NEW YORK — When Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez met as first-year transfer students at The New School’s Parsons School of Design — McCollough had previously studied painting in San Francisco, and Hernandez was pre-med in Miami — they became instant friends and the eventual codesigners of Proenza Schouler, a brand that sold their entire senior thesis collection to Barneys New York and went on to win the inaugural CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund Award two years after it was founded in 2002.
During a talk at the French Institute Alliance Française, which launched its annual Fashion Talks series in Manhattan, the duo opened up to Vogue’s digital creative director Sally Singer about the brand’s humble beginnings and still-rebellious spirit. “Our teachers at school hated us,” Hernandez said. “We were the worst students. They were like, ‘You need to stop making clothes for art girls. You guys need to make easy separates.’ And we were like ‘What? No!” That spirit kind of stays with us to this day. P— off some people….Some people will love it, some people will hate it. You can’t cater to every single person.”
Later, an audience member asked if the designers would ever consider working for another house. McCollough said they’ve been approached a few times. “Obviously, it’s really interesting; those types of houses have incredible heritages behind them, whereas we’re making up our heritage as we go along,” he said. “They’ve got incredible resources….From a creative standpoint, that’s really fascinating. But what’s most important to us right now is Proenza Schouler, and if we we’re gone 50 percent of the year working for someone else’s company, I think it would suffer at this point. We’re really kind of focused on making our own company, which we own, the best it can be.”
Though McCollough insisted he and Hernandez are “not planners,” a few of the brand’s goals include opening stores in Europe, entering the fragrance category and possibly dabbling in men’s wear. Here, some other highlights from the hour-long chat:
On their very first collection for their senior thesis at Parsons:
Lazaro Hernandez: I was interning with Michael Kors, and Jack was with Marc Jacobs. I asked Michael to give me some luxurious fabrics and Jack asked Marc for [access] to some of his factories….It was a really magical time. The thing about Parsons is the people judging you are people like Sally Singer and Julie Gilhart. [Julie] loved the collection. She called us into Barneys and we were so scared. We brought our tallest, skinniest friend with us [who modeled the clothes]….We got an e-mail from the president of Barneys that they wanted to buy the collection. And we had no idea what that meant. We were like, “What do you mean? The clothes we just showed?” And they were like, “No, no, the production of that collection.” We were like, “How the hell do you produce these clothes?” But we did. It was a really fun summer. All of our friends got together, we sewed the clothes and delivered them to Barneys in a taxi cab.
On how they developed the brand’s ethos:
Jack McCollough: When we were at Parsons, a lot of the students starting their own labels were obsessed with this deconstruction thing. Everyone who was opening a brand was deconstructing vintage or ripping up T-shirts and calling themselves designers. I guess, to us, the rebellion against that was to do something that felt quite constructed. We were really into Christian Dior; we still are. We reference a lot of his work….It felt like the antithesis of what was happening that time in fashion.
L.H.: We just thought it was really punk to do couture…the total opposite of what everyone else was doing. And what felt more constructed than corsetry? That, paired with men’s pants, felt really cool to us. That was our initial idea — this idea of high and low. We were interested in mid-century French couture, but we’re kids of the Nineties, too…Kurt Cobain and the grunge generation. It’s like this mash-up of grunge and things that felt oversize and messy, mixed with extreme elegance and a couture sensibility. That still applies.
On the Proenza Schouler woman:
J.M.: We’re kind of schizophrenic when it comes to designing collections. We’re interested in so many different things. We don’t like to just pinpoint our vibe as one thing. But I do think our girl is pretty consistent and the spirit of the girl stays the same as the collections shift and morph into different worlds….It’s more of a spirit and an attitude. We hope to reach people of all ages. My sister wears our clothes; my mom wears our clothes.
L.H.: I’d say she’s a contemporary woman. She’s interested in today….Every collection references contemporary art and culture. We’re always interested in what feels right for today. We live our lives in that way. We search. We’re really curious. We look at new exhibits, new shows, new artists and musicians, what’s happening in the world. Our collections are a reflection of our experiences….We try to experience the world and get our hands dirty and see things….It’s important to get your hands dirty.
On the pressures of the fashion cycle:
L.H.: What’s interesting about the pre-collections is that all the designers diss them because it’s so much work for everyone. But if you’re looking at the positives — and we have to be positive — the pre-collections are very much a commercial endeavor. It’s about what’s selling in stores. What does our customer want? What do they need? What are they asking for? It’s a different kind of design. You’re working with merchandisers and your sales team….“This pant is selling really well, so let’s try to update that pant.” It’s a whole different side of your brain, but that’s great because then, for the [spring and fall] shows, you’re really able to dream and be creative and not have to worry so much [about what’s selling]… Pre-collections are actually pretty freeing in that way.
On if they ever get into fights:
J.M.: Oh, yeah. What we do is so subjective. There’s no right or wrong answer, really. It’s just a matter of preference at the end of the day. Sometimes you just love a shade of green, but his eye might just not be attracted to that shade of green….The things we’ll argue about are quite subtle. But [in terms of] the big picture ideas, we’re usually on the same page, especially in terms of silhouette, attitude and spirit of the girl.
On their recent trip to Cuba, where Hernandez’s family is from:
L.H.: I met the Proenzas. All the Proenzas are still in Cuba. I met the oldest living Proenza and I tried to tell him what I do, and he was like, “Is that like Zara?” I was like, “How do you know what that even is?…And no.”
J.M.: I wish. [He laughed.]
On where they see the brand in five years:
J.M.: We don’t like to think too far ahead. Like Lazaro was saying, we never plan things. We do things that feel natural and right to us.
L.H.: There’s the idea of men’s. We just had a man on our runway; it wasn’t a statement about men’s wear, but just an androgyny statement. But now everyone’s like, “When are you doing men’s?” That’s something we’re talking about….If we have something to say about men’s, we’ll say that. Fragrance is something we’d love to do one day. Just on a creative level, to work with those amazing noses — how cool. We’d love to do something like that. What excites us are all these creative projects that are on the horizon.
On advice to budding designers:
J.M.: There are so many people, so many brands now, and so much noise. I think if you don’t have a clear vision and a voice — and you have to make sure it’s not stepping on anyone else’s voice — it’s a hard line to stay on. You’ve really got to have something you’re saying or it’s going to be hard to stick out and get people interested.
L.H.: We had no ambition to create this global brand. We just liked to make clothes, hang out with our friends and dress our friends. It was really pure in the beginning. But now the competition is so fierce that you have to really know who you are from the get-go.