Fixtures of the downtown New York fashion scene, the Proenza Schouler designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez retreat to 100 quiet acres in the Berkshires to create their collections in splendid isolation.

By Mickey Rapkin
The New York Times Style Magazine
February 14, 2013, 10:00 am

The early-Americana wall hangings, the perfect pot of coffee brewing on this crisp Berkshire mountains morning. The newly expanded kitchen with a retrofitted French draper’s table from the 1800s. The tepee standing on the lawn. It’s a different kind of Proenza Schouler show than we’re used to, though no less hip for being so square.

Jack McCollough (dressed in Raf Simons) and Lazaro Hernandez (in azure chinos tucked into L. L. Bean hiking boots) sit in the living room of the Lincoln-era farmhouse they bought a few years ago on a whim, talking about the simple pleasures of eating vegetables out of their own garden.

“It’s so satisfying,” McCollough says.

“I prefer tractors,” Hernandez says, interjecting. “I kind of like — ”

“Oh, you’re so butch!”

“I do!” Hernandez insists.

“Let’s keep in mind, I taught you how to use that tractor.”

If the Proenza Boys, as they’re often called, needed a little lo-fi escape, who could blame them? Their origin story is now a thing of legend: two doe-eyed designers meet at Parsons, teaming up for a 2002 senior collection so fully formed that Barneys buys the entire lot. The press fawns. Valentino infuses millions in cash.

(Image: The designers in the living room of their 19th-century farmhouse with Hernandez’s dog, Jojo. Sean Donnola)

Ten years later Proenza Schouler is in the midst of a very real, very ambitious growth spurt. New investors — Andrew Rosen (a co-founder of Theory) and John Howard (who helped boost profits at Rag & Bone) — came on board in 2011 with an eye toward elevating the brand to the level of a European-style mega-house. The label opened its first retail store on Madison Avenue last summer, and a SoHo shop is percolating, along with another four or five outposts in Asia. In December, the company signed a licensing deal with Iris S.p.A. (the Italian firm that does footwear for Marc Jacobs and Jil Sander) to expand its shoe business into a broader collection that will include lower priced offerings.

As their company grew, the couple, whose romantic life has been as scrutinized as their collections, found they needed a salve for the bruising Manhattan fashion whirl. “Working in the city has just become really intense,” Hernandez says, reclining into a Sérgio Rodrigues chair from the 1950s. “Everyone was just going out all the time. And it became a lot to deal with.” Dinner turned into a cameo at a party and then, oops, it was 4 in the morning. Sometimes they went straight into the office when the sun came up. “That’s what your 20s are about,” McCollough says. “Then you turn 30 and you’re a little more tired and you’re over that vibe a little bit and that scene, and you’re ready for a new chapter.”

Industry watchers assumed the next chapter would be set in Europe, where previous American enfants terribles like Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford freelanced spectacularly — and lucratively — for iconic brands. Opportunities certainly presented themselves, most recently with Dior in 2011, and while the designers decline to comment on that courtship specifically, McCollough allows that such offers are tempting.

But staring out at their property, Snow Farm — which they bought from Bob and Sue Tarasuk, who live on a farm across the road but still tend the grounds — it’s not a stretch to say McCollough and Hernandez turned down the House of Dior because of this house. Or rather, what these 100 acres abutting a nature reserve represent: a flag planted firmly on the side of work-life balance. “We aren’t ready to be living on a plane all the time,” Hernandez says. “We don’t need to sacrifice our lifestyle to that extent to make our life worth living or something.”

“For what?” McCollough adds. “At the end of the day, really? I mean, I think we’ve got it so great. We have our own business. We have complete creative control. We can design the collection we want to design. It’s what we’re feeling. It’s from our heart. We have time to have another type of life outside of that, on top of that.” Later, he tells me: “This house has kind of saved us in a way.”

It also provided them a creative space to sketch and strategize in a way they no longer can at work. “Our company vibe is very casual,” Hernandez says. “The door is always open.” Which workedwhen their company was 20 people. “Now it’s 100 people walking into your office.”

The two get to the farm at least three weekends a month, leaving their SoHo offices at 8 p.m. on a Friday and pulling into the driveway here by 11. As they wind up the road, there’s a sigh of relief,” McCollough says, his shoulders practically melting as he says the words. They’ll cook dinner, with groceries from Guido’s in Great Barrington, and then sleep until noon, stumbling downstairs for coffee and to let the dogs out. (Hernandez has a miniature pinscher named Jojo; McCollough’s Newfoundland, Buster, looks like something out “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”) But by 1 p.m. they’re firmly seated at opposite ends of the farm table in their studio, sketching to Gram Parsons or John Phillips or some electronic music they’ve just downloaded. Still wearing sweatpants and slippers, they look like Wendy’s Lost Boys but reimagined for the freethinking aughts. “We don’t get dressed when we’re here,” Hernandez says.

(Image: The designers in the studio they recently built on the farm; they sketch here three weekends a month. Sean Donnola)

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