NEW YORK, United States — It’s mid-day on a Friday at the Proenza Schouler offices in Soho, but it feels more like a frenetic Monday morning. That’s because the team, led by designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, along with still-new chief executive Judd Crane, is in “crunch” mode.
In less than two weeks, on July 2, the critically lauded American label will debut its latest ready-to-wear collection — a consolidation of Resort and Spring 2018 — during the haute couture shows in Paris. It’s the first in a series of moves that, if all goes to plan, will transform the business.
“Everyone is here super early because we make all of our stuff in Italy. As soon as we wake up, it’s the middle of the day there and everyone is like, in it,” Hernandez says, sitting with McCollough for their first-ever joint interview with Crane. “When we come in, it’s [firecracker sounds].”
The plan to consolidate collections was sketched out long before Crane joined the company in September 2016 after a year-long search for a new chief executive. In 2015, co-founder and former CEO Shirley Cook exited the company after private equity firm Castanea purchased a minority stake in the label, with board member (and Castanea operating partner) Ron Frasch stepping in during the interim.
While the board set up the designers with several potential business partners, finding someone who would be a good cultural fit proved challenging. (After all, Cook was not only a longtime collaborator but also a friend.) “When you’re interviewing for a CEO, it’s a whole different effort you’ve got to put in,” McCollough says, explaining that he and Hernandez would invite candidates to their country house in an attempt to build a stronger connections and that they made several trips to Europe simply to have dinner with some of them. “You spend weeks, months, sometimes, meeting these people....”
“It’s like speed dating,” Hernandez adds. “When we met Judd, I felt like we knew him.”
When you’re interviewing for a CEO, it’s a whole different effort you’ve got to put in. You spend weeks, months, sometimes, meeting these people.
For Crane, Proenza Schouler offered a singular opportunity. “I was buying Proenza Schouler for eight years before I joined the company,” explains the American retail veteran, who was living abroad for 12 years — seven in Hong Kong at Lane Crawford, followed by another five in London as director of womenswear and accessories at Selfridges — before accepting the position. His background offered the still largely wholesale business insight into what the other side wants in this era of great change for retail. (Selfridges, which primarily operates under a part-concession, part-wholesale model, is one of few multi-brand retailers to report successful sales growth over the past few years.)
It also helped that he was a peer, similar in age and disposition to Hernandez and McCollough. (They are both 38, Crane is 42.) “This is really the one company that I would want to work with in this capacity,” Crane says. “I love the idea of working for an American brand and I feel like Jack and Lazaro and I have a similar perspective on things. Our life vision melds really well together. The combination of all of that is really rare.”
By the time Crane landed, McCollough and Hernandez were eager to follow through on an idea that they had been toying with for a good three years as luxury spending continued to shift online and department stores — particularly in the US — began relying more heavily on markdowns to drive foot traffic.
They believed that consolidating pre-collections and main collection into one cohesive lineup, shown together to align with the pre-collection and couture calendar — in January and July — made sense both creatively and commercially. Pre-collections currently make up 70 percent of the business, and McCollough and Hernandez want their main collections to get more stage time on shop floors.
“The biggest reason we wanted to do the calendar shift on a creative level was that we're pouring our heart and soul into these show collections, but then they deliver and sit on the floor for three or four weeks, then they go on sale,” McCollough says. “But the pre-collection is delivering and sitting on the floor for three or four months.”
Now, instead of continuing to chop up concepts in four distinct seasons, the designers are now working with what used to be a separate pre-collection team on two concepts per year. That means McCollough and Hernandez’s twice-a-year runway show concepts inform every piece of clothing sold by the Proenza Schouler label, whether it’s a cotton t-shirt or a hand-woven ostrich feather dress. “That was another interesting thing to us — merging our two teams,” McCollough says. “It’s not so fragmented.”
The merger of the Resort and Spring collections, the company says, was welcomed by retail partners, who are happy for the line’s pricier collection pieces to sit on the floor for a longer period of time before sales season begins. “They’re psyched about fashion,” Hernandez says. “Early. Full price. Longer.” After all, the breadth of the offering has not decreased. To create newness in stores, the collection will be broken down into monthly deliveries, inspired by key themes or groupings communicated in the show.
Merging collections meant shifting their presentation calendar; if the first delivery was meant to drop in November, then the line would need to be shown over the summer. Hence, Haute Couture. On July 2, with the blessing of the Chambre Syndicale, Proenza Schouler will show its Spring 2018 collection at a yet-to-be announced venue in Paris, just before the couture shows that will take place that week.
Several other ready-to-wear labels have adopted a similar approach, including Vetements and Rodarte, the latter of which will also show in Paris on July 2. (Vetements has canceled its runway show and is reimagining its presentation strategy). Los Angeles-based designer Monique Lhuillier will present her Spring 2018 collection in Paris that week as well. “I’m not surprised that this is attractive as an environment,” Pascal Morand, executive president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, told BoF in April. “It is reflecting what is happening today — this need and wish to be close to the product and to have the power of the hand, and have this ultimate sensory experience.”
