For many reasons, American fashion is in the throes of volatile change. Perhaps no designers epitomize the impact of that volatility more than Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. They arrived on the scene as wunderkinds and became instant stars, an über-talented duo who quickly developed a cool, dressed-up aesthetic that fused techy audacity with artisanal craft. Their charm and good looks didn’t hurt, and for a while, every move was golden.

Now, McCollough and Hernandez acknowledge being in something of an experimental redefinition stage — experimental not in the sense of pushing boundaries, but in reining in their more daring impulses in order to carve out a sweet spot of real-world viability. The process started very specifically last season, when, for their return to the New York runway after a Parisian digression, they focused on classic Americanisms, most notably, denim. It was something of a shock, a bold, impressive initiation to a primal reality check.

Yet the designers have no intention of becoming a denim brand, so where to go next along this still new, more pragmatic path? “Continuing to clearly define and refine the Proenza Schouler woman is at the core of the fall 2019 collection,” they wrote in their show notes. “Pieces are created as remnants of things that once were, thus calling on one’s memory to complete the composition.” What they meant by that wasn’t made clear on the runway. It was an odd choice of words, seemingly pilfered from John Galliano, who spent several seasons developing his “memory-of” concept for Maison Margiela. All the more curious because the clothes themselves didn’t ring any Galliano bells at all, and in fact, looked quite signature, in a scaled-down way.

Hernandez and McCollough have always paid a great deal of attention to cut and silhouette, an element now front-and-center since they’ve curtailed their forays into artisanal surface work. Here, their polished, deftly complicated constructions were shown to impressive advantage in a distraction-free neutral palette of mostly black, white, gray, khaki and beige. They started with oversize mannish tailoring, the jackets often atop pieces with flyaway flaps and panels. Sturdy coats had extra folds and panels, sometimes in different colors; dresses worked a controlled artfulness in languid pastiches of textures — a black ribbed dress had animal-print side insets and a metallic gold front panel.

It was all beautifully executed, and the models looked lovely in the clothes. Yet it felt a little flat, as if the designers were holding back. Or perhaps tentative is a better word, as McCollough and Hernandez continue to define and refine their message in the face of fashion’s new realities.

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