Over the years, McCollough and Hernandez have made a point of surrounding themselves with an eclectic mix of independent women who help them envision the ideal personalities for their designs. It is a group that includes downtown fixtures like Sevigny and the photography agent Jen Brill, as well as socially connected ladies like Lauren Santo Domingo, the creator of the website Moda Operandi. “You could say they each, in some way, represent little pieces of the brand,” explained McCollough. Though both he and Hernandez say that it is Cook—nonchalant but assertive, fashion-forward but not fussy—who most fully encapsulates the Proenza Schouler girl.
On the day I visited, McCollough and Hernandez were getting ready for their fall show. The two are inveterate travelers—they recently hiked the foothills of Mount Everest and hope to conquer China and southeast Asia next—and often their inspiration is triggered by something they encounter on a trip. Last year, a macramé basket they fell in love with in India evolved into a skirt, for instance, and blankets they found in New Mexico turned into a handbag. Their current collection, however, grew out of a joint fascination with Karlheinz Weinberger, a Swiss photographer who chronicled Switzerland’s underground rock scene in the sixties. “It’s really abstract, which we like, kind of based on this weird hippie shit,” Hernandez said. “It’s all very personal. Like, if you want to know what we’re thinking about at any given moment, what’s interesting to us, just look at our clothes.” He laughed. “Then again, the references are all so oblique that we’re the only ones who get them.”
Indeed, being somewhat opaque is among the most dominant traits of both their personalities. McCollough and Hernandez rarely provide fodder for gossip columns—the notable exception being in 2009, when an intoxicated Kiefer Sutherland head-butted McCollough at a SoHo bar. Those in fashion circles have made a quiet sport of dissecting their relationship: Some have questioned if, considering that McCollough and Hernandez aren’t overtly affectionate in public and avoid discussing their personal lives in the press, they are, in fact, still together. “Yes, we are,” McCollough assured. “We just like to keep it all as separate as possible.” Further fueling the speculation was that, when they moved out of the Chinatown loft in 2007, they opted to buy separate apartments: Hernandez lives in Chelsea; McCollough, in the West Village. “That was a really, really tough period,” explained Hernandez. “Basically, we made the decision—probably the hardest we’ve had to make—that working together was more important than living together.”
In recent years, they have had opportunities to design for major houses. “I can’t say which ones,” Hernandez demurred. “But, you know, the labels with dead founders.” Appealing as the notion is, they’ve turned down all offers, largely on the advice of Cook. “She knows that we would go insane,” McCollough said. “And we really don’t feel like being two more designers in rehab,” added Hernandez with a laugh. “But aside from that, it’s really just not our style.” And, more important, taking on a role in another company would mean losing at least a part of what they’ve created with Proenza: a global fashion house that, implausibly, still operates more like an ongoing art project than a corporate behemoth.