to the Japanese designers—like this?

CC: Yes, it was very funny. We would always have a strange mix in the store. But I would use a bigger store, like Barneys, as an example and then try the same model in a smaller way. It’s still this way. We carry Brunello Cucinelli, Dries Van Noten and The Row. They each represent different mentalities.

JB: The next question that I have for all our lenders is how has your career impacted your fashion choices? In your case, as you are not only representing yourself but your business, do you feel people expect you to dress a certain way?

CC: If they do—I am not aware of it. I mostly dress for myself. If I’m going to an event—then I might think about it more.

JB: When you go to the fashion shows do you try to wear the designers?

CC: Often, although, we don’t spend as much time as we used to going to the shows because they take a lot of time. They take at least three hours each. But I do think about what I’m wearing when I go to the showrooms. Depending on which designer that I’m going to see, I’ll wear their designs as a gesture of respect; to be polite. We do not buy lines that we don’t like. We can’t. There may be lines that I am more apt to wear than others personally. But everything in the store comes from a certain perspective.

JB: It is very obvious. There is cohesiveness; an aesthetic integrity not based on popular taste.

That’s what people say. I don’t have something ugly in the shop just because I know it will sell.

JB: I don’t think that everyone shares that mentality. I think you are still a pioneer in that you stay so true to yourself.

Who knows what the future holds for our whole world.

JB: Yes, true. But as Denver continues to grow, your boutique will undoubtedly remain relevant. I think there is a backlash with all the online shopping in that people want to “experience” the act shopping again—not only by touching and trying on, but also for the human interaction.

I know I walk around Paris and see hundreds of wonderful shops—and they are not all going to go away.

FM: You need a guide. Many women don’t know what to wear. They need to try the thing on. I am so surprised that people can buy something without trying it on.

I think there is a huge percentage that is sent back. And someone should speak about it in terms of global warming and the excessive amount of shipping/flying around the world.

JB: Can you tell us how you were influenced by the Japanese designers in the '80s and '90s?

The first time we bought Yohji Yamamoto it was by accident. I went with a friend who had a shop in Santa Barbara. She asked me to go with her and I said sure. And it was all black. It was a big departure from the Italians. And I thought this is cool I like this. I saw it and I liked it.

JB: It makes sense from the outside that you would be attracted to Yohji since you’ve always carried menswear and he’s so inspired by menswear tailoring. His aesthetic is almost like a bridge between men’s and womenswear.

Yes, that’s a good observation. I think the one thing that we never have is super girly-girly, sexy-sexy. It’s not our personality. We’ve tried designers like Giambattista Valli and I remember it being a disaster. It was too sexy.

I think the ones who want that don’t want it at that price. They may want it just for one evening. But that goes against everything I believe in.

FM: You were attending every fashion show previous, what is your memory of the most extraordinary, crazy show?

There was one Yohji Yamamoto show that was at the École des Beaux-Artes. The last model, the bride—she was wearing a dress and there were long sticks. There were men holding the sticks up which were propping up the brim of the hat while she was walking down the runway. And she was walking very, very slowly. And it’s actually a bit of a sad story, as she was so thin, maybe 80 pounds. And when she came out, the whole audience gasped because it was so horrifying—so it’s not really a nice fashion story. I just remembered it very well—she was walking so slowly. But the dress was so spectacular with the huge hat.

Another more happy story, there was a fashion show in Milan in the mid-1980s. It was a fashion designer but not a “fashion” fashion designer, Umberto Ginocchietti. The Gypsy Kings were the band playing live on stage. It was a very small venue. That was the kind of thing I enjoy.

FM: And Dries Van Noten?

I remember his Spring 2005 ready-to-wear fashion show with the dinner. [The runway for Dries Van Noten’s 50th collection was a dinner table set for 500.]

I mean, they are all wonderful, but after you’ve seen many, many of them… Initially, I found them incredible and very exciting. I liked going to the Versace shows.

JB: There was more intimacy then?

Definitely. You know I was usually in the second row. The first row was Barneys and Bergdorf’s and all the big department stores. There weren’t that many stores at that time—going all the way to Paris to see the shows.

JB: That was what I was wondering how many peers do you have/had?

Not many, not many at all and not many still in business. This year will be the 50th anniversary of our store. We try to avoid cross over. We try very hard to not be influenced by other stores. We prefer not to have the same lines that other stores carry. I think being individual is what’s important; very important.

JB: Do you do any specific research to find new designers? It must be difficult to commit to new designers.

Yes, it’s not easy. We are fortunate because we have been around so long. They have lists; they know who to call. New designers contact us. So you go and you look and if you think it’s interesting you try a little bit.

For example, well this brand is not so young anymore, but the brand Public School, who are two guys from New York. We went several years ago, I can’t remember which one was there, but he was there in the show room talking to us. And I like that—when they are young and don’t have too big of an ego yet.

JB: It must be like a lottery though—because now they are really big. It’s the same with contemporary art. People say the rate that people are buying contemporary art versus the artists’ longevity. It’s similar to fashion. You don’t know if they are going to be relevant in 10 years.

There is definitely an element of hope and fingers crossed. But you don’t put all of your budget into it.

FM: With Dries and The Row—you were among the first to buy them?

Yes, definitely. Not in the whole world—but very early. We started with the Italians in the late '70s/early '80s.

FM: Very early. At that time nobody believed in them at all.

We don’t necessarily want to be the first. In that case we were.

JB: It’s interesting that your playing field is really New York, LA and even Paris. You are extremely brave in the sense you’ve taken so many risks bringing these brands to Denver so early in time.

After seeing the exhibition, has it reminded you of how instrumental you’ve been? Or even on a personal level—has it changed how you look back on that period?

I think it just brought it all back again… to see it all. It was wonderful; very special.

JB: You are clearly a trend setter as your taste is ahead of the curve, especially in Denver. Even the skin care line you carry, Aesop, is very on trend. Do you feel you are the one who is translating the designers’ ideas to the customer?

I think that we try to look at a collection with a very open mind. The pieces that we love we will buy. We don’t think about this is impossible or this is unique. You try to have a balance—but it’s not a calculated plan. It’s like putting a puzzle together. We choose the pieces we are going to buy in a collection. And what the store will look like each season. And we put it all together and it’s never perfect. You always bought too much of something or not enough of something else. You have too much all the same color. You try to make it into a science, but it is more art. It’s a feeling. Similar to what you do. Somehow using your intuition and your taste and of course, your experience.

JB: My last question is: do you have a personal connection with Japanese culture?

Yes, we hosted a Japanese student in Colorado and actually attended his wedding in Japan—which was fantastic. And I had the honor of being dressed in kimono. I don’t think I appreciated or understood what an honor it was at that time. There were 300 guests at the wedding. The bride changed five times. It was incredible. We flew to Tokyo, and then to the island of Shikoku to the capital city of Kōchi. We were treated with so much warmth and hospitality. We loved Japan.