Chatting with Proenza Schouler

The popular designers were at Saks Fifth Avenue last night to celebrate their fall collection and the launch of their fragrance Arizona.

Photo by Michael Blanchard

Those who don’t run in the fashion world might hear the brand name Proenza Schouler and think its roots were European and steeped in old money. But the origin story, told last night at Saks by the duo Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez behind the brand, is much more inspirational and much less privileged.

The fashion fairytale goes that the two men met as students at Parson’s School of Design in New York City and formed a friendship, which led to a relationship, and a partnership on a collection for their senior thesis, which Barney’s New York bought in its entirety. The name Proenza Schouler is a combination of their mothers’ maiden names. Now over a decade later, the pair are still together romantically and professionally, have earned five CFDA awards and have been invited to show in Paris. And yet, despite being embraced by the notoriously fastidious fashion world, when I chatted with them at an event for the launch of their first fragrance, Arizona, the two seemed more like art school kids still in awe of their success than design darlings.

McCollough pats the sofa next to him for me to take a seat when I enter the room, and it seems immediately OK to joke around with them and join in their easy banter. As one would expect from a couple that has been living and working together for almost two decades, they finish each other’s sentences, but more unexpectedly, they still seem very smitten. They still crack each other up and still rely on the other to complete their creative process.

“We both bring ideas into the equation and mix them together and then we break them apart. I’ll draw half of the collection and Lazaro will draw half of the collection and then we mix the sketches together. We almost storyboard it out like you would a movie. We’re constantly checking in with each other,” McCollough explains.

As to be expected, the working relationship isn’t always harmonious, and sometimes the pair do sweat the small stuff.

“We’re together all of the time and we see the same things and I think after a while you get into a rhythm. It’s so hard to explain, we’re on a similar wavelength. The big picture is cohesive, but it’s in the details that we argue, like in a zipper finish,” says Hernandez.

Although no argument has been big enough to cause a crack in their bond, there is one show in particular that they both agree is evidence of their discord. Hernandez references the fall of 2006, which McCollough at first has trouble remembering. “Remember, I went on a road trip,” Hernandez offers. “I was feeling very out west, and you went to Los Angeles and were feeling very mid-century modern, and we were just on different planets and that domino print happened.” McCollough laughs and agrees that he “hated that show.” But he points out that some of their most successful collections came from times when both brought completely different ideas to the table.

“There have been times when Lazaro was coming from a completely different point of view than I was coming from. Maybe those ideas on their own wouldn’t have been strong enough as a collection idea, but the two mixed together created something that felt more layered, more special, and more original,” McCollough says.

And here’s an example of their modesty: Both agree that they feel as if they’re starting over every season. “We think we have it figured out and then realize we don’t know how to do this and need to start over from scratch and change the process. We’re constantly reevaluating,” McCollough says. Hernandez adds, “We’re constantly pushing forward, and constantly trying to get better.”

When I ask the uninspiring question of what inspires them, McCollough says, “We never have one inspiration necessarily. It’s always a bunch of different references. All of the collections we do are very autobiographical, because it’s not like we’re this old heritage brand with this long legacy and history to pull from. So we’re just really making it up as we go along.” After all of these years and all this success, the guys continue to remind me that they don’t know everything. I’ve heard a very different tune from men with far less success, so it’s refreshing.

Perhaps their limitless work ethic is a result of their charmed beginnings, or it could be because both didn’t really plan on being fashion designers when they grew up. Hernandez was born in Miami, and although time spent in his mother’s beauty salon helped him fall in love with the world of beauty and fashion, he originally planned on becoming a doctor. McCollough always had artistic aspirations and in fact attended high school at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, but he thought he might become a glass blower or a painter. Their first collection was born out of their kindred creativity and confidence that if this risk failed, there were other doors to be opened.

But thankfully they didn’t fail. In fact, as our interview came to an end, they hinted at some big news soon to be revealed, and exchanged a knowing smile.