In December, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough felt ready. Ready to orchestrate a bold next chapter at Proenza Schouler, the much celebrated brand they launched right out of Parsons in 2002. In an in-depth conversation, they spoke about their winding, complicated journey from fashion wunderkinds to chic, artful brand on the brink, to their rush of renewed empowerment.
Prior to that awakening, their business had struggled with the harsh realities so many independent brands face, of staying competitive in the oversaturated luxury sphere, which in turn led to a pair of bad-fit ownership situations. But late in 2018, the designers bought back their company with an investment from Mudrick Capital. They felt strong in their resolve to make the business work and rededicated their ethos to the woman they’d always wanted to dress, but on whom they’d lost focus during their beautiful, artful meanderings in Paris — a stylish, pragmatic urban woman. They subsequently turned out a year’s worth of interesting, reality-based collections that struck a chord with retailers. By December, just four months ago, McCollough and Hernandez felt well-positioned to face the future. They felt in control.
If this coronavirus virus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that feelings of control are ultimately delusional. That delusion might be necessary and helpful at times, but so is resilience. Last week, we talked again. They’re spending quarantine at their house in the Berkshires, where they’ve focused on developing a plan to see the brand through the next few months. At its core: making the most of already completed work, and providing retailers with longer selling seasons by pushing back the seasons. Proenza will deliver pre-fall in June through July, and fall 2020, in what is typically the first pre-spring delivery, September/October. The designers expect to design and produce a collection for spring 2021, and may hold that market in August rather than September. As for the presentation format, who knows? Said McCollough, “We have no crystal ball.”
WWD: Where are you guys?
Jack McCollough: We’re up in the Berkshires taking it one day at a time.
Lazaro Hernandez: This is our fifth week up here. We’ve never been here in the spring this long before. This is definitely a first, but it feels nice to be out of the city and to be able to go outdoors, at least.
WWD: Certainly not a typical respite from the city.
J.M.: Every day is filled with all sorts of emotions. These last five weeks have been somewhere between panic and dread and enjoyment of slowing things down. Obviously we’re doing everything to keep the business afloat right now, so that’s our main focus. But there is something to be said about slowing things down.
WWD: Berkshires or not, the dread must be tough to escape.
J.M.: It’s a tricky time for us. I think a lot of our peers are feeling the same way. Independent brands need the support more than anyone else in this industry, specifically, support from the retailers. Proenza Schouler is not backed by a big conglomerate, so it’s not easy for us to get bailed out if we fall into financial trouble.
Our biggest concern is the well-being of our team. Not only do we want our brand to stay afloat throughout this, but we want to preserve as many jobs as possible, and it’s a struggle. When we’re talking about people’s lives, it’s a highly emotional time.
WWD: What’s your layoff situation?
L.H.: We had to furlough or lay off 30 percent of the team of 100. It’s been super emotional. It’s a family. We have a lot of love for each other.
Zoom has been our best friend these days. We’ve had a lot of company-wide town halls; we’ve been keeping every single employee abreast of every single decision. And everyone understands. With our furloughs, we hope when things normalize we’ll be able to bring those people back. But we just don’t know.
WWD: Business was tough on independent brands before the virus shutdown. What’s going on now was unthinkable two months ago.
L.H.: It’s unprecedented. It’s hard to plan. If we knew what the landscape would be in six months, perhaps it would be easier. But no one knows. We don’t know if we’ll be home for a month, or two months. Are we doing a spring collection; are we not doing a spring collection? Should we be spending any money on that or should we be preserving every dollar we have? Is there going to be a September market? We have a studio up here so a lot of creative work happens here, so we could technically be working on our spring collection.
WWD: Is there a creative advantage to being up there?
L.H.: We hear these stories of designers draping outside or sketching by candlelight and being inspired. Great for them, but that’s not our reality. I’d love to be having this profound creative moment right now, but we’re trying to figure out the company and restructure the company and save jobs.
We’ve been very much with our business heads on the last couple weeks, developing a moving-forward plan and restructuring the company accordingly. We’re past the planning stage, and we’re in the “implementing the plan stage” now.
WWD: What’s the plan?
L.H.: We’re pushing pre-fall back to ship June/July/August. Then our fall [runway] collection will become the new pre-spring collection, the first delivery, September/October.
