Photograph by Takashi Homma; Styled by Shun Watanabe.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to attend a Proenza Schouler fashion show, you might have noticed a few telltale idiosyncrasies that set the brand’s presentations apart. Yes, the designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have a predilection for vast industrial spaces with extra-starry wattage, and they prefer austere minimalism when it comes to sets and seating—all the better to call attention to their artful, haptic women’s wear, which fuses high aesthetic concepts with radical design wit and tech-savvy twists. But I’m referring to what happens on the sidelines, not on the runway.
Every label has a friends section at its shows, but this one—perhaps the most New York–centric of all current claimants—has a boisterous hometown fan base of artists, musicians, actors, photographers, nightlife personalities, and whatever the rest of us do to scratch by in the city. Often, the chaotic minutes before the show serve as a mini downtown reunion, and rarely do these guests, some of whom have been attending for nearly two decades, care about who sits in the front row or the second or the third. (Are there preferred rows in a family portrait?) Thus, the artist Dan Colen might be squeezed next to the nightlife dynamo Ladyfag, next to the model Laura Love, next to the filmmaker James Oakley, next to the designers’ plumber. There’s a sense of a vital creative community at work, and if New York is finally dead, as is so often reported, none of these guests seems to have heard the news.
Since their brand’s inception, in 2002, “the boys,” as Hernandez and McCollough are often called, have produced a number of defining looks, running amok with fabrics, silhouettes, and techniques (think kimono wraps, tie-dye explosions, palm-frond patterns, bleached denim, deconstructed bandage dresses). Much of their inspiration over the years stems from ritualistic trips that they take at the end of each season, to destinations as diverse as Bhutan, the American Southwest, Peru, and Japan. The other creative vein that they tap is modern and contemporary art. In the past, they have leaned on the work of Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, and John Currin; for their latest presentation, they referenced both the Argentine-Italian modernist Lucio Fontana and the Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler. Sometimes these sartorial collisions with the art world are even collaborative, as when Hernandez and McCollough worked with the iconic German artist Isa Genzken on a sculptural collage involving retrofitted clothes on an assortment of mannequins, or with Harmony Korine on short films that incorporated their designs into his rabid cinematic landscapes.
It’s not hard to guess what the duo gleans from art and travel. Both offer freedom from the ordinary, a sense of throwing everything up into the air and seeing where it falls. But ultimately, no matter where the designers find their inspiration, there has never been a question of who they envision wearing their clothes: a New Yorker with a serious-to-the-point-of-intimidating sense of independence. While so many labels seem to be dressing a woman who parties all night and doesn’t care where she lands at dawn, the Proenza Schouler woman, though streetwise and up for a night out, seems to have a reason to set her alarm for the next morning. This feminine ideal isn’t a romantic fiction. When they’re designing, McCollough and Hernandez often consider their own longtime friends with multidimensional lives, like the artist Olympia Scarry, the actor Chloë Sevigny, or the creative director Jen Brill. Once again, the friends section doesn’t let them down.
Their brand has been a personal affair from the beginning. Hernandez and McCollough first crossed paths in August 1999 at the nightclub Life, on Bleecker Street. To their surprise, they soon found themselves in class together as freshmen at Parsons School of Design. Initially friends, they became romantically involved during their junior year. The rest is the stuff of fashion lore: their graduation collection attracting the attention of Barneys New York and influential magazine editors; the CFDA award they won fresh out of school; their future-saviors-of-American-fashion status all but inevitable.
Ever since, endless articles have heralded the news that the boys have finally grown up. They reportedly grew up when they sold a stake of their business to the Valentino Fashion Group in 2007. They grew up when they launched their first handbag collection in 2008, which included the very in-demand PS1 bag. They grew up when they opened a flagship Manhattan store in 2012. In my mind, they grew up when they bought a brownstone in Brooklyn, as well as a rambling late-18th-century country house in Western Massachusetts in 2008. (Full disclosure: I later bought a much smaller cabin directly across from them. I’d spot their car in their driveway and know they’d cloistered themselves in the quiet of the Berkshires to sketch for days on end without interruption.)
The breaking news of this story is that, in the past 18 months, the boys have finally grown up and are launching a brand-new, casual dress-for-daily-living line named Proenza Schouler White Label. After a two-season sojourn staging their shows during haute couture week in Paris, they returned home last year. Not long after that, they announced that they had bought back all stakes in their company; now, aided by a pool of unnamed private investors, the boys—err, men—are once again in full control. “We’ve brought in a whole new team that understands that Jack and I are creative people,” Hernandez explains with enthusiasm as we sit in a park near their Brooklyn home. “They know how to harness our strengths and help us evolve in exciting ways.” This new team includes CEO Kay Hong, who helped steer the designers toward the realization that there were many moments in a woman’s life that weren’t being addressed—or dressed—by them.
After all, it isn’t only Hernandez and McCollough who have grown up—the entire friends section has as well. “We started our company at age 22,” Hernandez says. “So the heels were higher, the dress proportions were a little shorter. We were all going out more. A lot of us were single. The look was younger because we were younger. Now most women we know are deep into their careers. Many of them have children. They’re more practical. Their needs have changed.”
Enter White Label. It’s still luxury, just more user-friendly. “Proenza Schouler has always been about pushing boundaries and making a fashion statement,” Hernandez says of the main line. “It has all the bells and whistles. It’s your public self.” By contrast, White Label—named because its labels are white, whereas the original Proenza Schouler ones are black—could be described as the kinds of clothes that Olympia or Chloë or Jen might wear while running a weekend errand, stopping into an art gallery, or crossing the park to meet up for lunch with a friend. Simply put, the clothes are for the aspects of life that don’t warrant the near-couture-level creations the pair is known for. “It’s really about making beautiful clothes that feel good on the body,” Hernandez says. “This line is intimate, wearable, less structured, more oversize.” It’s less Proenza Schouler’s bubbly little sister dreaming of nights on the town and more her chill, erudite cousin who’s getting a graduate degree at Columbia and doesn’t mind taking the subway.
Their debut offerings include pleated skirts with drawstring waistbands, double-face cashmere coats, and slouchy cotton trousers. The palette is heavy on black and white, but drifts softly through sky blue and celery green, giving the collection a warm, Zen-like feeling—a sort of Central Park after an April rainstorm vibe. “I love the translucent rubber raincoat,” McCollough says, “with the detachable plaid cotton liner.” It’s a much more democratic fashion line, but the designers’ ingenuity and attention to unexpected details are still all over it.
Hernandez and McCollough took nine months to dream up the first two collections for White Label. Rather than visiting Chelsea galleries or going on far-flung voyages for ideas, they spent a lot of time talking to women, many of them right in their SoHo office. The designers listened as these women described the clothes they wanted to wear, the ones missing not only from their closets but also from other retailers. “That’s why White Label is much more accessible,” McCollough says. “We paid more attention to the private and personal side of a woman’s life.” Likewise, instead of locking themselves away in the Berkshires for marathon sketching sessions, they designed in the studio, drawing on photographs and playing with shapes and fabrics while receiving immediate feedback from their team.
Perhaps what’s most rewarding about the new venture is that it allows Hernandez and McCollough to revisit all their years of radical experimentation. They can dig through their archive and bring back a favorite coat shape, a clever skirt cut, or an exaggerated collar. Casual clothes have a longer shelf life—and now their tried-and-true sartorial breakthroughs do too. “Proenza Schouler is a proposition,” Hernandez says, summing things up. “White Label is a conversation.” Sounds like a pretty grown-up one at that.