Public School is back in session — during fashion week, that is. On Sunday, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne will return to the calendar from a high-profile hiatus during which they showed off-season, in deference to their second job.
In May 2015, the designers were famously enlisted by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to head up design at DKNY. Heirs to Donna Karan and Jane Chung, the partners were recruited on the strength of the uber cool brand they launched with men’s wear in 2008, all street-smart, aspirational New York attitude. Having grown up as style-savvy kids in New York, they felt a certain affinity for DKNY. As co-creative directors, they would shepherd the brand into a new era of relevance while soaking up knowledge from one of the world’s great luxury groups that they could apply to their own, still nascent business.
We’ve all heard of the best-laid plans. Little more than a year after Osborne and Chow arrived at DKNY, G-III’s Morris Goldfarb bought Donna Karan International from LVMH in a move that took everyone by surprise, including the designers. Not surprisingly, G-III’s plans for DKNY were very different from those of LVMH, and in December the designers left company.
The experience stung. In a conversation with WWD, Chow and Osborne talk about the experience, which they liken to a marathon they never got to run and the benefits of moonlighting no longer. They also discuss their return to fashion week show that should prove plenty provocative. Its theme: borders.
WWD: Where are you right now psychologically, as you approach this season, the rest of your business lives?
Maxwell Osborne: As we approach this season, it was actually a difficult one. Coming off of doing two collections and Public School now being our main focus, it’s a different feeling, one we are going to have to go back to getting used to. We got so used to the DKNY piece, working on one show became a different thing. It really is a transition to come back to your own company wholeheartedly, and that is an interesting feeling.
Dao-Yi Chow: There was a lot of work that went into ramping up and preparing mentally and physically to take on DKNY. We are learning now that it’s just as much figuring out how to unwind from that, how to sort of recover from that in a sense. It certainly wasn’t just a job. We have relationships there; we just had a dinner with the art design team from DKNY a couple of weeks ago. I hope they aren’t going to get in trouble for that. There is an emotional connection. The length of time while we were there is not an indication of how quickly you’re able to drop it and leave it and move on.
WWD: Are you wistful?
D-Y.C.: I think the wistful part has passed, I mean there are probably moments of that, but I think you will just get stuck there with “what if.” It’s like training for the marathon: You put in work, you’ve run four times a week and then you adjusted your diet and you know all the preparation and you never got to run it. The work is still there, you know, your ability to do the work is still there, but you never got to finish it.
WWD: Did you see the sale at all coming?
D-Y.C. and M.O.: Nope.
WWD: How did you hear?
D-Y.C.: From the press.
WWD: Were you treated fairly?
M.O.: Yes and no. When it’s something like that, a sale, what they said on paper, that it couldn’t be discussed outside of the people involved makes sense, I guess. But at the end of it, they did treat us fairly. We met with G-III and figured out what was best for us at Pubic School and our careers. We just knew that time was going to come for us. We were treated fairly at the end of the day.
WWD: It was your call to leave G-III?
D-Y.C.: Absolutely. One hundred percent.
WWD: What impacted your decision?
D-Y.C.: It was just the communication of the direction that the new owners wanted to take.
WWD: How did their goals differ from yours?
D-Y.C.: When we came on board, the conversation has always been about elevating DKNY, having this five-year plan to be able to get it back to relevancy and prominence. That includes from development standpoint to production standpoint, from the pricing standpoint, the position standpoint, everyone was aligned to where we wanted to take the collection. The G-III guys, they made it clear that their goals were different. We went there to help in that process and to learn things about that sort of business to be able to apply back to our own business. We just didn’t think there was that opportunity going forward with G-III.
WWD: Is fashion’s greatest opportunity right now in streetwear? Luxury seems obsessed with it.
M.O.: Fashion is so cyclical.
D-Y.C.: Five years ago this conversation, you’d hear, “streetwear is dead as a business.” That pendulum is sort of swinging back and forth. I think it’s more of a global phenomena, rather than just fashion, that the obsession is with real life and that’s sort of what streetwear represents: what are real people doing? So I think it’s great, like, from a diversity standpoint. Just a change in points of view, the more exposure you have to an industry like fashion that has always been so highly guarded and curated and protected that the more exposure to other points of view and ways of life can normally be a great thing for fashion.
