Once upon a time—in 2000, to be exact—at a dingy Miami airport gate, a 21-year-old aspiring designer named Lazaro Hernandez almost fell right over.
His idol was striding purposefully toward the very same plane he was about to board.
“Oh, my God, Mom,” he said. His eyes grew as wide and as round as the buttons on a Courrèges coat. “That’s Anna Wintour.”
“She’s just a person,” his mother answered in Spanish as she waved good-bye. She’d never heard of Anna Wintour. “Go talk to her.”
Our hero wimped out. But he did ask a stewardess to pass the editor a napkin on which he’d written a note about himself, his love of fashion, and his admiration for her.
A few weeks had passed when, out of the blue, Hernandez got a call from Michael Kors’s office. “Anna Wintour says you should work here,” he was told. And so he did.
Three years later, Hernandez and his partner, Jack McCollough, a classmate from Parsons School of Design, are onstage at the New York Public Library accepting the Perry Ellis Award for new talent from the CFDA. But while it’s tempting to tell the story of Proenza Schouler as a Lana Turner–at–Schwab’s fairy tale—particularly when the stars are so fresh-faced and bright-eyed—to do so would be to overlook the fact that they have skill as well as luck: the elusive knack of designing just what New Yorkers are desperate for.
The story really begins in 1999, when Hernandez and McCollough met at Parsons, after tinkering in different fields. Hernandez is originally from Miami—Cuban Miami. Though he had fallen in love with fashion while observing the clients in his mother’s beauty salon, he went to college with the thought of becoming a doctor. McCollough grew up in suburban New Jersey, and as much as he liked to sew, it was with the intention of becoming a glass blower that he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute.
At Parsons, the two became instant friends. While Hernandez supplemented his class work with the internship at Michael Kors, McCollough took a similar position at Marc Jacobs. During their senior years, they worked together at United Bamboo and found that they were in agreement about the things that matter most to designers: silhouette, color, proportion.
“They’re so about New York,” says Julie Gilhart, Fashion Director for Barneys. “You know how the city makes some people seem so tired out? It seems to fill them with energy.”
“A lot of people were cutting up T-shirts,” Hernandez says of his classmates. “We wanted to return to the craft.”
They got permission to do their thesis project together, and crafted a moniker out of their mothers’ maiden names. The look Proenza Schouler showed at their graduation last May was glamorous yet hard, pared down to the essentials: a pencil skirt, a bolero jacket that hit right below the breast, and all of it in a palette of dirty pastels just right for a city summer. Peter D. Arnold, the head of the CFDA, saw the collection and was so impressed that he convinced Julie Gilhart, the fashion director for Barneys, to take a look.
“It all seemed so professional,” Gilhart says. “It did not seem like the work of students.” Plus, she continues, “they’re so much about New York. You know how the city makes some people seem so tired out? It seems to fill them with energy.” Although the Barneys buying season was officially over, she bought the whole collection. The duo borrowed some money from their parents and managed to produce the small run.
Barneys asked for a spring collection as well. Hernandez and McCollough were worrying over how to produce it when a friend introduced them to a German venture capitalist who offered to back the label. A few other stores (Linda Dresner, Jeffrey) picked up on the buzz and bought that collection, too, though they’d never had a proper show.
“A lot of the clothing today that gets very hyped, I go see it and I’m like, The emperor has no clothes!,” says Jeffrey’s Jeffrey Kalinsky. “But this is clothing fit for royalty.”
This February, during Fashion Week, they had their first full runway show. The collection played with their now-signature ideas of proportion (shrunken pea coats, pencil skirts), color (browns, army greens, battleship grays), and silhouette (sleek, minimal)—clothes with the refinement of Narciso Rodriguez and the edge of Helmut Lang. And they had developed a following: Danielle Steel’s two teenage daughters bought the entire rack right out of Barneys.
“Carine Roitfeld came the day after the show,” Hernandez says on a spring afternoon in the Chinatown loft the pair work and live in. He inhales his cigarette coolly and then bursts into a fit of smoky giggles. In fact, the French Vogue editor was quoted after the show by one of the Fashion Week dailies: “I’m going to order everything,” she’d said, ducking into her Town Car.
“She modeled the whole collection for us!” he continues. “She walked up and down, like it was a catwalk.”
McCollough blushes and looks down, trying to cover his smile.
Right after the CFDA awards, when Zac Posen was freaking Claire Danes on the dance floor, the boys of Proenza Schouler were celebrating a bit more quietly. Drinking champagne, yes, but skipping the table dancing. “We’re such dorks!” they insist.
“These are not just stylists,” André Leon Talley says, spitting out the word like bad caviar. “Their greatest strength is their appreciation of the construction of clothes: the tailoring, the linings, the seams—all are done perfectly, and that’s what makes them great.”
“And,” he adds, perhaps in a reference to where it all began, “they send beautiful, handwritten notes.”