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WWD CEO Summit: Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough

Proenza Schouler's designers talked about their decade in fashion and their talent for finding the right partners, both creative and financial.

Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough burst onto the New York fashion scene as the good-looking fashion duo who famously sold their Parsons senior thesis collection to Barneys New York. Ten years later, the designers have proven to be no novelty act, maintaining their title as fashion’s reigning cool kids while establishing a growing business. WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley interviewed Hernandez and McCollough about their decade in fashion and their talent for finding the right partners, both creative and financial.

WWD: You’ve been in business now 10 years, after a meteoric rise. What’s been the single biggest surprise for you along the way?
Lazaro Hernandez:
I guess the biggest surprise was maybe the success of the leather goods. That took us by surprise. For the first maybe five years, we were focused exclusively on defining the ready-to-wear, and then we had an idea for a bag. We were like, “A lot of these designer companies have a really successful bag business; let’s attempt that. Let’s try to take this to another level.” We wanted to introduce a very specific bag. Just one idea, and that really hit.

WWD: Talk a little about the PS1. It’s very interesting to me that when you were starting out, it was at the height of an “It” bag moment.
Jack McCollough:
We didn’t want to put a bag out there until we had something to say with bags. As you said, it was at a time when it was very much about an “It” bag, and aesthetically those bags were very much covered in hardware and buckles and logos, and we kind of wanted to do something that was the antithesis of an “It” bag in a way. Something more stripped down and incognito, easy wearing. Something that could stand the test of time and not just be of the moment. And we chose not to show that bag [on the runway]. We wanted to keep it not of a season. When you show a bag it kind of becomes old news the next season, and we wanted to do this classic item.

WWD: Do you think there’s a cool classicism to it? That’s what made it click?
L.H.:
We had just come off that Target thing and that did really well. I remember the Target people saying it was one of the most successful collaborations for them. They were really psyched about it, and that showed us, all the press that we had gotten, that people were really interested in the product. So if we offered something that was more accessible, such as an accessory — one size fits all — hopefully that would stick, and that was directly after the Target thing when we started to develop the bag.

WWD: When you came out of school, you came out to tremendous acclaim. Barneys bought your senior projects. Many of us mark your ascent as the beginning of this next generation. Why you? Was it a combination of timing and talent? Why do you think the moment was right?
J.M.:
I think it was very much a mixture of timing and talent. It was at a time when all the different generations of fashion were shifting. The Calvin Kleins and the Donna Karans went from designers to these megaestablished brands. Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs became the establishment and it opened up a gap. People were just ready for some new blood in the game.
L.H.: You were the first person to come to us in our apartment. We were still in school. We had wire hangers. No wire hangers! So it’s a question for you, I guess. You were seeking out new talent.

 

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WWD: Talk about your creative partnership. I’m always fascinated by designer partners. I think, Lazaro, you once said, “If one of us wants black and one wants white, we do gray.” How does that work?
L.H.:
It’s such an abstract process. No one designer works in a vacuum. Every designer has a team of people they have a dialogue with through the season. We’re no different, we’re just sort of a public duo. Our collections aren’t about equestrian one season and hippie the next season. It’s not so basic. It’s a six-month process. We try to engage in the world as much as possible and absorb as much information individually. Throughout the season, we bring different ideas to the table that end up merging and becoming one thing. If I was doing it alone, it wouldn’t look like Proenza Schouler. If Jack was doing it alone, it wouldn’t look like Proenza Schouler. What makes it look like Proenza Schouler is the combination of our two ideas.
J.M.: I think the seasons where we’re arguing the most or a little off tend to be the most successful collections. It’s more layered. It’s not so one-dimensional. It’s about the mixture of many different elements that create something that hopefully no one’s ever seen before.
L.H.: We work so much together and we’re always traveling. We’ll be like, “Remember that car we saw in Nepal last year? That pink color? Yeah, that’s the color.”

WWD: You are the creative partners. You’re the front people, but there’s another partner. Talk about Shirley Cook’s role and this idea of younger designers finding the right business partner to work with.
J.M.:
Shirley has been with us since the very beginning. We met Shirley through Kate Fleming, who we went to Parsons with. She was roommates with Shirley, who was going to NYU. She was a religion major. She graduated a year before us and was doing p.r. at Helmut Lang. After we graduated and Barneys bought our senior collection, we had to kind of scramble and get this thing rolling. I think our strengths are our design and, especially back then, in the beginning we had weaknesses. Shirley was a good friend and would come over after work at Helmut and help us organize receipts, or Barneys gives you this big book of all these things you have to follow in order to ship, and we were like, “What the hell is this?” Shirley helped us figure it out, and eventually she left Helmut and joined forces with us. She’s our ceo and our right hand. It’s so important for a designer to have someone like that on your side.

WWD: The escalation of your business has been incredible over the past few years. Let’s talk about the growth of the business. I know Shirley brought on your first backer and now Andrew [Rosen] came on in 2011. Talk about your various backing situations and why you feel Andrew Rosen and John Howard are the right fit.
J.M.:
In the beginning Shirley brought on this guy Markus Höfels. He came in on a personal level, and we have a lot of respect for him. We were right out of school and had nothing to show.
L.H.: He was a true angel investor.
J.H.: He helped jump-start the business and get an influx of cash, and then we got to the point where we wanted to take this to the next level, and he just didn’t have the means. We started talks with Valentino, which was really instrumental in growing our manufacturing capabilities in Italy, specifically.

