Proenza Schouler

Proenza Schouler: future perfect

Hyenas and high fashion collide when Brooklyn boys Proenza Schouler get together. Katherine Bernard witnesses the alchemists at work

Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez create fashion that’s so off the grid, it’s positively space-age. Together, the designer duo behind Proenza Schouler – partners in both senses of the word – seek out stimulation from obscure corners of science, geography and the digital world, emerging season after season with concepts that push us to reconsider fashion, what can be defined as fabric and what our future can look like. And yet Proenza Schouler, which they founded 12 years ago after graduating from Parsons, isn’t about unwearable futuristic fashion created by dreamers; the garments are highly coveted, appealing to both cult collectors and lab professors. 

Today, “the boys” – as they’re still known in fashion industry lexicon, despite being in their mid-30s – are sitting at a conference table in their New York offices. It might sound a bit boring (there aren’t even any snacks) but the duo are enjoying themselves, cracking up at pictures of fierce-looking men who keep pet hyenas on leashes. “I want to see those hyenas,” McCollough laughs. “They’re so terrifying, they’re sketchy.” “Sketchyyyy!” Hernandez goads. The pair, who have just been mapping out a forthcoming trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, finish each other’s sentences and lean back coolly between guffaws. You feel PS-anointed when they angle across the table to show you the picture – from Pieter Hugo’s The Hyena & Other Men – that they’re obsessing over. “We’re going to bring back a pet hyena. It’s all about bringing back a pet hyena,” McCollough says. “A hyena for Brooklyn,” Hernandez adds. 

Their collections have often drawn from such excursions across far-flung corners of the globe; visits to Tahiti, Nepal, India and Wyoming have all been integrated into the trousers, dresses, jackets and shoes Proenza women lust after. But this season, the two have proved that inspiration isn’t about what is seen, but who sees it. Their SS14 collection grew out of furnishing their new apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. “We were kind of just vibing, like on a crib level, about what the house was going to look like,” Hernandez says. They didn’t see exotic animals, ruined temples or rare landscapes, just Farrow & Ball paint samples, houseplants, the internet and each other. 

Backstage after the SS14 show, the two explained their references with a litany of names, movements, feelings and colours that was more poem than interview. But you could memorise and Google every inspiration on the list, from scrap-metal sculptor John Chamberlain to husband-and-wife duo Les Lalanne’s work “Hippopotame I”, and still be no closer to understanding what makes the collection so electric. “I don’t know how to explain, just that we don’t overthink it,” Hernandez says. “We’re like, ‘Oh, I need a colour for this thing,’ and a car goes by with a great colour on it and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a great colour.’ Just like that, we’re picking up information from living, and it feels contemporary somehow. It’s just based on all these, like, random little snapshots.”

Outside In: Proenza Schouler

When they see the final looks, the duo always remember who drew it, but not always where the ideas for each colour, line or texture came from. Once their disparate references reach harmony, the looks stand on their own. “You shouldn’t have to hear a whole backstory,” McCollough says. “I think that can get too conceptual, at least when it comes to design. You need to be seduced visually without knowing anything.” Hernandez picks up the thought without even looking over at his partner: “You’re intrigued by it, you know? I think process is secondary. It’s super important, and ultimately more interesting, but if the final thing doesn’t stand on its own I don’t think it’s a successful thing.”

They still draw their collections together, typically at their newly renovated farmhouse upstate. It’s a place where they can disconnect and try their best not to check email. “In terms of calm I’m starting not to want everything in our house to be something, you know?” McCollough says. “I want to start buying stupid shit. Just junk. I’m sick of everything being so precious, arranged and considered. I feel like there’s a stuffiness in that.” At a time when even the tiniest details of daily life can be compressed into a square, filtered through fake light and popped into a feed, finding unboxed space to think is rare.

“You shouldn’t have to hear a whole backstory. I think that can get too conceptual, at least when it comes to design. You need to be seduced visually without knowing anything”

The unprecedented sculpted metallic breastplates in their final looks of the SS14 collection were created with a Pennsylvania-based electroplating plant that also makes parts for spacecrafts. “Basically, they paint the whole resin piece in copper and dip it in these weird vats, and the chrome is attracted to the copper,” McCollough explains. “I think they put electric signals into the liquid so it clings on to the copper and then it gets polished. We didn’t personally see that. But people for our team are schleppin’ around for us.” 

