By Gloria Nicola

Contrast is the key word in the design philosophy of Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, the design duo who in 2002 founded the Proenza Schouler (pronounced pro-EN-za SKOOL-er) label. “Our collections are always about mixing contrasts,” says McCollough. “Every season it entails different contrasts, but there’s always a high and a low—for example, ’50s-inspired couteur with a more modern, more true to our ’90s generation look exemplified by a mix of shiny and matte, an absence of color with bright hues or large volumes, perhaps a poufy mini, with a sleek, structured vest.”

In fact, contrast is a major factor in many aspects of their lives and careers and even includes the welcoming team at their design studio in New York’s Chinatown. Buster, an enormous Newfoundland dog, bounds over to say hello, closely followed by Jo Jo, a tiny Prague Ratter. Ratters weigh in at between two and four pounds full grown and Newfoundlands at 130 to 150 pounds. Both have something in common, though. They see themselves as lap dogs.

The designers’ careers, too, began on different paths. McCollough grew up in suburban New Jersey. He liked to sew, but he intended to become a master glass blower and enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. Hernandez, from Miami and the son of Cuban immigrants, was studying to be a doctor until a summer visit to New York made him realize the fashion world he’d fantasized about while reading Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in his mother’s beauty salon was, in fact, real. Eventually, the two young men enrolled in New York’s Parsons School of Design, where they met in 1998. For three years, the two designed independently and quite successfully. In his junior year, McCollough had an internship with Marc Jacobs, eventually working directly with the designer himself. At about the same time, Hernandez dropped a note written in lipstick-red crayon about his fashion dreams to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour while on the same Miami-New York flight. As a result, Hernandez received a call from Michael Kors and began an internship there.

In their senior year, McCollough and Hernandez worked together at the United Bamboo fashion house and found they were in agreement about the things that matter most to designers—silhouette, color, proportion. “A lot of our classmates were cutting up T-shirts,” Hernandez says. “We wanted to return to the craft.” So they received permission to do their thesis project together and created a moniker out of their mothers’ maiden names—Proenza Schouler. The look they showed was glamorous, but pared down to the essentials: a pencil skirt, bolero jacket that hit right below the breast, all in a palette of dirty pastels. The collection attracted Julie Gilhart, fashion director at Barneys New York. She bought the whole line. It was a hit.

In 2003, the designers received the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Swarovski Perry Ellis Award for new talent and in the same year were awarded the first-ever CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund grant. In 2004, Proenza Schouler launched its first shoe collection and in both 2006 and 2007, the CFDA nominated the two for the Womenswear Designer of the Year award, an award they won in 2007.

What really helped them broaden their consumer appeal, though, was a capsule collection launched for mass market retailer Target early in 2007 and available for a limited time, based around their shapes and color palette. “We loved that you could get our signature bustier in silk charmeuse with quality detailing for $40.99,” McCollough says. “We like the idea of designing for a larger customer base and a younger girl. We found we were very successful with the mass market and when the initiative ended, we realized we had no product for that market. We wanted to fill the space and round it out with product that was every day.”

A logical next step was eyewear and sunglasses, now available under a licensing agreement with Cachet, a division of L’Amy America. The new eyewear collection, which reflects the fashion house’s continued exploration into contrasts, features an irreverent mix of materials—custom brushed metals with lacquered tortoise-color resins, often accented with exposed hardware for a machine-age look. “The utilitarian look of the shapes brings to mind eyewear of an earlier period, but the absolute focus on detail and material makes it a product of today,” the designers note. “We have always been attracted to older eyeglass styles. We like taking such classics as the Wayfarer, the Malcolm X design, an aviator or a circular shape and tweaking them in new ways. Eyewear was a natural for us. It’s one of the big trends in fashion today, and it’s a good accessory because you don’t have the fit issue you have with clothes,” Hernandez continues.

“It’s also nice to separate ourselves sometimes from clothing design—to step back and explore our philosophy in other areas,” the designers explain. “And we can reach a broader audience with accessories. Many consumers can’t spend $2,000 on a dress, but can buy glasses for $350.”

The duo is totally involved in the eyewear design. “We do some sketching of the frames and have a friend who completes the drawings on a computer. Then we take actual faces from our runway shows and use the computer to superimpose the frames on them to see how they look. It’s a team effort,” they emphasize.

“And we really like working with L’Amy,” they both agree. “As soon as we saw the samples, we were impressed and knew they were right for us. They have impeccable quality and also have expertise with luxury brands. L’Amy has great niches in the market—strong, established brands. But they don’t have a sea of brands so they can devote proper attention to the names they have,” the men add.

When the two design, they try to do everything 50/50. “I might do dresses one season and Lazaro does them the next,” McCullough says. “We start the season with a dialogue and pick our silhouettes. Then we leave the city to sketch together. We used to sketch separately, but we often came back with the same sketches. We get ideas from each other and find working together makes the effort stronger and more collaborative,” McCollough explains. “Each season we react against last season and scrap everything and start new,” Hernandez adds.
“We envision our customer as a confident person who carries herself with ease, but it runs the gamut,” McCullough says. “It’s mind opening to get out there and meet customers. They are often not what you expect so we have been working on broadening our line. We see mothers and daughters shopping together and both finding what they want. We sell oversized coats that appeal to older women and also bustier and tank tops that the granddaughters love,” he notes.

For inspiration, the two travel as much as possible and always visit the library before beginning a collection. “Libraries are our thing. We make a list of subjects we are interested in and go to the Picture Library in New York where we gather together all the images,” McCullough says. “We might get 12 folders just on images of horses or 12 folders on children’s shoes from the 1930s. We really respond to images.”

Their design gurus are Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga. “We’ve always been attracted to mid-century designers,” says Hernandez. “We’re really interested in that type of richness, attention to detail and craftsmanship.”

Their goal is to have their fashions perceived as modern luxury. “We want to reflect what luxury means to our generation,” says  Hernandez. “To us, fashion is not stuffy. It’s dressed down. It’s something that can be worn frequently. Maybe a gold skirt with a T-shirt that works during the day, in the evenings, on weekends, not just for special occasions. We want our fashions to have more uses and not be so precious.”

“To us, style is all about self confidence, McCullough adds. “Style shouldn’t be overthought. Over thinking is dangerous. We like laid-back ease.”