WWD: When you started it was Valentino and then it was sold to Permira.
J.M.:
Yeah, it was a great relationship, but we got to the point a year or two ago where we were ready for investors who were here and who we could have the day-to-day with. With Permira being over in Italy, there was a bit too much separation. We were also interested in people who were on a completely other side of the business.
L.H.: Permira is a huge private-equity firm. When we signed on with Valentino, it was different ownership, and soon it was sold to this big private-equity firm. We were this fledgling fashion brand, they were like, “Who the hell are you guys? You’re in America.” There wasn’t this intimacy. Like Jack said, they helped us incredibly with Italian luxury manufacturing, which we had a hard time with. We were producing everything in New York at the time. Now 50 percent of our ready-to-wear is produced in Italy and 100 percent of our leather goods. That stemmed from that relationship.

WWD: Andrew Rosen has been in the business so long and knows it so well.
L.H.:
That’s when we started talking to Andrew and John Howard. Both have been so supportive and understand what we’re trying to do. We see Andrew all the time. He comes to see us, and we talk to him about what’s working. Now we have a board, which is the weirdest thing for us. We have a boardroom. We’re lucky to have Rose Marie Bravo. For those who don’t know, she was the ceo of Burberry for many years, and now she’s the head of our board.
J.M.: She turned Burberry from an umbrella and trenchcoat business to what it is today.

WWD: Let’s go back to fashion. We all know New York Fashion Week is extremely long and has its peaks and valleys. Your show has become one of the absolute editorial highlights, and you have increasingly pushed the editorial quotient, the fashion quotient. You’ve put to me in the context that now you have pre-collections that allow you to push the runway. Talk about that.
J.M.:
Before we didn’t have these pre-collections, and we didn’t have a commercial collection. We didn’t have the funds to develop these huge collections, so what we showed on the runway was what you were able to buy. We had to stay commercial in a way on a show level. We couldn’t push it too far so it could be salable. But it was pushed a little too far so it wasn’t all entirely commercial. Now as we develop the business, now that we have more funding, we can be more editorial, create the mood and have commercial collections to fuel the business.

 

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WWD: Psychologically for you as designers, what does it mean for you to have that separation, to have that outlet to do what you do on the runway?
L.H.:
It’s why we started to do what we’re doing. We went to art school, we were art kids. Fashion was a creative outlet, and we approached it as such in the beginning. It was only a couple of years into it we were like, “Oh, this is a business, too.” That became very important to us, and the whole pre-collection thing — every designer hates pre-collections. First of all, there’s no time. But at the end of the day, it’s a blessing in a way. Pre-collections have become a commercial endeavor. It’s based on sales. We work closely with merchandising. The shows allow us to dream and let us do what we do we do best. For us fashion is not just a business. It’s a dream. It’s a fantasy. It’s creativity.

WWD: It seems to me that all the brand building, and that idea doesn’t get in the forefront enough or get talked about enough. Ultimately, nobody needs any of it, so you have to sell that idea, that it is a dream.
L.H.:
People have a lot of what they need already. We’re in the business of inspiring people. Someone coming into our store, yeah, they have a million jackets, but this jacket speaks to them. It takes them to a place where they can dream. It’s an emotional thing.

WWD: A great deal of the fashion for you is on the surface. You have become virtually obsessed with fabric, and I know you develop all of your runway fabric in-house.
J.M.:
In the last couple years we’ve been obsessed with new fabrics, new textiles, things that don’t already exist, that are created from scratch. Especially in a day where things are getting knocked off left and right, it’s interesting to us that you can’t just buy it off a header. We have a couple of mills in the Como area of Italy, and we work with them on fabrics. We’ll say, “We like these yarns, but let’s put leather through it and photo-print it.” We’re obsessed with 2-D texture and innovation. It’s how we move these collections forward.
L.H.: At the end of the day, the human body has two arms, two legs and a torso. A lot of the shapes that can be worn have already been created. It’s not about three sleeves or three pant legs or anything like that. For us, it’s about the surface. That’s what the future of fashion is. It’s technology. How do we use technology to create new fashion? We found all these mills are upping their technological possibilities tenfold every year. We can create novel texture to create basically simple clothes out of.
J.M.: At the same time, we’re really interested in craft and old techniques. Like, last season we got this plasticized leather and sent it over to Madagascar and it was hand-crocheted together.

WWD: There are so many iterations of technology, so many areas of marketing. For your last collection, you referenced the randomness of the Internet. Talk about that.
L.H.:
I don’t know. We were just getting really into Twitter and Facebook. We got a stat yesterday that we’re the number-nine fashion company in the world with Twitter followers, out of all the Burberrys and Versaces out there. We’re the only sort of not-big-advertiser.

WWD: Do you do Twitter yourselves?
J.M.:
We have someone on staff. We’re too busy.
L.H.: I think you have to be in your 20s. We hired someone who’s, like, 20 years old to do it. She’s very savvy.