Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have just got back from Africa. They're tripping on malaria pills, up to their eyeballs in work after two weeks away, and due at the theater. I give them a report from the set where photographer Roe Ethridge is shooting Binx Walton, Julia Nobis, et al., for this story. "I feel like he's really picked up that whole basement-rec-room feeling in the collection," I say. There's a general pause. Jack and Laz trade a look. Finally, pretty much in tandem, they reply: "What basement-rec-room feeling?"
The Proenza Schouler boys have been the anointed ones, the real darlings of up-and-coming American fashion, for over a decade now. No need to retell that story. This season, though, the brand got a different kind of anointing, as Le Bon Marché mounted a Proenza Schouler retrospective during fashion week in Paris. Le Bon Marché is the ur-Parisian department store, and Paris is the ur-fashion week, and watching Hernandez and McCollough preside over the crowd of industry types taking stock of their oeuvre, you couldn't help but think, Ah, our boys have hit the big time. Le Bon Marché was Proenza Schouler's international coming-out party. Note the date. Mark it in your calendars.
"We always feel like we're so bipolar, going from the ideas in one collection to something totally different in the next one," Hernandez told me that evening, as we wandered past looks from 2011. Spring that year had been a mix of shibori-dyed tweed and guipure lace. Fall, abstractions of Native American blanket prints. You saw where Hernandez was coming from with the bipolar thing. But you could also see a through-line, a forceful, unifying point of view. McCollough agreed.
"We'd never looked at the collections all together before," he said. "And just through the process of editing the looks, we kept finding these repetitions, these key themes. We started to notice the consistency."
That consistency, you could argue, is Proenza Schouler's Americanness. It's not that McCollough and Hernandez hit the same few American references all the time. They don't. Nor are their references uniformly American in source. They aren't. And for the record, Jack 'n' Laz don't perceive themselves as being especially "American" designers. This isn't an argument they would make. But if the conscious aspects of their work—the experimentation with materials and construction, the push to new silhouettes—have a European feel, well, those are the elements that shape-shift every season. (The bipolar thing.) But the secret sauce, always, is the Americanness. The idiomatically American nonchalance. The way that Hernandez and McCollough elevate and make hip certain American vernacular. This sauce is so secret, its recipe is a mystery even to them.
"Oh, my god, those girls. The ones who'd show up to school with their hair a mess or whatever, and you could tell they did not give a fuck." McCollough, reminiscing about his rather conservative high school. "I was so attracted to those girls. It was cool that they were sloppy. But not slutty."
"I'm pretty sure at my school they were slutty." —Hernandez
According to McCollough and Hernandez, the Americanness of Proenza Schouler is reducible to one shrug-worthy fact: Both of them happened to grow up in the States. But that fact encloses quite a bit. Hernandez and McCollough will also be the first to acknowledge that their collections are very autobiographical: At Le Bon Marché, for instance, Hernandez likened rummaging the Proenza archives to reading an old diary. And McCollough, for his part, described many of their influences as subliminal.
"It's like a thought you don't even realize you're thinking," he said. "It's just there with you."
Hernandez was raised in Miami, McCollough in Montclair, New Jersey. Very different places but marked by the same chain restaurants and shopping malls. Houses are stucco in Florida and brick or clapboard in the Northeast, but TV is TV wherever you go. The Proenza Schouler boys share a native fluency in unremarkable America—90210, Walmart, The Cheesecake Factory. And all that other stuff no one comes here to see. "Prom" is not a novel concept to them. And because they come by all this ho-hum knowledge honestly, it never feels camp or contrived when they put it to use. Case in point: the Spring ’12 collection, which took dilapidated rest-stop architecture and tiki-bar aesthetics out for a spin.
"We do like to pull from the underbelly of Americana—to find these pockets of the culture that aren't chic and make them fashion," Hernandez says. "There's definitely an attraction to what's naff."
Of course, the take on the naff that Hernandez and McCollough retail is executed with extraordinary sophistication. One aspect of the Proenza Schouler origin story that is worth revisiting is the designers' almost reactionary commitment to dressmaking craft at a moment when their confederates at Parsons were obsessed with deconstruction and DIY. As McCollough recalls, they were studying Irving Penn photos and old Dior and trying to figure out how to make clothes just as polished that could be worn in an offhand way.
"I mean, we were skate kids. We were into Vision Streetwear and things," he notes. "It was always essential to us that the clothes have that attitude."
And so, alongside the naff and the couture, the Proenza Schouler vocabulary also encompasses these cool-kid codes, absorbed at the skate park and the art gallery, as well as an ever-widening portfolio of inspiration taken from Hernandez and McCollough's world travels together. Plus, a serious nature fetish, which the duo indulge each weekend at their getaway place in the Berkshires.
"Our most successful collections are the ones in which the references are so layered that people just kind of take what they want," McCollough goes on to say. "We don't always recognize every reference ourselves. But we are always going for contrast. Like, natural versus synthetic—that's been a big theme."
Last season's laser-cut crochet was one example of that dialogue. This time out, Hernandez points to the collection's abstracted wood-grain prints and the finale dresses based on rocks.
"We wanted it all to feel kind of fake," he says. "Like, not real wood—paneling. Everything fabricated."
Very American, that. No doubt they have fake rocks in backyards around the world, but you sort of feel like, Yeah, we invented that shit. And then, flipping the script, Hernandez and McCollough evolved Fall's luxe jacquard from whatever that speckled stuff is that's laid under flooring.
"Yeah, we literally ripped a bunch of carpet padding out of our friend's basement," McCollough says.
Pause. He and Hernandez goggle-eye each other, then burst out laughing.
"Holy shit," Hernandez spits out. "There was a basement!"
"She's the only person who can tell us to shut up." Jack 'n' Laz are talking about Marie Chaix, their stylist of going on seven years. "She'll be like, 'No way, we're not doing that. Don't be stupid.' "
"But she's also kind of a goofball," Hernandez adds. "I mean, Vogue Paris, whatever. She can also recite, like, every line from Saved by the Bell."
"Well, what do you expect?" rejoins McCollough. "She's French. They love L.A. They love strip malls. It's all exotic to them."
Like many designers, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez talk a lot about trying to locate the "now." Unlike most designers, they've found it—and in a familiar type of schizophrenic modern experience. Hernandez nails it when he says, "The more time Jack and I spend on Tumblr, the more we want to run outside and hang with a tree." Yup. They've also discovered that the "now" inescapably includes the naff—that shitty America is as much a part of the country's landscape as scenic America. Pace Marie Chaix and her countrymen, shitty America is even kind of glam these days.
And this, truly, is the Proenza Schouler stroke of genius. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez are running the old Ralph Lauren con—that one in which he turned hardscrabble cowboys into Big Country divines and transformed the mundane look of New England prep into something God-kissed and larger than life. But Lauren is a creature of the United States' heroic era. Hernandez and McCollough, meanwhile, have figured out how to play the same trick using degraded materials. Theirs is the glamour of post-optimism America. How ironic, how fantastically now, that Proenza Schouler stands as this nation's great fashion hope.