The schlep – whether physical or mental – is always worth it. For AW13, McCollough and Hernandez spent months developing a new fabric they call “high-frequency bonded lace”, which was created using laser-cut crepe to look like the squiggly-wiggly patterns of the Memphis Group. They held the show in Manhattan at 5 Beekman Street, an abandoned 1880s building with no heat, and you could almost see their breath backstage as they explained their dedication to fabric invention. “We wanted a softness of form, colour and texture – snowy, somehow,” McCollough said, and almost the same minute, it started snowing outside. They seem to have an inexplicable sense for what’s coming next, and an unmatched dedication to pursuing it.

Kirsty wears Proenza Schouler SS14 Photography by Luke Gilford, Styling by Emma Wyman

“It’s fun to just mess with the fashion,” Hernandez says now, back at the office. “At the end of the day, you know, we’re American – what we like is a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. So, for us, exploring silhouette is a very mid-century idea – like Dior, Balenciaga, all these people that were always talking about a new H-line, A-line, Y-line look. It was all about the different shape. But nowadays we’ve settled on a shape. In this moment in history, a shape has been defined. We’re not so interested in silhouette, but surface.”

Unlike many of their design counterparts, the boys have never ventured downstairs to explore their own archives. “Our company’s not historical, and there’s no history to the brand,” Hernandez says.  “It’s not like you can go to the archives and pull out a piece from 1960, like, ‘Oh, cool, let’s do that!’ Maybe we’ll go down when we’re 50... Who knows?” “…and we’ve got like, full facelifts, orange tans,” McCollough interjects, laughing. “I feel like the day we reference ourselves is the day it’s time for a new designer!”

You could describe the duo as fashion alchemists, and they’re certainly setting the standard for creative exploration. But there are certain business elements of fashion design – constant collection schedules, budget meetings, market considerations – that are hard to avoid. “It’s difficult to turn on creativity at the drop of a hat,” McCollough says. “We’ve got a bunch of meetings throughout the day, and then from like, 1pm to 2:30pm we have to be creative again and come up with this idea for something, but then at 2.30pm we go into a budget meeting. It’s just kind of weird to switch your brain around.”

Kirsty wears Proenza Schouler SS14 Photography by Luke Gilford, Styling by Emma Wyman

Would they like to create pure visual art that exists outside of design? “I would love to just be an artist, obviously,” Hernandez says, “but that’s the biggest cliché, that’s like a model saying she wants to be an actress. You know, the high level of whatever you think you’re doing.” McCollough agrees: “I think there’s a tendency in the fashion world to glorify art in your head. You’re like, ‘Oh, the idea of being a painter at the studio...’” “‘...alone,’” Hernandez says, completing the thought. 

For the immediate future, they’re looking to galvanize new creative energy. “It’s fun to do artist collaborations or make a new movie, things like that,” Hernandez says. They enlisted Harmony Korine to produce the film Act da Fool for their AW10 collection, capturing a group of rebellious teenage girls drinking and smoking their way through dead-end suburbia. And if you’ve seen their AW13 campaigns by David Sims, which feature more floating parrots and galactic landscapes than the actual collection, you’ll understand when Hernandez says, “We’re interested in doing things just for the hell of it,” and McCollough adds: “Things that don’t have to mean anything, or things that don’t even have a purpose, really.” The light is flashing back and forth along the invisible wire between them. He smiles: “Just to make other things, just to get out of the season-after-season routine of things. It’s a win-win situation, I think. I mean, if it’s good.” Hernandez nods his head: “If it’s good.”

All clothes and accessories by Proenza Schouler SS14 Hair Lesley McMenamin at Streeters Make-up Jo Baker at The Magnet Agency Nails Marisa Carmichael at Streeters Model Kirsty Hume at IMG Set design Bradley Garlock Still-photo supervisor Raphael Chatelain Photographic assistants Tucker Tripp Henry Conklin Camera dept Isaac Bauman Producer Meagan Judkins Casting Noah Shelley Special thanks to Dr and Mrs Wyman