M.O.: It feels great to see the bigger brands become a bit inclusive, where in the past we wouldn’t have had that. You wouldn’t have a hip-hop artist in a Dior ad or the thought of Supreme and Louis Vuitton on the same runway or in the same conversation or those people who are wearing Louis Vuitton wearing Supreme. It’s a great thing because it’s bringing everybody together.
D-Y.C.: Yeah, I mean it’s the perfect example, when you look at that collaboration. For it to happen and to be a bigger come-up for Vuitton then for Supreme; Supreme is almost doing Vuitton a favor by doing that collaboration, the tables have turned, which I think is cool.
WWD: What does cool mean? Not necessarily in fashion.
D-Y.C.: I think being cool is just sort of being honest and being yourself and being able to tell stories that you really went through, authenticity, the way you grew up or the people you grew up around or the places you visited — or didn’t — when you were young. I think it’s just authentic. It’s being original and believing in your own point of view and where you came from and the things that made you, and really giving light to those things.
M.O.: It’s really being honest and comfortable. You can’t force cool.
WWD: And the consumer connects to that.
D-Y.C.: There’s this obsession [with streetwear brands] because they’re, for the most part, real; they start from real people who have real stories. People buy into the brand, and it makes them feel a certain way, more confident, or they align themselves to this bigger conversation. To have that platform to not only dress people, but also, to address things that are happening in the world with those people who have bought into your brand, you become sort of a voice for them. So it’s not just about clothes.
M.O.: What I feel the most [positively about] is when people find our brand an inspiration and feel like they can do more. We’ve had interns who’ve gotten into the fashion industry because of seeing Public School and something that got them excited. That is something to [make you] hold your head up high. You just think you’re creating clothes; it’s really bigger than clothes. It really is the view, it’s what you put out in the world. You know, two minorities in the fashion industry — it gives people hope, and shows a generation access in a way they never thought that opportunity could even exist. And that’s something that’s amazing.
WWD: You’ve gotten political with your Public School collections. This season maybe more so?
D-Y.C: You call your brand Public School, there is a specific responsibility in taking on a name of [the institution] where you are preparing children for the future.
WWD: Tell me about this collection.
D-Y.C.: It started with this conversation about borders, all the crazy talk about building a wall, and this rise of isolationism and nationalism and xenophobia. We just started talking about these man-made constructs to keep people from each other, at the same time envisioning this world where if you’re a human being, you are a citizen of the world. That you should be at home anywhere you go, regardless of what line you’ve crossed or what wall you’ve come over or what water you’ve crossed. So sort of just imagining what that could be, having this freedom to be able to pass into different parts of the world without having been vetted.
WWD: How does that huge discussion translate into clothes?
D-Y.C.: We looked at these nomadic cultures and peoples, people who were able to sort of move around freely, whether it was in a small region or a bigger region. [We considered] how crossing into different climates, into different places, affects what you would wear, how you would layer, the comfort, the functionality.
M.O.: Textiles. We’ve created some jacquards that kind of feel like a blown-out map. Or a kind of camo, like, a different color camo. So, are you blending in? Are you standing out? What is it really? You don’t know exactly what it is. Even playing with the word “border.”
WWD: What do you consider your codes or signatures?
M.O.: We always say finding perfection in imperfection. That’s almost a definition of what New York is. And our upbringing. New York is the most beautiful city to us. Obviously, it’s an aesthetically really amazing city. For us what makes it beautiful is, you know, the garbage on the street next to a beautiful building. Or the high-low. Taking the train and then seeing somebody in a beautiful outfit when she [looks like she] shouldn’t be taking the train. Or the broken streets in the most expensive neighborhoods. Everything about finding perfection in imperfection; it’s something we’ve always tried to do. When you see tears when you think it should be a perfect shirt. Why is there a tear in there? Because nothing’s perfect.
WWD: Can you articulate in a sentence or two what you stand for?
M.O.: What are the words? I would say individuality. Convergence, inclusivity.
