Armed With New Site, Proenza Schouler is Building a Luxury Brand for Today

Perhaps more than any other label, Proenza Schouler have proven that it’s not only possible but powerful to cultivate an unmistakably high concept, luxury fashion brand and embrace contemporary Internet culture at the same time.

Still from Proenza Schouler's S/S 2013 video

To coincide with the relaunch of ProenzaSchouler.com, BoF brings you an exclusive first look at the brand’s Tumblr-inspired Spring/Summer 2013 video, directed by David Sims and Eddie the Wheel.

NEW YORK, United States Today, Proenza Schouler, the high-concept womenswear brand designed by Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, is set to relaunch its website in the final phase of a rebranding, undertaken in collaboration with art director Peter Miles, who has also worked with Céline and Marc Jacobs.

“Our original website, which we designed like three or four years ago, didn’t have a long-term plan; there was no business model,” McCollough told BoF in a wide-ranging conversation about the brand’s growing immersion in digital culture.

Stocking a range of small leather goods (readily accessible to young digital natives) and handbags (including the brand’s popular PS1 bag) as well as scarves, jewellery and select items from the Spring 2013 runway collection, the revamped site will significantly expand Proenza Schouler’s presence in e-commerce, which already amounts to about 15 percent of the overall business, according to statistics provided by the company.

With the brand’s total annual sales estimated at $50 million, that means e-commerce accounts for around $7.5 million in revenue per year, including online wholesale accounts, making it by far Proenza Schouler’s largest sales channel. “Our [current] website is our biggest store in the world, even including wholesale,” said McCollough.

No doubt tapping the global e-commerce opportunity is of great interest to Proenza Schouler’s investors, including American fashion mogul Andrew Rosen, CEO of Theory and Helmut Lang and an investor in several of New York’s most exciting labels, who is part of a consortium that has put between $10 million and $20 million into the business, according to market sources.

While Proenza Schouler declined to reveal specific revenue targets for the new website, the brand is aiming for “significant growth” and plans to translate the site, which ships globally, into a number of European and Asian languages.

But the new website is just one part of a budding digital strategy that, in recent seasons, has resulted in a slew of interesting online initiatives — from controversial YouTube films by Harmony Korine to GIF-based Twitter campaigns conceived with Internet artist Jeanette Hayes and a video called “Desert Tide” created using virtual world Second Life — which have helped the brand attract a sizeable social media fanbase. Proenza Schouler currently has over 270,000 followers on Twitter, more than any of its emerging designer peers.

It’s tempting to chalk this up to the fact that Proenza Schouler, which has won the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year award twice, is one of the most sought-after labels in fashion, helmed by a duo who are known for their personal charm. No doubt this plays a role. But there’s more to the story than that.

In sharp contrast, equally adored London-based label Christopher Kane, which recently received a major boost and investment from luxury conglomerate PPR, does not appear to have an active Twitter account.

The gap is telling.

While many designers see developing a digital strategy as a chore, the ‘Proenza boys,’ as they are often called inside the industry, have embraced the Web with a genuine curiosity. Nowhere is this more clear than in their Tumblr-inspired Spring 2013 collection.

“We grew up with the internet,” said Hernandez. “It’s not something that we’re worried about; it’s not scary or some kind of magic box. It’s an amazing tool that helps us communicate with our friends and family and do research. It’s how we look at the world 90 percent of the time. It’s really interesting to see people’s point of view and see the curation of images from all these kids on Tumblr.”

Thus far, Hernandez and McCollough’s approach to digital marketing has been largely organic. They were amongst the first emerging fashion labels to attend bloggers’ conferences and livestream their runway show, directly engaging with their online fanbase.

“These Internet projects come really naturally to us. We’re just interested in creativity. With the Harmony thing, we’re just friends and we were talking about how cool it would be to collaborate,” said Hernandez. The first of their collaborations, a short film called “Act Da Fool,” released in late 2010, has earned about 180,000 views on YouTube.

“When it comes to digital, they’re not marketers, they are artists, and, thereby they become the best marketers, because it’s authentic,” observed Oliver Walsh, founder of Wednesday Agency, the digital agency that designed the new site. “Amongst all the noise online, nothing shines through like authenticity.”

It’s also worth noting that the brand is careful to monitor feedback from fans and followers and adjust course accordingly. “On Instagram, for example, we were posting pictures of runway images and someone was like ‘We don’t want to see runway images anymore, we see those on Style.com already, make these more personal.’ And that person was right. So our Instagram is now more personal,” said McCollough. “We listen to our followers and tailor the content to what they want to see. Ultimately, [social feedback] doesn’t influence our creative process or our runway show, but we did do a whole Tumblr collection, so you never know.”

The remixed, low-resolution aesthetics; humourous, sometimes bizarre tone; and fleeting nature of some of Proenza Schouler’s digital projects reflects their attraction to a messy, often goofy Internet culture that’s in many ways the opposite of the perfectly sealed and serious world of traditional luxury fashion advertising. Even at British megabrand Burberry and e-commerce behemoth Net-a-Porter, which have both attracted much kudos for marrying upmarket positioning with digital savvy, the aesthetics and tone of the their online initiatives remain firmly rooted in the highly polished and produced legacy of print media.

“What’s great about those GIFs is that they only last a few seconds. They’re like these little thoughts that just pop in. It’s not uber polished content,” said Hernandez, referring to the Proenza Schouler’s on-going GIF campaigns, developed with Jeanette Hayes. “A lot of the time they don’t even mean anything and that’s really nice, given that everything is so serious all the time.”

 photo proenza_on_the_internet-1.gif

“This Internet aesthetic we’re talking about, there’s no nostalgia attached to it. It feels really new and I think that scares people,” added McCollough. “A lot of luxury brands like to fall back on nostalgia, because nostalgia feels luxurious to them. We’re into luxury, but we’re also equally interested in contemporary culture.”

Perhaps more than any other label, Proenza Schouler have proven that it’s not only possible but powerful to cultivate an unmistakably high concept, luxury fashion brand and embrace contemporary Internet culture at the same time, melding what many in the fashion industry have long seen as a binary opposition.

“I think our brand is about contrast. It’s about something that is very polished and something that feels a little bit rougher — and we like that roughness of the Internet. The aesthetics of the Internet are just something that feels really contemporary,” said Hernandez.

“We’re not sort of stifled by these plastic notions of what is elegant,” added McCollough. “There’s a certain part of us that loves traditional luxury; we love cashmere, we love leather and exotic skins. But what makes that fresh is to mix that with things that are completely of today, whether it’s new techniques that we use in our clothes or harnessing the Internet. It’s that mix that makes Proenza Schouler. The whole new, weird, contemporary Internet thing is fascinating to us.”

Whether the ‘Proenza boys’ will be able to harness their fascination with the Web to continue to grow their social following and drive significant sales on their new e-commerce site remains to be seen. Sadly, links between key social platforms and the new site are currently limited to basic sharability, something the brand should clearly evolve if it wishes to capitalise on the social conversation it’s generating.

But one thing’s for sure. By embracing the culture of the Internet, Proenza Schouler has firmly positioned itself as a next generation luxury label.

In the words of McCollough: “It’s not your mom’s luxury brand.”