“Exactly,” chimed in Hernandez, who was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and a Yankees cap backward. The son of Cuban émigrés, he grew up in Miami, where he honed his understanding of the ever shifting wants and needs of women in his mother’s beauty salon.
Such an attitude could come across as posturing, since the two are now heading a multimillion-dollar company, yet it makes particular sense given their auspicious beginning as designers, which has become the stuff of fashion world legend. In 2002, their first collection was presented as a joint thesis while they were still at Parsons. Barneys New York bought every piece, signaling the start of what has been a swift and charmed ascension. In 2004, they won the inaugural CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, and in 2007, they took home the award for CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year, which they earned again last year. Known for infusing classic European forms with a slouchy, contemporary sensibility, the designers have seen their clothes become the uniform of choice for slinky downtown girls and women as far apart on the style spectrum as Kim Kardashian and Michelle Obama. Earlier this year, Andrew Rosen, the CEO and founder of Theory, and his partners invested what is said to be between $10 million and $20 million in the company, ensuring that “the boys,” as they are still invariably called in fashion circles, remain in control of their destinies for some time.
“When you talk to young designers now, it’s kind of a goal to get their first collection into a major store,” says Julie Gilhart, an Amazon.com consultant and the former fashion director of Barneys, who was responsible for snapping up that famous first collection. “The Proenza boys really just came along at the perfect time and signaled a kind of shift in power. People wanted something new, and that’s what the boys delivered.” As Gilhart sees it, Proenza Schouler has created a template for how to succeed in an industry with unforgiving margins, helping foster the current rise of young American designers like the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte and Alexander Wang.
At the company’s airy SoHo office, McCollough and Hernandez spend most of their days seated at a table surrounded by various shreds of inspiration: esoteric photo clippings, dizzying fabric swatches, pieces of industrial rubber. Some 66 employees share the space, evidence of a growth that has been so fast, the two still find it all mystifying. “The first five years, it really wasn’t real—we were just hanging out having a good time,” Hernandez noted on a recent morning.
On the opposite end from them is the office of Shirley Cook—the only CEO the company has had—whom both McCollough and Hernandez are quick to credit with being instrumental in allowing them to evolve without losing control. The three first met when their social circles intersected during college: Cook was studying religion at New York University, just a few blocks south of Parsons. Her involvement was initially limited to offering a friendly hand, primarily helping out with the accounting. She came on board full-time in 2002 after finding them their first major investor, whom she met while skiing in 2000. As the company gained traction, the three moved into a loft on the edge of Chinatown, where they lived and worked. “We would literally go days without leaving the house,” recalls Cook.