J.M.: We’ve seen a huge upswing in the last 18 months. This whole new chapter [since the buyback of the company in 2018] has been amazing. Retailers are supportive and want to partner with us. They’ve been pretty generous. And we’re lucky. Before lockdown, we were around 97 percent shipped for spring.
WWD: So no spring cuts.
L.H.: We are in a difficult situation with the stores being closed, but we hope everyone pays and hope that our updated calendar gives flexibility to retailer budgets.
WWD: What about pre-fall?
L.H.: We have had some requests to cancel pre-fall and fall, and we are trying to work with retailers as much as we can to minimize, since we have already invested significantly in these collections. Our position on pre-fall is that you placed the orders, we produced it, and it’s ready to be shipped. With fall, which is becoming the first delivery of traditional pre-spring, we have created some flexibility. The shift gives retailers a reduction of 20 to 30 percent of their fall season without actually having to cancel orders. The reduction is a natural byproduct of the calendar shift.
WWD: By shifting deliveries, fall will be in store in cold-weather months, and you’ll have the benefit of the long spring selling season.
J.M.: It will deliver more true to what the season is, which is something people were talking about way before the shutdown. Pre-spring is normally 70 percent of our spring business. We still plan to do a June market, but a much smaller collection, a single delivery in November/December. We’ll show whatever method we can. We’re planning for virtual, but could potentially open the showroom to New York buyers pending government direction.
It’s obviously contingent on when things open back up. The pre-spring collection was in the works before this lockdown went into place. Fabrics were ordered; the bulk of the collection was already designed. So It’s about shrinking that down. Then, it’s a matter of when things open back up and we can get our atelier running and start making samples.
WWD: One more season. You seem to be conflicted about spring.
J.M.: We are planning to design a spring 2021 collection, which will [be] deliver[ed] in January/February/March. The market could potentially be in August to accommodate the January ship window, but our plans for a presentation format in September are still in flux.
WWD: You mentioned the atelier. No one’s working from home, I assume.
L.H.: They’re at home. We’re hoping that within a month’s time, if we can get back into the office, we can get back to some sort of work in the atelier by mid-May —
J.M.: I have a feeling it won’t go from not working to full-on working, that it will be a slower transition. But hopefully, in May we’ll get to the point where 25 percent of the workforce will be allowed back in, and we’ll prioritize who those people are.
On a business level, we’ve been very effective working from home. Like Lazaro said, Zoom has been our friend. It’s the more 3-D stuff, the design stuff, the more tactile things that are harder to do remotely, like designing, draping, making samples. That’s the task that we’d prioritize, if offices can open with 25 percent of their workforce.
WWD: Where are you on fall production?
L.H.: That’s what we’re turning into pre-spring. We’ve submitted orders based on what the retailers sent to us after the show and after Paris market. We’ve cut that a little bit, maybe 20 percent, and we’re producing [the 80 percent]. It hasn’t started per se because Italy is closed, and most of our fabrics are Italian. That’s why it makes sense to just turn that into pre-spring, to push it forward.…It makes so much sense to deliver that in November rather than a pre-spring collection, when it’s still the beginning of the cold season.
WWD: What do you think about the long-term impact of this shutdown on the show system?
L.H.: The show system already felt a little antiquated. I think this coronavirus is just going to accelerate all of those things people have been feeling for some time. Will people want to travel around all year long, going to shows all around the world and staying at a hotel where someone slept in the same bed the night before? This is going to change the way people do things. We’re talking about spring right now, but I’m curious to see how it’s going to shift things overall.
J.M.: What do you think, Bridget?
WWD: I’ll miss the shows. Yes, there are way too many shows today, and many don’t say much. But when you see that wonderful point of creation, there’s nothing like it. So I think something will be lost creatively. There are certainly other methods of communication that are far more efficient. But I’ll miss that rush brought on by an amazing, one-time-only show.
L.H.: Totally. We’re romantic in that way, too. We believe in the old-school system, the beauty and the artistry of that. At the same time, for a smaller, independent brand like ours, we’ve been thinking for a while, how important is the show, given the expense and the stress. Maybe it’s great, but not every single season. Maybe it’s when you have something really special to say. We don’t have the answers, but we’ve been questioning the idea of a show for a while now.
