Sylvie Cachay, Va. native fashion designer, found dead in N.Y.; boyfriend charged

By Annie Gowen and Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 10, 2010; 10:05 PM

A New York fashion designer who graduated from Marymount University in Arlington and grew up in McLean, decorating the walls of her childhood bedroom with magazine cutouts of runway models, was found dead in an overflowing bathtub in a swank Manhattan hotel early Thursday. Sylvie Cachay, 33, was faceup and had bruising near her neck and an apparent bite mark on her body, according to a spokesman for the New York Police Department, but the cause of death has not been determined.

Cachay's boyfriend, Nicholas Brooks, the son of songwriter Joseph Brooks, has been charged with attempted murder and strangulation, according to the Associated Press. Officials did not explain why the charge was attempted murder.

On Friday, a steady flow of relatives and friends streamed into the Cachay family's expansive white brick house in McLean, tucked into a forested neighborhood adjacent to the Beltway. Cachay, who was a dual citizen of the United States and Peru, came from a large family of Peruvian immigrants. She was born and grew up in McLean with father Antonio, a surgeon with a private practice who is affiliated with Inova Fairfax Hospital; mother Sylvia, an artist; and brother Patrick, who works in the financial services industry.

Two of Cachay's cousins looked at photos of her Friday afternoon.

"She had amazing fashion taste even when she was a little kid," said one of them. "She did a beautiful job putting on her makeup. She had perfect skin - she never had a pimple growing up. What kind of teenager are you that you don't ever have a blemish?"

Until the market tanked in 2008 and she lost her investors, Cachay, who lived in the West Village, was starting to make waves in the New York fashion world with a line of luxury swimwear called Syla, which featured swimsuit sets that retailed at Bloomingdale's for $200 or more. She was inspired by the leisure-class portraiture of the British photographer Cecil Beaton, according to a two-page spread in Elle magazine three years ago, which also mentioned her penchant for Christian Louboutin shoes, her admiration of Austrian artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and her ideal customer type: "A glamorous woman on holiday."

A former business associate of Cachay's described the young designer as "a rising star" who was stunted by a bad economy and hoped to restart her line in the near future. At the time of her death, she was the head designer for Anne Cole, a mid-range swimwear line that dabbles in trends.

"She was a very, very valued employee," said Maryann Bonardi, office manager for In Mocean Group, which owns Anne Cole. "She was extremely talented, as well as very beautiful."

Cachay had a membership at the SoHo House, a hotel and exclusive club that she had reportedly been staying at after a small bedroom fire at her apartment this week, according to family members. There were no outward signs of a struggle, and bottled prescription drugs were found in the hotel room, according to AP.

The hotel staff discovered Cachay after guests on the first floor complained of water leakage, which stemmed from the overflowing tub. She was pronounced dead at the scene. Nicholas Brooks, her boyfriend of six months, arrived with her at the hotel several hours earlier, but he was not on the scene when police were called. He returned to the room while authorities were investigating.

The investigation is ongoing, police said.

Cachay's cousins said they knew little about Brooks, the 24-year-old son of Joseph Brooks, who won an Academy Award in 1978 for penning the super-ballad "You Light Up My Life," from the film of the same name.

The elder Brooks, 72, has been accused of raping 11 women he lured to his apartment with the promise of a starring role in a movie, according to AP. He has pleaded not guilty to sexual assault charges and is free on bail.

Family members said that Cachay had grown close to Nicholas Brooks this summer, around the time she lost her beloved toy poodle, Pepper, who was hit by a car. Brooks had comforted her during that sadness, they said.

"He was there during that and was very kind and supportive at that difficult time," said another cousin, who declined to give her name. "That's when she started to like him."

But the family thought it was a bad match, since the younger man was unemployed and less mature than the accomplished Cachay, according to relatives. While vacationing in Mexico for Thanksgiving, Cachay told her family that the relationship was coming to an end.

Cachay's cousins remembered her as a fashionista who inherited a love of art and design from her well-dressed and creative mother, Sylvia, a painter. She grew up playing in her mother's studio, creating pots in her mother's kiln. She also had a closet full of bikinis - the most arresting was hot pink and leopard-print - that she would sport on family vacations at a condo in Ocean City.

After graduating from McLean's private Madeira School in 1995, Cachay attended a short program at the Paris branch of the Parsons school of design and then obtained a bachelor's degree in fashion design at Marymount University in Arlington.

"Her work was always professional, even as a student," said Janice Ellinwood, chairwoman of Marymount's fashion design and merchandising programs. "Her designs were simple, which is unusual for a young person. She integrated simplicity with sophistication, with a slight fashion thrust."

Cachay's portfolio won her an internship at Marc Jacobs in New York and then a job as head designer for women's sportswear at Tommy Hilfiger. In 2002, Cachay left for Victoria's Secret, where she was the head of the swimwear team. In January 2006, she started Syla, a collection of "high-end, sophisticated swimwear with simple lines and distinctive patterns," as she described it on her Web site.

Syla was featured in the pages of Vogue, Elle and In Style but closed shop at the end of 2008 as investment dried up. Cachay had been designing for Anne Cole for one year at the time of her death.

"There's a lot of anger right now, and it's an incredible sadness," said Cachay's cousin, Francoise Jakobsson, 39, a marketing executive from Ellicott City. "She had an amazing life ahead of her. There were people who believed in her and what she was doing. She could have been a lot more if given time."

Staff writer Robin Givhan contributed to this report.

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