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What Public School Learned From Competing in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund

Designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne took away many things from participating in the grueling, months-long competition, including the true value of a strong perspective and how to make sure the cameras are capturing your good side.

In this exclusive series, Fashionista talks with the 2013 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winners about their experiences during the competition, but more importantly: what they learned about themselves, and about their brands.

On the eve of the 10th annual CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund awards dinner, we had an informal office poll going as to who was going to win. Public School, designed by Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, was the frontrunner, although we had been placing our money on the label as early July when the finalists were announced. But this wasn't exactly magical fashion soothsaying on our part -- after all, the duo had just received the CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear in June, and were also part of the inaugural CFDA Incubator program in 2010.

But beyond all the accolades and industry love, there's another reason why we had a hunch that this was going to be Public School's big night: The stuff is just cool. It's a perfect mix of laid-back sportswear elements and more formal flourishes drawn from dressier suiting. These are the kind of sleek, functional clothes that guys can proudly walk out of the house wearing, feeling stylish but not too fashion-y, which is a much harder balance to strike than it sounds. (As for the ladies, while the designers didn't confirm or deny those rumors about trying their hand at women's wear for their upcoming J.Crew collaboration, they said, hypothetically speaking, that it would look like the men's line but "with boobies," as Chow clarified.)

Without further ado, some takeaways, big and small, from the pair about the months-long competition process.

Sometimes less is more. Dao-Yi Chow: For the initial presentation, we kept it simple. Early on, we made the decision that we weren’t going to do any installations or bring in a performer or anything elaborate. We really wanted to make it about us and about our product. We also just wanted to be ourselves and have our personalities come though. Max and I don’t really take ourselves too seriously, maybe to a fault, and we just wanted to make sure we kept some sort of lightheartedness about the whole thing.

Except when more is more. Chow: For the Uniqlo design challenge, we really wanted to make sure we killed it in terms of nailing the concept. They gave us each $20,000 in development money to put the look together, and I think we spent close to 40 grand trying to make sure everything was perfect. We just wanted to paint a full picture and wound up with nine pieces, including accessories -- we did shoes, a bag, hats, a glove. We were surprised that we did so much more than the other designers -- not, like, better or worse -- just more. But I think the judges really appreciated that.

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Don’t obsess over other people’s opinions. Maxwell Osborne: At first glance, Anna Wintour was the most intimidating judge to us, but towards the end it became Jeffrey Kalinsky. He didn’t even talk to us in our first presentation. And at the Uniqlo challenge he didn’t say anything. It was kind of weird -- it kind of felt like he was not really a huge fan of ours. So it became intimidating like, “Why the hell isn’t this guy asking us questions or trying to pick us apart or just...something?” So we had to learn not to focus too much on what people were thinking. If we were to judge our whole Fashion Fund experience on Jeffrey Kalinsky, I guess we wouldn’t be where we are now. If you just keep your head down and keep doing what you’re doing, I think the chips will fall where they may.

Anna Wintour has a great book collection. Osborne: She has pretty much every fashion book that exists -- and that was just on the second floor of her home. I’m sure that wasn’t even the whole extent. And even though she doesn’t drink, I heard she has a crazy wine cellar. But to be serious about Anna’s place, I think from the outside, everybody’s like, “the devil wears Prada” -- you expect her house to be kind of cold. But it’s actually warm and comfortable.

This is not The Hunger Games. Osborne: We treated all the other designers like friends. I know it was a competition and most people would be trying to cut each other’s throats, but for us it was all friendly. We’re all in the same kind of position, we’re all entrepreneurs and talented designers trying to grow.

Winning isn’t the end goal. Chow: You sort of have to do x amount to get in the door, but even more to stay there. The work is just beginning for us. And you can never really stop or take a break or fall back on your laurels. That feeling of winning is pretty fleeting. It was so great that night -- it still feels great -- but you can’t just live there, you gotta keep it moving.

Being the face of a brand can make you self-conscious. Osborne: I really hate the way I look onscreen and actually talking, so I think this might be the last interview I ever do. And, while we were filming [for the documentary series The Fashion Fund], I learned how to suck in my stomach for hours on end because I didn’t want to look fat. I need to go on a cleanse.

Chow: I think maybe I smile too much. In all our press photos, I’m always doing this really big, cheesy smile. My wife told me maybe I should try and do it a little bit less. 

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