BOSTON — Eleven years into Proenza Schouler, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez may look as youthful as ever, but their business is fully adult.
The designers employ 120-plus people, and have a development office in Italy, a handful of shops-in-shop internationally, ads running in Vogue and a second U.S. store bowing in New York’s SoHo on Greene Street in a few weeks.
Perhaps that’s what winning five Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, including three for Womenswear Designer of the Year (2007, 2011 and 2013), will do for you.
But they haven’t forgotten their roots — in this case, a longtime relationship with Louis Boston owner Debi Greenberg, among the first stores (after Barneys New York) to buy them.
Greenberg brought the duo to the Institute of Contemporary Art here on Thursday night to discuss their design process.
“We look outside our own world for inspiration,” said Hernandez. “We want to find fashion outside fashion.”
“Of course, we need to know what happened in the past to move it forward,” McCollough qualified.
Before the talk, the pair walked the galleries with ICA chief curator Helen Molesworth, pointing out works by Donald Moffett (they own a few at home), Klara Lidén and others without having to read the tags.
They’d recently been to the Venice Biennale and taken in the Prada-sponsored show “When Attitudes Become Form.” They have an ongoing love affair with Brazilian furniture from the Seventies and the “achrome” paintings of Piero Manzoni, an Italian artist who worked cotton, heavy paint and pleated canvas into sculptural, all-white canvases. They worked something similar for this fall’s collection, commissioning a fabric composed of one-eighth-inch strips of feathery white tulle woven together to create the effect of freshly fallen snow.
“We love something that is not polished, is a little bit raw, but can be translated into something very sophisticated,” Hernandez said. They describe their customer as “discrete and nonchalant.”
How does the design partnership work, Molesworth asked: doubly imperious or supercollaborative?
“At this point, we’re almost one brain,” McCollough said. “But actually the seasons where we clash the most are usually our strongest seasons.”
They start with a mood, and discuss which silhouettes define it. But it was clear that fabric — not silhouette — is the duo’s real creative passion. They develop it from scratch.
“Two arms, two legs. You can only take silhouette so far,” Hernandez remarked. Whereas “when you talk about being contemporary, for us it’s about technology and these insane textiles that we couldn’t do 10 years ago.”
You can “take a picture with your phone, e-mail it to a mill and they can weave it,” McCollough said. “You can say, ‘I want raffia and leather cut up and mixed with cotton, and I want it a half-inch thick. There are also amazing ways to bond fabrics.”
Asked whether they would follow their peers like Alexander Wang at Balenciaga to a marquee design job, they were clear.
“People ask, ‘Why not us?’ and the answer is we’ve been approached,” Hernandez said, declining to specify by whom.
“A lot of people see designing for a [major Paris house] as a barometer of success. We see being independent and calling our own shots as a barometer of freedom,” added McCollough. “We’ve seen people like Tom Ford and Nicolas Ghesquière, for all the success and credibility they had [at Gucci and Balenciaga], they were still employees. When you walk out the door, all those archives and all your hard work you leave behind.”
That means the Proenza Schouler store growth pace will be organic, and they’re fine with that. They’ve recently opened a spate of shops-in-shop (Galeries Lafayette, Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, Bergdorf Goodman, to name a few) and are looking for additional expansion in Asia.
Men’s wear? No time soon.
“You have to be really sharp before you move on to the next thing,” said Lazaro.
The pair touched on their start, recalling their internships at Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, and living in a studio apartment with their friend Shirley Cook, who is now their company’s chief executive officer.
Though they are only a decade into the company, both designers seemed a bit wistful about those freer days. Their social circle is deeply rooted in the contemporary art scene. They envy their painter friends for creativity that isn’t bound to show calendars and delivery dates. Someday, they might have time for furniture design or other interests, McCollough said.
“For right now, we’re doing this,” Hernandez said. “As a creative person, we want to explore and do so much, but we also know to do something really well you have to focus.”