WWD: How do you define appropriation, a word that a few years ago was considered an artistic device and now has such negative contexts?
D-Y.C.: When we think about appropriation, it’s things that we’ve experienced. So the appropriation goes hand in hand with the authenticity. It’s things that we look at from a cultural standpoint, from a fashion standpoint of things that might not normally be meant for someone, and then appropriating that into something that we feel speaks to who we are first and foremost. So, I think there’s certainly sort of different kinds of appropriation. Our definition of appropriation is taking things and democratizing them rather them appropriating them for satire and humor.
WWD: But do humor and satire not have a role in fashion?
M.O.: Actually, we do that, too.
D-Y.C.: Yeah, we do that, too, but it’s not offensive. I guess maybe it might offend some people but to your point, that sort of thing, we try not what we do.
WWD: Where are your growth opportunities?
D-Y.C.: The growth opportunities there are in all parts of the business. I think when you say Public School, most people think men’s wear, but our women’s wear is now actually a bigger business than our men’s. So it’s funny to say, but I think, we have a huge opportunity through the men’s wear.. Certainly a focus on expanding, e-commerce.
M.O.: And growing international.
D-Y.C.: The majority of our collections have been about fashion, fashion, fashion. Now we’re coming to a point where we’re building a part of the business of essential pieces — a T-shirt, a hoodie, a great pair of pants — looking at those things that we don’t have to reinvent every single season. Building that part of our business is a big focus of ours now. Look at Apple — selling seven products for the year. That level of efficiency is something that we’re looking to as inspiration for how to build the essential part of the Public School line.
WWD: Would you consider another big brand job should an offer come your way?
D-Y.C.: Not for the time being, not for me.
M.O.: What made DKNY exciting for us, there was a truth there. We actually grew up with the brand. We grew up in New York. We’d seen that brand grow. We had a connection to it, so that made that decision and that conversation easier because we kept circling back and forth — does it make sense to do something when we have our own brand? Other designers design two brands, but for us, did it make sense for us? There was some truth there. There was substance there, that we thought we could bring some truth to the brand. So I would say no at this time because I don’t know what else would be as exciting to us, or to me.
WWD: Do you feel that Public School was at all compromised by your divided attentions?
D-Y.C.: For sure, I do. I always think I can do anything regardless of what it is. If I just think about it enough and work hard enough. We were fortunate to have an amazing, amazing team at DKNY and an amazing team here, and that gives you that confidence to say, I can take this on, and not be able to see the repercussions of doing that. For sure there were repercussions that I never imagined. However subtle or how overt, be prepared for your own business to change, for the better, for the worse, but certainly prepare for it to change.
WWD: Maxwell, do you think Public School took a hit from your attentions, a bottom line hit, a creative hit, a nurturing hit?
M.O.: It definitely took a hit, a nurturing hit, at least from me. Where a thought could work here and it could work there, you might take it there because you want it to live and really because you have the ability to actually make it happen there, or the budget to make it happen there, even though you know it would work somewhere else. So a nurturing hit for sure. And it took a time hit. We were told, “the energy’s a little different because you guys aren’t here.” You don’t think it’s that big a deal, but it is.
WWD: But you’re here and working hard.
D-Y.C.: If you have an opportunity to be able to create, I think that that moment is so important, as you know. That moment happens everyday you have that opportunity, so I don’t look at it now like “Oh wow, you know, now is really the time to hunker down, um and you know, dig in.” Because we’ve been digging in.
WWD: I haven’t asked about your working partnership. Design partnerships fascinate me.
D-Y.C.: We had similar upbringings, and this being such a personal brand, it’s always going to be a conversation. It always starts from a conversation and a feeling and mood that stems from the same place.
WWD: You must disagree sometimes.
M.O.: There is a tiebreaker. Basically, it’s cool. Something works or it doesn’t work, and if it doesn’t work, you just keep moving, man, and keep going.
WWD: Sounds good.
M.O.: That’s really how it goes. And then it turns to physical fights.
WWD: On that note, are you optimistic, pessimistic, somewhere in between, about Public School, about life in general about the world?
D-Y.C.: This collection, you’ll get that answer. We think that there’s a somber hope.