J.M.: What we’re questioning right now even more than a show, is the product. What product feels right moving into this new era? I think the type of product that will resonate with people will be product with a backstory. Things that feel enduring will have more power than things that feel disposable or even seasonal. That isn’t a new concept, but somehow it feels that much more important moving forward.
WWD: It’s heightened.
J.M.: Fashion needs that emotional connection more than ever moving forward.
WWD: To that end, I wonder what the consumer spending mind-set will be. And the getting-dressed mind-set. Will we feel even more drawn to yoga pants and sweats because we’ve been wearing them for so long, or will we be dying to feel that personal rush of dressing up?
L.H.: We were talking about that yesterday. It’s been nice to be comfortable in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Everyone loves feeling comfortable. That’s going to remain.
I think people will still want to dress up and feel presentable and professional, and still feel luxe. All of those things will still exist, because that’s human nature. It’s just going to be in a much more casual vibe. I don’t think there will be blatant logo mania; it’s not going to be about [flaunting] a crocodile handbag. It’s going to go back to the postrecession world where things felt more discreet, definitely luxurious but not so bling-y, not so logo-y or loud…we love that. For us, that’s true elegance.
WWD: The clothes that feel enduring will resonate.
L.H.: And maybe things that have some sort of social message. If you’re going to pay a lot of money for something, if it has a greater good, if it connects to a greater cause, maybe that’s going to make you feel better buying it, perhaps.
WWD: How do you express that?
L.H.: We’re exploring sustainable fabrics and recycled yarns. We’re going into our vast archive of fabrics and taking some of that, like why buy all new fabric? We have a warehouse full of fabrics. Why don’t we go into that and stop buying so many new fabrics, and maybe shred some fabrics and reweave them and do tweeds.
Why don’t we use what we have and try to approach this in a calmer, more sustainable way, a way that doesn’t require people flying to Italy five times to get a fabric color just right? All those processes just feel wasteful now. So much money spent, so much time, so much human travel. Isn’t there a way of doing things that feels more intimate, more local, more artisanal, just a little more caring to the world, to the environment?
We also may go back to some old patterns, some of the beautiful things we’ve done in the past. We may redo them and give them a new life instead of throwing it all away every season and starting from scratch. That mentality feels so old.
WWD: You’re sounding very Stella McCartney. What you’re saying is core to her ethos.
L.H.: It just makes sense. That’s the thing about a show. We love a show because that’s the world we come from. But you’re putting your work in front of an audience of professionals who have seen it all, so you have to “wow” them. That’s the point of a show. [The audience] has seen everything that has ever happened on the runway, so you have to do something new to impress the press.
To do that, you have to throw everything away and do something that you’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s not about that anymore, radically rethinking every season, season after season after season, and creating this hamster wheel. Maybe it’s a slower burn. That’s what we hear from our customers — slower fashion. And we’re rethinking the presentation of that.
WWD: We’ve all been saying that for so long. It’s incredible that it has taken a worldwide cataclysmic event to make it maybe start to happen.
J.M.: I think there’s going to be a huge shift. I feel like life as we know it is kind of over; it feels like the end of an era. But we’re both optimistic that the industry’s focus will change for the better. I’m hopeful that we will all reprioritize our approach with more meaning, more emotion, more sensitivity. It’s been desperate for a shift for a long time and this was a forced shift.
L.H.: We saw the Margiela documentary. Some of those Nineties shows that were in a showroom; it was more intimate. It felt so romantic, and it feels so right again. That first Hermès show Margiela did, how amazing that it was in the Hermès store. There was a small audience of professionals who had to be there. It wasn’t a blogosphere or that sort of thing. It was just buyers and important press and that’s it.
WWD: You guys are too young, but Calvin and Donna used to show in their showrooms.
J.M.: And Helmut. Helmut would show in his store sometimes as well, right?
L.H.: We have a big store in SoHo, a big, long space. We’ve considered doing little presentations at the store every couple of seasons, or during pre-collections. Whatever.
