Speaking to Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler from their studio in the Berkshires in early May—a rare moment of respite from their hectic annual schedule—normally wouldn’t feel unusual at all. “It’s actually right after the Met that we usually head up to the Berkshires to think about the fall collection,” says McCollough. “So I guess right now we’re still in something of a normal timeframe?” Of course, all that would be if the Met gala had actually taken place, and they hadn’t already spent four weeks holed up at their rural retreat figuring out the logistics of how they will take a brand—renowned for its forward-thinking spirit—into a future which still remains unknown.
“We’ve been constantly asking ourselves: What are the clothes that people will want in November?” says Hernandez. “What will be the vibe then, what will be the mood?” It’s a head-scratcher that many designers are currently grappling with, even if for Proenza Schouler, this sense of looking into the crystal ball is something that comes surprisingly naturally. “For us, it’s never really been about the process,” adds McCollough, “it’s always been about the moment. With an evening dress, for example, it’s not about the look, but us constantly asking, what does an evening dress mean right now?”
It’s a question that’s difficult to answer. Remotely managing the creative side of their business has come with its own set of challenges—all of their prototypes are having to be made in white, for example, so they can see the details of the garments most clearly. “Doing a fitting on a screen you’re constantly having to ask, is that a seam, is that a dart, what is that?,” he continues. “Right now all our models have the added accessories of a mask and rubber gloves, so it’s been quite weird.”
Both are grateful for the fact they still have an e-commerce site up and running, with their distribution centers currently remaining open. “The customer is definitely still shopping, but there’s a thirst for something more casual, easy, utilitarian, practical, comfortable—all of those adjectives,” says Hernandez. Conveniently, the brand launched their White Label diffusion line a year ago, which offers a more accessible take on their signatures in terms of design and price point. “It’s a more casual expression of the Proenza Schouler woman’s life,” McCollough adds. “It’s the private side of her life or her weekend attire, as opposed to the mainline, which is the more public side. The more accessible price points have helped too, as people are understandably wary of spending their money right now.”
There’s also their fortuitously-timed recent collaboration with Birkenstock—a shoe style that many of us are finding ourselves living in while working from home—even if at first, they were disappointed not to be able to roll out the collection as they had initially intended. “When this first unfolded we were a bit grumpy about that collaboration,” says McCollough. “Like, it’s the worst time to be launching this, and we’ve been working so hard on it for the past year. But it’s actually the perfect time.” Adds Hernandez, with a laugh: “I haven’t taken off my Proenza Birkenstocks this entire time—they’re so cozy, they’re perfect for right now!”
While these unlikely twists of fate—some positive, some negative—weren’t exactly what the designers imagined when they began planning their next year of collections in January, the pair openly acknowledge that their position is fortunate. “Our hearts definitely go out to all independent designers, whether American or not,” says McCullough. “We’re all in a very different situation to designers who are owned by conglomerates and can get bailed out financially speaking. We’re all dealing with our own battles, and it’s a tricky time that is made even trickier when you don’t have endless resources.”
“I just feel like the system is so black and white, and only offers one way,” Hernandez continues. “The theory seems to be that this one way should be working for every single brand, but the truth is every brand is so different, and what works for Louis Vuitton doesn’t work for an up-and-coming American brand.” It’s a sentiment that many designers are expressing right now, with a hope that from these current tragic circumstances, a new and more flexible model will emerge for fashion labels of all shapes and sizes. “There’s not going to be this collective shift where everybody says, oh yes, this is the right way, and everybody jumps on the same ship,” McCollough explains. “If you wait for one big magical answer to appear then you’re probably going to fall by the wayside.”
If there’s one thing both McCollough and Hernandez firmly agree on, it’s that the future of running a fashion brand post-pandemic will be about having the confidence to beat your own path. “You just have to do what’s right for you,” Hernandez concludes. “But we do really hope some amazing changes come out of all this—it would be disappointing if everything went back to how life was. It might feel like the end of an era, but we both believe that some beautiful things will eventually come out of this moment.”