Do Two Straight Men Know What Women Want To Wear?

BFA_9666_1157272Photo: BFA NYC.
A crisp white shirt. A flat-brimmed black hat. Lounge-y black pants that feel as luxurious as an evening jacket but as easy as a pair of basketball shorts. For most people who pay attention to fashion, the Public School aesthetic is incredibly simple to describe. That's no small accomplishment for an independent label, and especially difficult for a brand that's only been around (in its current incarnation) for two years.
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Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne are the designers behind the much-lauded label, and they've experienced a charmed existence, winning all the awards (most recently, the Woolmark prize for menswear), bewitching the industry, and selling out from all the racks.
Recently, the duo launched a womenswear collection that's full of those androgynous, sleek-but-comfy staples that tomboys have always wanted to wear. Which is a curious and wonderful thing coming from two straight men who routinely use the word "sexy" to describe their women's clothes. Without a single bandage dress or R-rated hemline among their wares, these men seem to understand the secret to when women feel the sexiest: It's simplicity over cheesiness, softness over flash, and items that legitimately feel good to wear. We spoke to Chow and Osbourne right after their Woolmark win to talk about their winning streak, their expansion into womenswear, and why "sticking out like a sore thumb" is a great thing.
So, first of all, congratulations on your win for Woolmark. It’s no surprise you’ve developed quite a cult following among your female consumers. Do you chalk this up to a tomboy trend, or something deeper?
Maxwell Osborne: “I think we’ve seen a shift. When we did our womenswear, there was really a sense of people we knew who reached out to us, and women who bought smalls or mediums and had the men's clothes altered to fit them. So ,then we launched our women’s collection, which really was an extension of our menswear. But, at the same time, in the industry, there was definitely a moment when womenswear was looking to menswear for inspiration. It’s quite interesting.”
What do you think that women find so attractive about menswear?
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MO: “For me, I think it’s a new way of being sexy, like where being sexy is not necessarily just wearing like the tightest, sexiest, revealing garments, but being sexy could be the oversized T-shirt and a pair of bigger pants, and you’re just automatically sexy because there’s so much cool behind that, and there’s an ease to it that I think makes it sexy.”
I think that it’s difficult for menswear designers who are venturing into womenswear to create a separate identity for their female consumers. And yet, when I look at the women’s collection, it feels like a counterpart, not a shadow.
Dao-Yi Chow: “For us, it wasn't not easy, but it's a little easier, because we started with menswear first. And, I don’t know if a lot of brands go that route. It’s usually womenswear and then it evolves to men’s, so I think that maybe that had something to do with it. In theory, the women’s was always going to be this direct extension of what men’s was. It wasn’t going to be anything different, even if there wasn’t this moment that menswear is having. So, from sharing the silhouette to sharing fabric, you know it’s been pretty consistent since day one, since we had planned to launch women’s.”
You are two straight men designing women’s garments. I thought it was really interesting when you mentioned “sexy” in relation to boxy T-shirts or a slouchy pant. Do you think being two straight men in this industry helps you?
MO: “Being two straight men has helped us. When I’m looking at women, as a straight man, I’m definitely aware of certain things. [Laughs] So maybe, it kind of seems like an art thing when it comes from a not-straight point of view. But for us, we know what we want to see on a woman, and what we want to do to get her there, and knowing our point of view and how to bring that to women, while also working with a great team to help bring that to life…it's great. But specifically, I think we know how we want to see our girl, not necessarily every girl, but our girl — the Public School girl.”
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BFA_9642_1154928Photo: BFA NYC.
What do you think gives you guys the edge?
D-Y C: “It’s not anything conscious that we do, but it always does seem like we stand out, for better or for worse, from the other designers. I think that our approach is different, and I wonder if that gives us a leg up. So for us, it’s never really about winning, as it is more about just making sure that we’re different than what’s out there. And I think when you see the looks next to each other, for better or for worse, it’s clear that we stick out sort of like a sore thumb, and that’s something that we’re probably more proud of than actually winning the award. We’ve stuck to our one view since we launched, and we’re not sort of shifting the winds. More importantly, I think we just really pride ourselves on making sure we stick to our point of view, and present something that is always a Public School look.
So, you hear the term “borrowed from the boys” a lot when you talk about womenswear that’s inspired by menswear. But, your menswear line has always pushed the boundaries when it comes to using shapes or silhouettes or design elements that almost feel “borrowed from the girls,” but without being feminine. Are there “tomgirl” design elements that you guys have co-opted for men?
D-Y C: “That’s funny. Yeah, there’s more tomgirl and tomboy, but for us, when we started with men, we always sort of borrowed from womenswear a bit, in terms of challenging silhouettes and emotion. When you think about menswear, traditionally, it’s not very driven by emotion. And, I think for our menswear, we’re always driven by the emotion part of it, so maybe that’s why it feels tomgirl-y, which is funny.”
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Are there strong women in your own lives that act as maybe inadvertent or accidental muses or deliberate muses for your collection?
MO: “That’s a good question. In our own lives? I’m going to say my family somewhat, and definitely New Yorkers in general, and definitely one of my cousins, Jane, who’s a fashion-forward woman. And, not till this very question have I ever thought of her as a muse, but I’ve always looked to her for guidance about what women like in fashion, and what they shop for. She was born and raised New York, traveled a lot of her life, and is into art and music."
Public School went on hiatus during a time that a lot of really iconic, important, indie New York City designers were forced to shut down their operations. It was partly due to the economy, but also it was a weird time for the industry in that everything was changing in an industry that was kind of reluctant to change. What do you think made the second coming of Public School primed for success that the first time didn’t?
MO: “Besides stupidity and drive? I think the second coming was the CFDA Fashion Incubator, and we have a couple of great mentors that helped us come back again. We talked a lot about the good, the bad, and the ugly for the brand, and they would help us figure all our demons out. Even if the second coming had been just that one show in 2012, it would have been okay since we made that second go-around, and we tried it. We got out of that rebirth a little wiser, and I think that helped in that struggle.”
What was the biggest demon that you had to fight to get to where you are?
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MO: “Always sticking to our point of view was hard to learn, because you kind of want to do a little of everything. We were a little heavy-handed in terms of the design process. We’d try to do everything we can in just that one season, and then do that season after season, when we could design one jacket and take that one jacket we’d done in the past and all the details could have worked for a whole collection. And, I think we’d just try to do everything all the time, and just went zero to a hundred. Now, we're just focused on going from zero to forty.”
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