J.M.: Thinking about September, maybe we just have 50 people, or we have a couple shows with 50 people at each show, small and intimate, and half the number of models, half the number of looks. Something between the [runway] shows we were having and the [showroom] presentations we do during pre-collection. At least for the time being, that’s what makes the most sense.
WWD: Show costs are overwhelming for independent brands, and you’re up against the might of the megabrand shows, the LVMH and Kering extravaganzas.
J.M.: There’s business ramifications to playing the game of Kering and LVMH for a brand like ours, without the resources to play that game. A lot of people like us have gotten into trouble trying to be [like] an LVMH brand, trying to be [like] a Kering brand, having these shows and doing all these things that Kering and LVMH [brands] do because they can afford to.
We try to play their game and we go bankrupt trying to play that game because we can’t afford that game. Maybe the answer is to play our game that has nothing to do with their game. And save money doing it. Spend less money doing it our own way, whatever makes sense for us, and understanding that the game that they play is a totally different game. That’s cool and valid; that’s their thing. Maybe we should do our own thing. American fashion is in a different place. We’re not part of this European conglomerate story, and maybe we have to create our own system that works for us.
WWD: To that end, do you think that the CFDA has been misdirected in its efforts these past 15 or 20 years?
L.H.: We have a lot of love for the CFDA; we started our careers through them. They introduced us to Barneys, who bought our senior collection. So from Peter Arnold on we’ve had so much love for them. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, we were the first ones to win that. They’ve always been super supportive. And they do a great job of trying to keep a community of designers talking to one another. When we’ve had questions, perhaps on some stimulus money situations, we’ve asked them what other people are doing, and they’ve been very forthright with their answers. They’ve been great.
WWD: Are you talking to other designers?
L.H.: There’s a community of people who are talking all the time. Tory Burch has been amazing. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and the two of us, we’ve been on the phone every other day talking about what we’re all doing for our companies. It’s created this camaraderie amongst designers. It’s really nice. We’re all competitors, but we’ve all gotten together, exchanging notes and rooting for one another.
WWD: Many independent designers these days are talking about a heightened sense of community.
L.H.: That’s the power of the [major] European brands. They’re owned by a mother company, a father company. They can be stronger as individuals because they share back-of-house resources. A lot of American vendors, we’re all individual and we’re all siloed. We share no resources. We all do everything on our own. There’s a lot of duplication of resources. We can band together and share resources. We’re more competitive as a group than as individuals competing against each other.
WWD: So you think of community not only philosophically, but pragmatically, including the sharing of resources.
L.H.: Yes. Warehouses, ad buys, things of that nature, the same things that the big guys do as a group, why can’t we do it as a community? I don’t know what the answer to that is, but it would be game-changing if we could figure out how to do that.
WWD: Tory has been amazing in what way?
L.H.: She’s just been so available to all of us. We’ve been talking to her a lot. She has a lot of connections to the government. She’s been speaking to [Sen. Charles] Schumer and to [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo.
WWD: And to [U.S. Treasury Secretary] Steven Mnuchin.
L.H.: To all those guys. She’s been lobbying for fashion’s place in this situation. She has their ear, and she has been so supportive in fighting for our causes, which is awesome.
WWD: You mentioned the government stimulus. Have you applied for one of the small business loans?
J.M.: We’re weighing out all our options right now, and just seeing what’s available. But no definitive moves on that. We’re talking about it, as part of the bigger financial conversation.
WWD: Are you going to apply to the CFDA/Vogue Relief Fund, or have you?
L.H.: No, I don’t think so. I think that money is better spent with younger people where $100,000 means a lot.
WWD: Are you optimistic for your own company and for the industry in general?
J.M.: It’s going to be a rough year-and-a-half. I feel like the world is not going to come back to normal until fall of 2021, which is probably when a vaccine for this coronavirus will come out. People are going to be uneasy until that happens. But we are optimistic that a lot of positive change will come out of all this.
L.H.: Our fear is that this community of smaller designers will be decimated. A lot of people won’t be able to survive this; that’s our biggest fear. [Independent designers] add so much texture and so much diversity to the landscape of global fashion. If that part of the industry disappears, what will that do for diversity? It will be horrible.
