Image by Ben Park.

Proenza Schouler's Couture Moment: An Exclusive Interview

The iconic New York brand tells us about the business and craft—not to mention jitters—of taking their show to Paris Couture Week.

by Rachel Tashjian
Jun 14 2017, 1:00pm

Image by Ben Park.

The fashion industry has always run on radical change and innovation, but the past decade has been especially disruptive: e-commerce, Instagram, and technologies like 3-D printing are just a few of the forces that have transformed the way clothing is produced, bought, and talked about. So perhaps it's curious that in 2017, we're back to debating the oldest trick in the book: the fashion show.

But the commercial anxieties of the industry—along with an almost plucky, can-do globalism that has a Belgian designer, Raf Simons, holding New York breathless and a wave of Eastern European youngsters jolting Paris with new vitality—mean designers are eager to experiment with the runway show format and production schedules.

That includes New York darlings Proenza Schouler—the 15-year-old line by Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, whose tactile, carefully constructed garments draw heavily on the city's contemporary art scene. They announced at the beginning of this year that they would condense the four-season show schedule into two larger collections and show them in January and July, kicking off this new timetable during this summer's Paris Couture Week. (California girls Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte will also show then; Paris-based haute-bizarro collective Vetements, which has shown for the past few seasons during couture week, just announced they won't be showing at all, thank you very much.)

While the romance of dipping into the Paris fashion world seems like an irresistible draw, the designers said the decision was primarily a business one. "The reality is that buyers are spending about 80% of their buying dollars during the pre-collection market," said Hernandez in a recent phone interview, referring to the "pre"-season collections, pre-spring and pre-fall (and you thought global warming was the only thing mucking up the seasons!).

But the majority of their time and effort was directed to the main collections traditionally shown at New York Fashion Week in February and September, respectively, Hernandez explained. "And I don't know, for us it started to feel a little disheartening that all our blood and energy and effort was being placed on this portion of the business that really wasn't making a dent at the end of the day financially," he said. "We were like, you know what? This is bullshit! Why are we working our asses off on these shows that buyers aren't buying? It's that they don't like it or they don't want it—it's that pre-collection [they want], because they buy it so much earlier, because it delivers so much earlier, so it has a longer period of time to sell at full price."

That meant moving everything up: "Oh now we have to show in July—where the hell do we show?" Hernandez recalled. "We were like, oh, you know, let's have a show during Paris Couture. You know, fuck it!" (Pardon his French.)

This might seem like a big leap for designers who are so quintessentially New York. The Proenza woman is a kind of Big Apple stereotype, a uniform of the gallery director, the bestselling author, the woman-who-does-it-all-with-great-hair. (Moda Operandi founder Lauren Santo Domingo—Connecticut-born, New York savvy—is practically their spokeswoman.) You want to look creative but ambitious and have to go to five different events in three neighborhoods today, plus convince a Dalton science teacher your kid isn't nuts just because he put a Fidget Spinner on the class guinea pig's head in time to make the Rauschenberg opening at MoMA? You want Proenza.

But Hernandez and McCollough insist it's less about channeling Paris then bringing new energy to the brand and a bit of New York to Paris. "Our studio is still in New York, our lives are still in New York, so all our references are completely still New York-centric," said Hernandez. He added, "We're definitely not going French or whatever that is. We're not living in Paris and absorbing that culture—we're still absorbing the New York culture and American culture at large." Not quite a certain je ne sais quoi, more an I dunno what.

Still, they're aware they're competing on a more elevated aesthetic playing ground, with strict rules and practices about handcraft and design, so they sent their team—which is working in unison for the first time, rather than simultaneously on the pre- and main collections—to Paris's couture ateliers to find collaborators: the woman who just makes rosettes, the guy who just does ribbons, the man who makes nothing but bows. "There are hundreds of [these ateliers] that are just independent, so I think they're very open to new clients and new people, and so we're working with a bunch of them," Hernandez explained. There's always been an emphasis on craft and construction in the clothes, the designers point out, so Paris is an exciting and natural leap.

And the globalization of the fashion industry, McCollough argued, also means that a city-specific look is less potent than it once was. "You have French designers doing like, really commercial ready-to-wear; you've got people over here [in New York] doing something very not New York-sportswear centric," McCollough said. "I mean, all the lines are blurred these days, because people are so interconnected and the countries are so interconnected. There's not like a specific look like there once was…and I think that all of that has really kind of morphed and changed over the last 10 years."

Okay, but aren't they nervous at all? "A lot of people we always wanted to come to the shows don't really come to New York, so it's a little nerve-wracking on that level," McCollough said. A couture show audience means a new cadre of international editors and store buyers, plus a new caliber of customer—the woman shopping for next season's trousseau, who now typically comes from Russia, China, or the Middle East.

"Just the history of French fashion and Paris, and what all of that means—that's where all the major players are from, the Chanels, to the Diors to the Commes and the Yohjis…. I feel like maybe we'll be looked at in a different way than how we're looked at back here in New York." But they're prepared for that playing field, they said, pointing out that in stores, they hang next to Stella McCartney, Givenchy, and Balenciaga—European ready-to-wear bigwigs. They're Parsons grads whose senior thesis collection was famously picked up by Barneys, and they show collections inspired by Helen Frankenthaler in the Whitney Museum, but "we like to think of ourselves as a little more global in the way we view the world," Hernandez said.

But Hernandez adds they don't really have time to think about their nerves, since they've got two-and-a-half fewer months to put the collection together. "I'm more worried about getting it done on time than the actual like, How are they going to perceive us? Like, we don't really think about that that much."

After all, they've got a very stylish First Lady to woo: Brigitte Macron. En marche!

Proenza Schouler
Brigitte Macron