What's more, as one of the most directional of American brands — their wares copied by fast fashion players more regularly than any other New York-based label — Proenza Schouler is highly reliant on the creative output of its designers. McCollough and Hernandez wanted more time to think. Shifting their business model, they believed, would allow for that.
“We have to be out there, we have to live life, we have to see things,” Hernandez says. “Go to exhibits, travel and see the world. Talk to new people; engage in new things. With the way the calendar was working before, we were just working our asses off day and night to a point where sometimes...there are a lot of things that you haven’t seen that could be food for thought.”
The designers have already committed to showing their next collection in Paris in January 2018, and the city's influence on this current collection will not only be seen in the choice of venue — which the designers hinted will still be industrial, but a bit more baroque than their typical New York loft or gallery — but also in the clothes. “Going to Paris and being accepted by the Chambre Syndicale motivated us to research all these small ateliers over in Paris; great handweavers and people who specialise in feathers or ribbons,” McCollough says. “There are incredible artisans there, so it's been really inspiring on that level.”
While the designers might be reveling in the opportunity to work with new vendors, “We also don't want to be pigeonholed as an American [brand],” Hernandez says. “The world is so globalised. With everything going on, it's important to cross borders.”
International buyers — especially those in Asia, a major growth opportunity for the brand — are often unable to attend New York Fashion Week. The new approach also presents a chance for couture clients, who regularly place orders for six-figure custom pieces, to discover the ready-to-wear label. “It’s interesting because it will be a different crowd,” Crane says.
American press and buyers — few of whom attend the couture shows — will be invited to view the collection in the coming weeks in New York. The brand has also partnered with online showroom platform Ordre, which offers 360-degree zoom-in technology, runway footage and a front-row virtual-reality experience so that buyers can confidently order from digital line sheets.
In Paris, though, “It will be great to make some new friends,” McCollough says. Proenza Schouler needs those new friends in order to continue to grow. Right now, it's ready-to-wear growth is largely driven by the US market, where the company says it has seen a sales increase over the past four years despite a wider retail malaise to which the overall company has certainly not been immune. Currently, overall sales revenue — which market sources put at close to $90 million for 2016 — is split 50-50 between apparel and accessories.
It’s a notable stat, given that Proenza Schouler's first major handbag — the PS1 — dominated the market for so long, fueling the label's rapid growth. In order to make up for the inevitable slowdown, Hernandez and McCollough have diversified their range, in both depth and breadth.
“Before, we were relying heavily on that one bag. Now we have about four families of bags and they're more even across the board in terms of importance to the total business,” Hernandez says. “It's really dangerous to have one product that you're running your entire business on.”
It's really dangerous to have one product that you're running your entire business on.
Crane sees apparel — especially in Europe, where the label is underpenetrated — as a major opportunity. “Having worked with the brand for a number of years on the buying side, I have a lot of ideas about categories of product that I would have wanted to buy from Proenza Schouler,” he says, citing knitwear as an example of something that they can tap more deeply.
Beyond bags and ready-to-wear, “Our shoe business is currently just a fraction of our handbag business,” Crane continues. “We know that there’s huge potential. That’s going to continue to be a big focus.” Swimwear has been an unexpected hit. “We’ve developed a diverse collection,” he says. “What sells very well for us are actually quite elaborate [pieces].”
“Introducing a little bit of an element of surprise is also important,” Crane adds. “The brand has been incredibly consistent over the years and has managed to keep people engaged. But we can shake things up a little bit and Paris is the first step of that journey.”
Looking ahead, the team is focused on the fragrance it is developing with licensing partner L’Oreal, due to launch in 2018, which will surely mark a major moment in the brand’s trajectory. The company is also relaunching its e-commerce site in the autumn in the hopes of building its direct-to-consumer business. Right now, the company owns and operates two physical stores — one not far from their offices in Soho, and the other uptown on Madison Avenue — and manages 9 shop-in-shops in department stores across the globe. There are also eight Proenza Schouler stores across Asia, operated through a franchise agreements.
"The brand has been incredibly consistent over the years and has managed to keep people engaged. But we can shake things up a little bit...."
But more than anything, their attention is on the Paris debut, and amplifying that moment. “International brand awareness is something we need to work on. It’s important for us to do more things out there and get more brand awareness out there, especially leading up to this fragrance launch,” Hernandez says. “We just want to do what feels right for us. Not following and not doing things because that’s how they’re done.”
As Crane puts it: “I believe there's a lot of untapped potential. Even though the brand is 15 years old — it's not in its infant stage by any means — there’s so much more that we can do.”