The boys of Proenza Schouler have every bit of what it takes to be bonafide couturiers, but they're not. At least, not for now.
For the past 15 years, designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have charmed the fashion industry with their expertise in handcrafted, luxury ready-to-wear. (Okay, and maybe their looks.) After debuting as a duo in 2002 with their Parsons graduate collection, the Schouler boys have taken contemporary clothing from something that's sold to something people want to buy. It's no wonder they have not one, but two Womenswear Designer of The Year awards from the CFDA, and that their business is expanding faster than ever. Since hitting bank with an accessories range — creating the It bag of the mid-aughts — the pair recently introduced a streetwear line, as well as a fragrance, extending not just their reach, but what their brand — and who they are as men — stands for.
In fact, a lot of the Proenza Schouler woman we see today is a reflection of themselves. At their two-story retail space on Greene Street in Soho, one of five storefronts worldwide, they discuss how far all three of them have come. "She’s grown up a little bit, with us. When we started, it was a lot more New York and street; her skirts were shorter length, her heels were higher — she was more nocturnal," Hernandez explains. "But, as we’ve grown up and our priorities have changed, she’s become a reflection of us. She’s this female counterpart to who we are as men. We’re not women, so it’s not so practical in a way." He pauses to clarify: "It’s like: If we were women, it’s what we would be into. It’s kind of autobiographical."
That doesn't mean they aren't inspired by the women around them, too. After all, their brand name (which they've once claimed to regret) is a mashup of their mothers' maiden names. Their most recent inspiration — first for their debut fragrance, called Arizona, second for their fall 2018 collection — comes from a trip the two took out West in search of peace and serenity, and the women who embody that. McCollough goes down the list: Lynda Benglis, Agnes Martin, Georgia O’Keefe (whose Ghost Ranch home they've visited). "A lot of those women were strong and independent, too, especially during their time," he continues. "It was a man’s world then, and still is in a lot of ways, but especially back then."
It was a man’s world then, and still is in a lot of ways...
After every show, McCollough and Hernandez take joint holidays, followed by solo breaks, to clear their minds and vision boards for the next season. It's said to be their only time apart. And remnants of the aforementioned trip, as with all of their excursions, are kept strictly between them. They're just as demure online as they are off.
"At a certain point, we lost cell phone reception — we had no computers, no phones — and we were just by ourselves in the middle of the desert," Hernandez remembers. "This idea of disconnection felt really pertinent for today. Everyone we talk to feels this overload of digital media and phones, and email — everyone is just so overwhelmed with stuff all the time. It felt really liberating, and almost like a luxury experience somehow. And it helped us form the ideas that would eventually be a part of [our] fragrance."
The lasting effect of the trip was evident on the runway, too. There was tie dye, beaten metal, leather, macramé, and woven techniques à la artist Sheila Hicks. It featured their signature American craftsmanship and handwork, but even more polished and sexy; a tableau nouveau of what a strong woman looks like.
"I think this idea that people have of women looking powerful is a power suit, or something. And I think that’s an antiquated idea of what a powerful woman is," McCollough explains. "A powerful woman is someone who’s confident in being themselves and staying true to what they believe in, and stand for — not having these preconceived ideas of what they’re supposed to look like." Hernandez doesn't buy it either. "It’s more than just a suit. It’s more than sexy. Women don’t dress for men, they dress for themselves."
Of political slogan tees and other overt displays of fashion as protest, he adds: "It's tacky. It’s too easy. Putting our thoughts on a T-shirt? That just seems like the obvious way of getting a message across. That’s not the point of fashion. You’re saying something with a cut, a silhouette, with colour, a proportion. It’s way easier to say something in words, sure. Or a word."
They're referring to, of course, the fashion industry's response to the Trump era of politics. At home and abroad, designers reacted to the results of the election as best they could: via T-shirts (some that cost upwards of £500, with only a portion of proceeds being donated to charity), collaborations with Planned Parenthood, and an increased 'wokeness' on the runways. But it'd seem the Schouler way of navigating it all is by sticking to what they know best: clothes. Or, at least until they figure out just what fashion that fights back actually looks like.
Women don’t dress for men, they dress for themselves.
"Especially with what’s happening in the world, with politics and gender identity, people are just doing what’s right for them instead of anything that’s pre-prescribed," Hernandez says. But they're not just setting trends on the runway. That their merging of pre- and main collections, and their move from New York to Paris, was for hype is erroneous. As a business decision, it was every bit intentional. "The idea of showing in New York in September just felt really old to us. We thought, Why are we doing this? Who said we have to do this? Who’s the boss? Oh, we’re the boss. So, can’t we do whatever we want? So, that’s what we’re doing." They're not completely void of what's going on either; it's just that their every move doesn't require a press release.
"I don’t think the old way of doing things applies to today’s world anymore," McCollough adds. "We’re just at a time where we need to explore and discover things, and do what makes the most sense for our brand, as opposed to what makes the most sense for the industry as a whole. It’s more fluid these days. Maybe we will show in New York next season. But maybe we won’t have a show. Maybe we’ll show in London. You can move around and be more fluid than you could 10 years ago."
Perhaps this stealth, noncommittal approach to expanding a once-exclusive brand into a mega, mainstream empire may be the key to longevity in an industry that creates trends and kills them overnight. As in, changing with the tides as opposed to fighting against them; moving the deadlines as opposed to drowning in them — and acknowledging what's been at the heart of their steady success over the past 15 years: each other.
"I think it’s really two of us," Hernandez says. "We help each other and keep each other grounded. When one’s feeling down, one picks the other one up." But like most things — their inspiration trips, whether they'll ever get married, if couture is in the cards — when asked the open-ended query of "what's next," he pauses and looks in McCollough's direction.
"We’ll keep that between us."