Proenza Schouler's Advice to Young Designers: Don't Start Your Own Business

At least until you fully understand what you and your brand have to offer.
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Alyssa Vingan Klein
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At least until you fully understand what you and your brand have to offer.
Photo: Steve Zak Photography/Getty Images Entertainment

Photo: Steve Zak Photography/Getty Images Entertainment

On Wednesday night, the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) kicked off its Fashion at FIAF festival by hosting a talk with Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, moderated by Vogue's Sally Singer. The downtown duo has won nearly every fashion award under the sun since the brand's founding in 2002 — and they say they've been approached by more than one luxury fashion house looking to fill a creative director role in that time — but despite the barrage of success, the designers have stayed true to the silhouette, the vibe and the spirit they've had in mind for "their girl" from the beginning. 

Having such a distinct point of view is what helped set Proenza Schouler apart in the over-saturated fashion landscape. Singer pointed out that, while many designers look at the way women are already wearing clothes on the street for inspiration — resulting in clothes that look like what's already out there — McCollough and Hernandez start with a feeling and go from there. The vibe has changed from season to season — especially since their early, more explorative years — but their girl is consistent.

This commitment to an aesthetic isn't as easy as it sounds, especially when critics, buyers and keeping a business afloat become involved, and your big, aspirational ideas might alienate certain people. "We'd rather start from as pure of a place as possible when designing ... that's what the show is for," McCollough said. "If you come to our showroom, 50 percent of what's hanging in there are show looks, and there are commercial versions. We always try to have a range, especially if we go a little wild." 

McCollough and Hernandez know that their success story isn't the norm, so they urge aspiring designers to step back and seriously consider what they bring to the table before thinking about starting their own brand.

"We’ve been doing this for almost 13 years, and when we started, we would look on Style.com for the shows of the season and there were, like, 40 people — now after a Fashion Week there are 400 people," McCollough explained. "There are so many brands, and there's so much noise. If you don't have a clear vision and a voice — you have to make sure it's not stepping on anyone else's voice — it’s a hard line to stay on.  You have to really have something you're saying or it's going to be hard to stick out and get people interested." 

"We never had a plan to start our own thing, it just sort of happened, but people are much more premeditated about it now," Hernandez said. "Going into it, you need to know: this is the woman, this is the idea, this is the vibe. You need a brand manifesto these days — who you stand for, what you're about and who your customer is. When we started, we just wanted to make clothes ... we had no ambition to create a global brand. It was very pure in the beginning. Nowadays I don't think you could do that, the competition's too fierce. You really have to know who you are from the get-go."

If you do think you have the vision to set out on your own, confidence is key, especially since your designs or ideas might seem crazy and impractical to some. "It’s always good to piss some people off; our teachers at [Parsons] hated us," Hernandez laughed. "They were like, 'You guys have to stop making clothes for art girls. Make some easy separates.' We were like, 'What? No!' That spirit has stayed with us to this day. You can’t cater to every single person. You have to do what makes you feel happy."