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Public School Designers Talk Launching Womenswear

Here at Fashionista, we admittedly don't write about menswear all that much. But one label has captured the fashion industry's attention so quickly and so successfully that we couldn't help but take notice.
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In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Here at Fashionista, we admittedly don't write about menswear all that much. But one label has captured the fashion industry's attention so quickly and so successfully that we couldn't help but take notice.

Two weeks ago, the CFDA and Vogue announced the finalists for this year's CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which included two names the CFDA had announced not long before: Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of New York label Public School, who received the CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear in June.

It's a lot of recognition from a very important organization in a short period of time for a brand that still isn't all that well-known outside of fashion circles. But Chow and Osborne had been tight with the CFDA for a while--they were part of the inaugural CFDA Incubator program in 2010.

We kind of think Chow and Osbourne, who met while working at Sean John and launched their line in 2008, are shoe-ins for the top three, if not the top spot (the winner gets $300,000, the runners up $100,000 each). The CFDA obviously likes them and has practically groomed them as a brand from the very beginning (we also kinda think the CFDA has taken a special interest in menswear this year). And they seem to have quite a few fans in the fashion industry--I remember hearing uproarious applause when Diane von Furstenberg announced them as CFDA award nominees back in March.

However, surprisingly, the boys didn't expect any of this to happen--even when the camera crew showed up at their studio (to film them receiving the call from Steven Kolb telling them they were fashion fund finalists), they didn't yet believe they'd actually been chosen.

We caught up with Chow and Osborne over the phone this week about rising through the ranks of the CFDA, the early days of Public School, and plans to launch women's (meaning we'll probably be writing about them a lot more).

Fashionista: Congrats on the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nomination! How did you find out you were a finalist? Dao-Yi Chow: They sent out an email maybe a week before saying that the 10 finalists would get a phone call from Steven Kolb between 10 am and 1pm and that there would be a camera crew that would show up to your office that would film you getting the call from Steven. So that morning 10 o' clock came, 11 o' clock came and then noon came and we were like, 'Ah man.' We were really sweating and thinking that we didn’t get it and I think around 12:45 a camera crew showed up before the call and we were like, 'Oh I guess this is a good thing,' and they were like, 'No, they’re sending camera crews in even if you don’t get a call, or if you get a call saying you were not selected.' Now I think they were lying to us. Steven called shortly thereafter and we were so relieved and excited and it was like deja vu from when we won the Swarovski. It was just unexpected, but it was sort of expected in a way because we really had prepared and worked so hard up to that point. We’re also focusing on the top three spots; all of our mentors and friends who’ve gone through it said if you’re going to apply make sure that you really are aiming to win.

It's pretty unusual that someone wins a CFDA Award before being recognized by the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. DC: It was weird because usually you’re sort of prepped through the Vogue fashion fund [first]. We were at an event with Michael Bastian and Simon Spurr recently and they were like, 'Oh congratulations, some of us have to get nominated a couple times before we actually win,' and we thought that was pretty funny. But yeah, it was weird. We’re surprised by everything that’s going on, but we’re making sure that we really take that responsibility seriously, so we’re just making sure each season that we’re really at our best and trying to push everyone that works with us including ourselves to be their best selves and do the best work.

You were also part of the CFDA Incubator. MO: Looking back on the past two to three years, it really feels like we’ve been CFDA babies, groomed and raised by them and the incubator really set it off for us. It changed the course of the brand and started us on this path to where we were focused on what was really important and all the things that weren't important fell by the wayside. I think that their support has been tremendous and unyielding.

DC: From the mentors to just random conversations we've had with them, they’ve been really awesome.

What would you say has been the most important lesson you've learned along the way? MO: The toughest lesson that we learned and the biggest challenge we faced was when we got accepted into the Incubator, we stopped shipping Public School for four seasons throughout the two-year term. We really gambled on taking a break from the brand, soaking in everything that the program had to offer. Looking back, it was probably the best decision that we made but at the time it was this big risk. We didn’t know if we would come back; we didn’t know if the stores would pick us up again. So we said to ourselves if we ever got that second chance, we would really do things our way. We also made the big decision to bring the manufacturing to New York City. A big lesson we learned was that our future depended on being able to manage the quality and the production and oversee all those things, so I think the brand took the right turn at that moment. The biggest lesson learned was really just to trust yourself, and never sacrifice quality for anything and stick to your point of view and be really true to it and focused.

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There's a lot that goes into the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund process before the winners are announced-from presenting to the judges to design challenges. What are you the most nervous about and what are you the most excited about? DC: We were probably most nervous for the first presentation, which has passed, and that’s when the judges officially meet you and you present your past, present and future of the brand. It’s the first time they actually get to meet you; it’s the first time you get to present to this panel of the fashion industry’s leading people. We’re really excited about the design challenge, which is going to be with Uniqlo.

Moving backward in time a bit--how did Public School come to be? Where did you guys meet? DC: Maxwell and I had worked at another company together and left at similar times and we had always worked together on outside projects--I had a store at the time and we were doing a private label brand and Maxwell was working on it with me and then we had the idea of doing something we felt was missing from the market. There was nothing we felt really spoke to us in terms of direction and point of view. So we wanted to create something masculine that really took risks stylistically so we sort of foolishly set out to do what was cool and in four months we had a sample line which we didn’t even love and didn’t even really want to show, but we figured we should show it since we’d spent the last four months working on it. It really took off when we first launched in spring 2008.

Who were some of your biggest early supporters? DC: Barneys was a big supporter of ours when we first launched and was actually one of the first orders that we got, which was one of our milestones. We’d always dreamed about being at Barneys and that was our favorite department store.

How did you fund the line initially? MO: In the beginning it was pretty much self-funded. We had a small partnership with a factory that would just cover some of our production orders until the store was paid, but pretty much it was all self-financed in the beginning.

How did you come up with the name? DC: We wanted to create something that represented our collective experience growing up in New York, and if you went to public school--did you go to public school?

I did for elementary school.

DC: There you go, so you can relate to the idea of having to be original and standing out from the crowd, and sort of separating yourself from the pack and being authentic and having a unique point of view. 'Public School' really represented that to us.

Has it been a challenge keeping production in NYC? MO: It wasn’t as big of a challenge as we thought it would be going into it. It’s something we wanted to do from the very start of the brand. We’re both born and raised in New York, so much of the brand is an homage to New York and all of our inspiration is from New York and New York is our muse, so it only felt right to have everything made here.

Who do you guys feel like you design for? MO: Our customer is a every sense he’s really us. We see ourselves as connectors, people who bring different worlds together. We’re influenced by music heavily and the arts. And our guy is creative--he really values style and quality.

What we really want to know is if you would ever launch womenswear. It’s definitely on our to-do. We plan on doing that in the near future.

What else do you guys have on the horizon? MO: Just gearing up for our show in September, trying to finish out this Vogue fashion fund challenge. We have some collaborations in the works--one is with Generic Man. We’re doing two new shoes which will show at our fashion week presentation.

DC: Accessories also, small leather goods, hats, bags. That’s probably the first product extension that we’re looking at. And before women’s I would say retail. Looking at our own retail shops to recreate this Public School aesthetic is something we’re really looking forward to doing in a store environment.