Love Notes Passed in Public School
There are few things more gratifying in the fashion industry than seeing talent blossom before your eyes. We take a certain level of responsibility in it, we relish in the delight of not knowing where it’s going. Much like the rest of the world, my first real exposure to Jack and Lazaro of Proenza Schouler was around the time of their Fashion Fund award in 2004. Easy call. They were incredibly artistic, gorgeous and so distinctively New York. Then you have the Doo.Ri(s) of the world who rode off of the industry’s expectations long after her relevance in high fashion had deflated. With that uncertainty being what it is, you fall in love with caution. You try not to follow the herd for fear that you may give your heart and lose them.
Recently we’ve been experiencing a surge in interest in high fashion brands who count “street” in either their roots or influence. HBA, Surface to Air and notably Public School. It’s hard to compete with the level of hype surrounding Public School. The brand identity, the hard to define woman they dress, the designers themselves. It’s all nothing short of intoxicating. These are the guys you want to win. My inappropriate crush on the happily married Dao-Yi Chow aside, these guys are magnetic. They have a passion and a point of view that rivals anyone on the horizon right now. It’s easy with them. I take an immense amount of snobby pride in my ability to suss out the counterfeits. So much so that oftentimes I’m quick to dismiss based on my need to play devil’s advocate.The initial explosion of attention around Public School made me wary. In all areas of culture, luxury markets like to flirt with the idea of exposing “street” trends to a luxury audience. Grunge, graffiti, cheap drugs, metal, hip hop, baby hair. With this said, I approached the duo with trepidation. It looked good to me, on the boys I nuzzled wearing it — it felt good to me. But I was hesitant. Is it a gimmick? Is the CFDA using the undeniably talented PS duo to promote their efforts in diversity, will they and the consumers they dress be used as symbols of a fixed time moment in fashion? Most importantly was I sipping the proverbial kool-aid?
Fashion makes you a cynic. As my obsession with PS grew I not only felt guilty about doubting the authenticity but cringed at my own expectations of how far they would go. My skepticism was with the industry not the talents of the designers themselves. Maxwell and Dao combined come from strong backgrounds in both “urban” fashion and media. Public School, as a brand has become a moniker for how we now define “streetwear”, as in brands with a clear aesthetic influence rooted in the street. As we ride these incredibly fine lines between “urban” and “streetwear” what are the rules and who is making them? In a Fashionista.com interview with Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver when asked if he considered his work streetwear he responded “I don’t get what that means really. Like does ‘street’ mean what people wear on the subway? I think it’s a categorization that’s just lazy. People wear different things in the street all over the world”. Shayne’s point is valid and brings up an overdue conversation. Whose street are we referring to? As brands defined this way become more and more global, is the categorization divisive. Several events in the past couple of years have blurred these lines further. In addition to the meteoric rise of brands like HBA, Harvey Nichols launched a collaborative design event with fashion and music collective #BeenTrill. Versace’s recent creative rape of Kesh for American Apparel has resulted in a legal issue quite the opposite of what we’re used to seeing. The copyright lawsuit reflects a “trickle up” pattern. Consecutive events like these all happening on the same stage changes the fashion vernacular. In 1992, Steven Meisel featured a bare faced Nadja Auermann with her nose ring, the next year Marc Jacobs nearly tanked his career with his reinvention of Perry Ellis. The year after that, Kurt Cobain, who unexpectedly and unwillingly became a style icon died suddenly. By 1995, grunge was no longer a thing fashion accepted but rather a thing we discovered and subsequently absorbed. A thing that buried its positioning in the middle of our mindset of what we thought we knew about fashion. Grunge no longer “met” high fashion. They cohabitated. It became a reference. Street is an influence, not a category.
In William Van Meter’s NY Times article on the duo of PS, Meter gives a short paragraph to discuss their categorization as Streetwear. Dao is quoted in the article as saying ‘Luxury designers like Riccardo Tisci can say most of their inspiration comes from the street; We started from a street base, but our influences are higher fashion’. Well said Dao. In an unneeded clarification of Dao’s quote Meter goes on to say “In other words, Public School makes street clothes aiming to be fashion instead of fashion trying to be street.” From my understanding, Dao wasn’t saying that at all. An “aim” wasn’t implied. By using Riccardo Tisci as an example (who is about as luxury and non-American as you can get), I understood that any high fashion designer can use the street as an influence without being categorized. Tisci is no more trying to be “street” as Osborne and Chow are trying to be “fashion”.
It is an outdated term or rather it is outdated usage. Fewer and fewer articles being written on Public School make an effort to define their “street meets whatever” style. This week Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow were named Creative Directors of DKNY. It’s a massive moment in the American fashion structure. Choices are being made based on growth potential and true consumer appreciation, not the attempt to capitalize on a passing phase of cool. In all honesty, two minority designers with brands like Sean John and Ecko on their resumes not being pigeonholed as urban designers is a moment of growth for the fashion industry.