Proenza Schouler designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez are jacked up as they talk about the handmade fabrics in their fall-winter 2012 runway collection, with its urban-warrior-trekking-the-Himalayas vibe.
And why not? It's pretty unusual stuff.
Embroidery that is a takeoff on ancient Buddhist symbols is "sick." Colorful leather biker jackets woven using a technique inspired by baskets they discovered on vacation in Bhutan are "killer." And the tiny plastic beads, which they had to develop their own molds to make, strung together to create a chain-mail effect on tunics? They're "for real."
"Silhouettes have been done, but fabric research and technology, that's the 21st century frontier. That's what's truly modern to us," Hernandez says.
After 10 years in business, the Proenza Schouler "boys" as they are still affectionately called at age 33, are among the most influential designers in American fashion, known for collections that mix arts-and-crafts techniques, such as shibori dyeing and Native American weaving, with a modern, streetwise attitude. Just this month the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced that McCollough and Hernandez once again are finalists in the trade group's prestigious annual competition, a distinction that seems to be becoming routine. (This year, they are up for women's wear designer of the year and accessory designer of the year.)
And, thanks to new investors, they are entering a new phase of growth, with retail stores and an even wider range of clothing and accessories on the horizon.
They stand for luxury, but not in the old-world, European sense. It's a cool-girl luxury that resonates with those seated front row at their New York Fashion Week show in February, including budding director Gia Coppola, actress Dakota Fanning, model-designer Liya Kebede and designer Tory Burch, who said of McCollough and Hernandez, "They have a high-fashion vision with commercial appeal."
On the fall runway, they explored the idea of protection with tough-looking, oversize jackets and low-slung, wide-leg trousers in white cotton pique. Fencing, karate, judo and other fighting sports inspired the silhouettes and the padded details. Stiff wrap skirts in woven leather were worn with drapey lacquered lace tunics tucked in the front and left loose in back. Dresses were made from silk brocade, picturing things such as machine gears and eyeballs, and sweat shirts were embroidered with peacocks. Prices range from $175 to $8,850.
The New York Times called the fall collection the "good, solid jolt" that the New York Fashion Week shows needed. "Some of the most exciting clothes we've seen all week," Vogue.com added. Women's Wear Daily described it as "one of the New York season's few moments of significant fashion news."
It certainly had bravado, and it was an about-face from their previous collection, in stores now for spring, which was inspired by Googie architecture, kitschy tiki culture, roadside diner and rec room décor.
The designers met while studying at the Parsons School of Design in New York and in 2002 collaborated on a graduate thesis collection that was so successful it was bought in its entirety by Barneys New York.
"Right out of school, they were doing some of the freshest things on the runway. And they have continued to keep that energy up," Ken Downing, fashion director for Neiman Marcus, says. "They really are like a young Marc Jacobs."
It will be a year in July since a group led by apparel giant Andrew Rosen bought a chunk of the brand to help diversify the product offerings and lead it into a new phase of growth. The president of Theory, Rosen is a major investor in several American fashion brands. But until he invested in Proenza Schouler, his stable was made up of lower-priced contemporary brands such as Alice & Olivia and Rag & Bone, not luxury players.
"I believe in the beauty of what Jack and Lazaro do, the way they combine and use prints, their fabric innovation," Rosen says. "They ooze creativity."
They've just started construction on their first boutique on Madison Avenue in New York, which is expected to open later this year. "For us, it's weird to go to stores and see a watered-down version of the collection," Hernandez says, referring to how boutiques and department stores buy only a few pieces. "With our own store, we'll have the opportunity to show our whole expression of the brand."
They've revamped their website, offering more versions of their bestselling handbag, the PS1, a take on a traditional schoolboy satchel, including in neon-bright colors and Hawaiian-inspired prints for spring.
They're also getting into denim, $255 to $295, which will land in stores in July.
So what do Proenza Schouler jeans look like? "Kind of dorky," McCollough says. "Super-clean. No whiskers, no bells and whistles, no signatures."
"Super-anonymous," Hernandez adds.
And that's how the designers prefer to be themselves these days.
For years, the spotlight was on them. In 2007, they were tapped to design one of the first designer collections for Target, and it made them overnight sensations. Then, in 2009, they won the CFDA award for women's wear designer of the year, only to become tabloid fodder later that night, when McCollough was head-butted by Kiefer Sutherland during an argument in a bar at the after-party. There was even a rumored break-up. But McCollough and Hernandez say they have been personal partners as well as business partners all along, though they try to keep their private life as private as possible.
In the last couple of years, things have quieted down, and they seem to be relieved to be out of the fray.
Instead of partying on the weekends, they take off for the Berkshires, where they own a farm with chickens and pigs. (Caretakers Bob and Sue watched the runway show online. "They think it's the weirdest, craziest thing," McCollough says.) They sit and sketch there, sometimes 12 hours a day, up to 10 days straight. Their vacations often turn up in one form or another in their work too.
"Everyone is so curious about how we work together," McCollough says. "It's intense. We're sitting across the table from one another every day, all day, and we're making decisions on things that are subjective. It's personal preference, and it's hard to agree on color, texture and shapes. Our eyes are drawn to different things, but eventually our eyes are drawn together."