Public School is on a defiant roll right now. We spoke with designers Dao-Yi and Maxwell Osborne at the beginning of April and since then they’ve come from being on the cusp of something great with their men’s collection to being at the forefront of Best New Contemporary Menswear Brands. The brand itself is a touch over the heads of the kids who are still stuck in streetwear limbo but it’s ahead of that young curve with appeal from bottom to top consumers. As a certain Philly rapper would say, “there’s levels to this ****” and Public School is silently mastering each one.
Diehard New Yorkers, so much so that despite sourcing fabric and textiles from overseas, Public School decided the only way to hone their brand was to design, produce and manufacture everything in their borough’s backyard. Very rare will you find a brand who’s got a finger on the pulse of American-pop deities like ASAP Rocky or Carmelo Anthony, even rarer and maybe more important is their recent nod from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, subjectively equivalent to an Oscar or Grammy in the fashion industry. So to put it in perspective, they just won the “Fashion Grammy” for “Best New Artists” – a massive achievement from an industry that can be so impenetrably highfalutin. Hot in the streets and haute on the runways, that’s the imperfect perfection they quote in any conversation they get into.
The clothing design impresarios thrive on their ‘one foot in the everyday city hustle, other foot in high fashion showroom’ modus operandi. If you look at the collection it’s impeccably sharp, but tip toeing off the common ledge. It’s thoughtful materials with an aesthetic rooted firmly in a New Yorker’s sensibilities – intelligent, spirited, double edged. Their Spring-Summer ‘13 collection saw a mélange of luxurious materials with highly wearable cuts. Quilted lambskin, electric waxed coats, jacquard tees, silk finished henleys, tropical wools. Being a season ahead, we’re now getting a detailed glimpse at Autumn 2013 in which you’ll find wool bombers, pigment sprayed flannel oxfords, lamb leather blousons, hybrid French terry cotton/nylon crewnecks. There’s fun, experimentation, keen attention to fabric choice – which are all nicely packaged into fashionably digestible silhouettes.
We got on the horn with the duo to discuss their brand from a holistic standpoint. We spoke on their humbling participation in the CFDA Incubator Program for new designers, their younger brother company in Black Apple and some of the gems of wisdom that Dao and Maxwell chose to impart.
You guys took a short hiatus from Public School a few years back, what is it about your city that made you remain based in New York? Additionally, what do you hope the phrase, “Made in NY” signifies to your customer base?
Dao-Yi: We’re both from New York, somewhat raised here so our blood is New York all the way through. With Public School and our other brand it’s New York-inspired. Our other brand is Black Apple, so even during our Public School hiatus; we were working on that brand at the time. Then we refocused and made Public School officially New York where we make everything in New York so that it feels all the way true.
Other than that, there’s this restless energy and the idea of New York being this imperfect/perfect city. That’s what we really try to communicate through our brand. Imperfect perfection. Looking for perfection in imperfection and having that whole sentiment ties back to the city.
In 2010, you both dedicated your time to the CFDA incubator program, one that allowed industry mentors to tweak and modify the outlook of your brand. How important would you say was this program to your successes in 2012/2013 and how important is it to keep a student’s frame of mind – humble enough to be mentored despite being in the industry for decades?
D: That wasn’t too hard. We had always been students. We were happy there to learn from anyone and everyone around us. We don’t consider ourselves as being veterans in the industry and the incubator was such a wonderful opportunity to meet so many different people, real veterans, people who had been doing this for such a long time. It was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up. So much of the incubator is what you make of it and how much you bring to it, so the more you put in, the more you get out. We were pretty good examples of taking full advantage of the program and all the things it had to offer.
Were there any epiphanic or “A-HA” moments during your time in the program?
Maxwell: Me personally, I didn’t. We just ran with it and did pretty much everything we wanted to do and then the things they would request from us, we were happy to do. I knew the future was coming with the relationships and everything that we made, but I didn’t see it at the time and how great the incubator was. We were maybe too close to it to realize, even up to the Fall 2012 show. It was just happening a little fast, it was all work and we never took a step back. Now that we’re out of the program we can see and say “Wow that happened…” It was just a big ball that kept rolling.
Working together for such a long time now, can you explain the dynamic you two share. Who wears which hats and who puts what on the table?
D: We pretty much do it all as a small brand. Being entrepreneurs you have to wear every single hat so from design to production to taking out the garbage. We split it down the middle, the design, spec’ing. The team is pretty small, we have a part-time production manager, a full time guy who works on denim and we handle sales a lot ourselves. And you got to love the interns too, interns they make the world go round.
As a private school kid growing up, the first thing that runs through my mind when I read the name Public School is the concept of ‘no uniforms’ – or perhaps more deeply, no conformity. What’s the real connection between the name and the collection?