We urge all the retailers to really, really get behind the small guys, the fragile guys. When they’re looking at what to cut from A, B and C, to be gentle on the smaller guys. Cutting 30 percent from an LVMH brand versus cutting 30 percent from an independent designer, that means two very different things. They can’t blanket-cut equally across the board; it’s got to be a more nuanced approach. They should consider the company they’re cutting from, and what its situation is.
J.M.: Also the big conglomerate brands have so many of their own stores, a lot of direct-to-consumer. Many independent brands like us rely so much on retailers; it’s a huge portion of our business. It’s more important than ever that they support us through this whole transition for us to stay afloat.
The huge brands — they’re great. It’s like Coca-Cola or Home Depot. But it’s really nice to have your local hardware shop, too, something a little more intimate with a little more sense of community around it.
We don’t want the Amazon-ification of the world to also include fashion. If it’s just LVMH and Kering, at the end of the day that’s just going to be a very sad landscape.
WWD: Speaking of Amazon-ification, this has been yet another blow to physical retail.
J.M.: Obviously, this has turned the customer toward a purely digital landscape. If they’re spending any money at all, it’s online. The world has been heading in that direction for a while, and this coronavirus has accelerated that. That said, I think ultimately, people crave human interaction. I’m curious to see how all of that shifts when we get out of this, on the other side.
L.H.: Innately, we crave human interaction; we crave intimacy. But at the same time, we fear for our safety; that’s our number-one concern as humans. Seeing how those dueling forces play out — wanting to hang around with people but also being scared of people. How that tension resolves itself is going to be interesting to see over the course of time.
WWD: There are so many levels to this. That’s the primal one: self-protection versus the need for human contact.
J.M.: So how does that [conflict] work itself out? Perhaps people are going to communicate more digitally. We have actually been super-social the last few weeks. We’re on constant Zoom calls, constant FaceTime. I’ve spoken to more people these last five weeks than I have in the whole year prior, weirdly. We have been more social, but haven’t seen a single person [in person], so that’s sort of an oxymoron.
I don’t know where fashion falls into that…
WWD: Let’s go back to fashion, and doing things to protect the business short-term. Tell me about your online archive sale.
L.H.: We’ve had to create initiatives within this period. We’ve been super lucky in that our DC, our distribution center, also distributes essential products, so it can be open. We had all this inventory sitting in the warehouse from prior seasons. So we thought, let’s upload it to the web site and sell that. It finished April 19. It was three seasons’ worth of overproduced goods, or returns or whatever, and it did really, really well. We are up to plan for the year so far on our e-commerce.
WWD: And you launched the Birkenstock collaboration.
J.M.: It’s a little frustrating that the collaboration had to be launched during this time. But it is a Birkenstock collaboration, Lazaro and I have both been wearing Birkenstocks every day for the last five weeks, so it is kind of the perfect product to be selling right now.
L.H.: It’s a low price point, and it’s emotional. We’re almost sold out through our web site.
WWD: Is anything else selling?
J.M.: We’ve been selling a lot of White Label, which is the more casual component of the main line. That kind of product has more relevance in a shutdown. The sad part is that our e-comm is not a big chunk of our overall business. It’s making its numbers as an entity, which is great. But that entity is a small percentage of the whole. It’s not making up for the fact that Saks, Neiman’s, Nordstrom and Bergdorf’s are all shut down, not to mention Bon Marché and Selfridges and other places.
L.H.: On top of that, a large percentage of our business is boutique business, and are these boutiques going to come out of this? A lot of them may go out of business after this whole thing.
WWD: The majors are not doing so sparklingly well, either.
J.M.: I know. What’s the latest with Neiman’s?
WWD: The [bankruptcy] filing has been imminent for weeks.
J.M.: Our feeling is with Neiman’s, it’s just to restructure their debt. They’re not going to liquidate like Barneys. They’re going to keep going; they’re just going to figure out new payment terms for their debt. It’s just this big debt load that they have a hard time paying down. We feel very confident and optimistic about our future with Neiman Marcus. Interesting times. Interesting times, indeed.
WWD: Interesting times indeed.
J.M.: For us, it’s just been one day at a time. We have no crystal ball. This is so unprecedented, you can’t base [strategy] off of anything historical. You’ve just got to take one step at a time. You’ve just got to plan season to season, month to month, day by day. You can’t look too far into the future.