On a recent weekend the fashion designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez met for a company retreat at the Hamptons home of John Howard, an investor in their Proenza Schouler label. They made pizzas and hung out in a pair of treehouses Mr. Howard installed in his yard, one with a television set that drops down from the ceiling.
“He made us slushies,” Mr. McCollough said.
“John’s really a big kid,” Mr. Hernandez added.
Having an investor with a youthful outlook helps, since youth is basic to fashion, and explains why Proenza Schouler has stayed at the front of a class of downtown darlings that emerged a decade ago. But Mr. Howard, a former Bear Stearns director with a sharp eye for fashion, has a more serious goal for the Proenza designers: to bring them to the elite ranks of fashion.
“We have an opportunity to create a real luxury brand the way that Europeans would look at it,” he said.
That notion is at once tempting and ponderous. How many designers with talent wouldn’t mind the supreme comparison with Hermès or, better still, the much obsessed-over Céline? But how to actually accomplish that feat and, more, given the democratic tilt of fashion, why do it at all? Why not just open a bunch of handbag stores and avoid the creative agony?
Still, it’s tempting, this notion that you can build an American fashion company around less mediocre values, and that instead of defaulting to the Hermès model of luxury (tasteful, nice) or the boots-and-buckle heritage of Gucci, you can push an aesthetic that is purely and unarguably contemporary.
That was Mr. Howard’s thought, more or less, when he and Andrew Rosen, a shepherd to a number of brands, put together a group of investors and, in July 2011, became equal partners with Mr. Hernandez, 34, and Mr. McCollough, 33, and Proenza’s chief executive, Shirley Cook. For Mr. Rosen and Mr. Howard, as well as Rose Marie Bravo, the American executive responsible for Burberry’s tremendous success and who has served as a kind of godmother to the Proenza designers and is now on their board, that thinking has only deepened as the partners have been able to observe Mr. McCollough and Mr. Hernandez at close range.
Last Wednesday, to celebrate the opening of their first store, on Madison Avenue, the designers had a cocktail party, followed by a dinner at the home of Adam Lindemann, the radio baron and art collector. The shop was the first retail space by the British architect David Adjaye, who also designed the Lindemann residence, a wondrous stack of dark boxes slyly hidden behind a 19th-century facade. As Mr. Adjaye joined other guests, including the actress Elizabeth Olsen and Lauren Santo Domingo, Mr. McCollough, who looks like someone’s kid brother, was agitated. A shipment of crochet-work, coming from Madagascar for their show on Wednesday, was being held up in Johannesburg.
“It was a horrible weekend,” he said glumly.
He should relax a little, though. Mr. Adjaye’s store design, with its dark grid of wooden beams set in relief to the exposed brick walls, coolly ignores Peter Marino’s high-temple style that has gripped luxury retailing for two decades. The Proenza store feels warm and complex. Also, consumers finally have a chance to see the designers’ world in its totality — not only the popular PS1 messenger bags and blocky shoes, but also the more dynamic runway pieces. The store gives the designers a powerful means to communicate who they are, something they’ve had difficulty doing.
Mr. Rosen, at the dinner, said sales have been outstanding. (Earlier, Ms. Cook revealed that because of better deliveries of Proenza’s preseason line, which it has beefed up, Barneys in July sold $86,000 in clothes, compared with $6,000 the previous July.) “Whatever it is that allows Jack and Lazaro to plug into a certain segment of consumers around the world and turn them on to what they do, that’s going to continue,” Mr. Rosen said, adding, “There are no certainties, but I would be betting on them.”
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