D: We wanted to create something that represents our experiences growing up in New York City, That was the most important thing. When you go to New York or really any big city you have to get by, fight your way through to stand out. You have to be original, you have to be authentic – all those things that we hope resonate in our brand. It does have a sort of younger connotation sometimes and we’ve gone through periods where we thought the name was limiting in some sense. But over the seasons we’ve been able to transcend that with our collections.
What is the greatest thing that has come from your Black Apple and New York Knick collaborative project at Madison Square Garden?
M: Meeting Carmelo, haha. I think us being New Yorkers and also having a die-hard love for the Knicks, it was more than amazing. Growing up in New York, playing basketball as young as six years old, everyone says, “I want to play for the Knicks or in the NBA”. A lot of people’s dreams don’t come true, but instead of your jersey hanging in the store we took another route having a clothing line fit inside Madison Square Garden. Having the players wear it, it’s maybe just as great of a feeling.
D: We have a funny story the night of the launch at the Garden. The marketing people from the Knicks invited us to go to the game, so it was going to be this thing where we would walk the shops and see how the line was merchandised. We were really excited, we got our tickets, finally got there and find out that our seats were pretty much last row. It was a funny moment, but thankfully we have a buddy who works for the Knicks who was able to switch our tickets out and put us on the floor. But that thing really speaks to the whole process of it; we were die-hard Knicks fans before the project and even after the project. So that last experience was just icing on the cake, for that one night we were walking from shop to shop and getting positive feedback from people. In a sea of blue and orange, we did a whole black collection that people reacted to positively and for maybe five minutes we felt like players or something. But of course, even if we couldn’t switch our tickets we would’ve still been sitting there with binoculars and tissues for nose bleeds. It was one of those surreal moments, where you take it in, say to ourselves “we did that” and be prideful if just for a moment.
It seems as though a lot of personalities, athletes and musicians have flocked to your collections so readily. Who’s the most intelligent of this bunch that you’ve come across when it comes to their knowledge of fashion?
D: Probably ASAP. We had never met him before but he came to our last presentation. By that time he was already sort of this fashion darling. We didn’t really know what to expect but he spent a while at the presentation, and really was quite interested in the whole process. He asked all sorts of questions about fabric, the development process, trim and even trying to break down the aesthetics. It was quite impressive because we had spent a similar amount of time with Melo (of the NY Knicks) who was also really interested in the process but he wasn’t as inquisitive as ASAP perhaps. But I think that just comes from the parallels of music, the creative process is more similar to what we go through in putting a collection together.
Dao-Yi has an old background in music journalism and it seems you both dabble as DJs – what type of music, particular album or even song (past or present) best shares the essence of Public School?
D: Good question. We’ve really been exposed to different sorts of music; of course hip-hop is the foundation, what we grew up on. It’s broadened from that though and it’s really about mood, a certain style than it is a favourite song. We can go from LCD Sound System to XX to Twin Shadow to Jay-Z. It’s all about capturing a mood, because we believe with our clothes that they should change the way you feel. Like if you put one of our leather jackets on, it should make you feel maybe tougher and make you walk with a little more confidence. That’s what music does for us. The music that we’re really attracted to has, for lack of a better word – swagger. We’ve got to invent a better word for that.
How important is this recent CFDA Award nomination to you both?
M: Oh that was for real? I thought we were still dreaming, haha.
It’s been one hell of a couple weeks I would say. It really took us by surprise. For all the hard work that goes into it, having the collections being recognized on a broader level has been amazing.
D: In the same vein, we don’t want it to be such a big deal but it really is such a big deal – for us. Just to be nominated and considered is already huge. On one hand, it really is this awesome thing but on the other, we’re still working 12 hours a day, struggling to pay the rent. The awards don’t stop the rent.
Every day can’t be 80 degrees and sunny. That’s why New York is such an important foundation because you never know what to expect.
One thing we like to end off our interviews with – do you have any mottos, philosophies or words that you are currently living by right now?
D: Every day can’t be 80 degrees and sunny. That’s why New York is such an important foundation because you never know what to expect. That’s what makes life worth living going from day to day.
I actually just finished a friend of mine’s memoir, Eddie Huang. He’s a chef here in NYC and he has a quote in there – it relates to cooking obviously – so for him his whole thing is that style is such a big part of how he cooks and what he does. There’s a line, “style is not an excuse to cook without restraint”. From our standpoint it would be to design without restraint. For us, our point of view is everything to us and without it you’re nothing, but still to have a “point of view” doesn’t mean you can design recklessly and do whatever you want in the name of style. A lot of what we do, there is a lot of restraint built into it. Like we can make everything with leather and put 50 zippers on it and call it our point of view, but there’s no beauty in that right?
M: For me, I’m going by “less is more”. Like less food, I’ve been on a juice cleanse for the past 7 days. Having a uniform and wearing the same outfit everyday. Less is more.