In Culture

Variations on a theme - Proenza Schouler

Episode Summary

Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of New York-based fashion brand Proenza Schouler refine each garment to its essential details in this episode of Variations on a theme. And host Dessane Lopez Cassell examines how Sol LeWitt distilled shapes and forms down to their most fundamental elements. For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit:

Episode Notes

“We had to find what's that essential detail that really defines that garment as what it is and keep that, and all the other elements we were able to kind of strip away,” Jack McCollough says of the influence of Sol LeWitt’s approach to minimalism. In this episode of Variations on a theme, host Dessane Lopez Cassell speaks to the designer and his partner Lazaro Hernandez, of fashion brand Proenza Schouler, about how they distill each garment down to its essence—and discard the rest.

For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit:

Episode Transcription

Sol LeWitt: It can't get more simple than a square and a cube.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: That's Sol LeWitt, the late, great Conceptual artist. And I'm Dessane Lopez Cassell. You're listening to Variations on a theme.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: This podcast series explores key themes in LeWitt's body of work to consider how other creative folks have responded to and been inspired by his influence. Simplicity is a funny concept in LeWitt's work. Much of his art is guided by a basic set of instructions, or even just a few rules. Concise and straightforward on the surface, these parameters combine simple forms like lines, squares, or cubes to produce these very complex wall drawings or sculptures. With Sol LeWitt, it's the simple concepts that can really yield the most incredibly elaborate and elegant forms. In this episode, we'll head from the gallery to the runway to hear from a pair of fashion designers who found inspiration in a big idea, one that LeWitt embedded within some brilliantly simple cubes. Intrigued? I hope so. Let's meet our guests.

Lazaro Hernandez: I'm Lazaro Hernandez. I'm co-designer of Proenza Schouler.

Jack McCollough: I'm Jack McCullough and I'm co-designer of Proenza Schouler as well.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: If you follow fashion, you may already know Lazaro and Jack's story. The pair met as freshmen at Parsons School of Design and became basically inseparable. By senior year, they'd become so tight, creatively, that they opted to collaborate on their thesis project, a first for Parsons. Barneys New York swooped in and bought the full collection in 2002, kick starting their label, Proenza Schouler. Those are their mother's maiden names, by the way. Parsons is a big part of Jack and Lazaro's story in fashion, but it's also what led them to the work of Sol LeWitt. Here's Lazaro.

Lazaro Hernandez: We came from this sort of history of fashion from the world of Helmut Lang and Jil Sander and early Prada, those kind of quintessential nineties designers. It was a time of minimalism in fashion and aesthetics, and that sort of look and feel and approach was something that really resonated with us.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Parsons is known for pushing an interdisciplinary approach. So it's not surprising that Jack and Lazaro dabbled in a little art history as fashion students, and when they came across the art movements of the '60s and '70s, specifically minimalism and conceptualism, the philosophies behind them really struck a chord.

Lazaro Hernandez: When the art universe and the fashion universe kind of collided, and for us at least, aesthetically in that way, I don't know. To us, it was really exciting and lead us on a whole path of people like Donald Judd and Steinback, and just kind of that whole Dia Beacon universe and Sol LeWitt was one of the characters in that story.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: To hear Lazaro and Jack tell it, Sol LeWitt and many of his peers provided ample inspiration, but in terms of Proenza Schouler, it would take a few years for that influence to really show up in their designs.

Lazaro Hernandez: Yeah, we've always known about the wall drawings and whatnot, and we never really saw the link or saw how that could sort of be a reference point for the work that we do.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Narrowing down their set of influences and inspirations, however, would be uniquely important to these two. Proenza Schouler is a luxury fashion brand, yes. But as Jack explains...

Jack McCollough: It's a company that we started right out of school, there's no history. It's really just the two of us and we're forced to kind of just apply our experiences to what we do. It's not this heritage brand with this history and this past.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: That means he and Lazaro don't have centuries or even decades of collections to reference like some other brands. That means a lot of creative freedom, of course, but as Lazaro puts it, also a lot of pressure.

Lazaro Hernandez: We have to be inspired every six months and have to say something every six months. So we have to seek out references, seek out inspiration, seek out something that sparks some kind of idea for a new approach or for a new set of clothes, a new collection, really.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: So their approach has been to make their clothes a kind of autobiography. In the early days of Proenza Schouler, when the guys were first starting to make some more money, they traveled a lot.

Jack McCollough: I think that showed up a lot in our collections.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Also, like plenty of ridiculously talented young creatives, they wanted to flex a little bit.

Jack McCollough: It was very much adding and building and embroideries and fabrications.

Lazaro Hernandez: We thought it was a kind of radical to add. How much can you add? And how cool to add?

Dessane Lopez Cassell: By the mid 2010s, Proenza Schouler were sidestepping New York fashion week to show their ready to wear collections in Paris during the week when other big houses showed couture. There was embroidery, there were plenty of prints, there was a lot. Their aesthetic made a lot more sense in the context of Paris and elaborate couture shows. But, Jack and Lazaro say this was the point where the whole more is more thing started to feel a bit too extra.

Jack McCollough: After our final show in Paris, I felt like we just pushed that as far as it could possibly go, that it was just kind of now time to kind of take things in a completely different direction.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Having decided to show in the US again, the pair started thinking about a more minimalist aesthetic. Lazaro and Jack's art and fashion universes were colliding again, which would lead them right back to Sol LeWitt.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: A fashion collection begins a ways out from the actual show. So in the winter of 2017 to 2018, Jack and Lazaro did what they usually do when it's time to get started on a new set of ideas. Here's Jack.

Jack McCollough: We've got a house that's up in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. A little farm in the middle of nowhere, and it's kind of this place we got to kind of escape the madness of New York and kind of go and just kind of get into our heads and think and be creative.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Jack and Lazaro built a studio there, and it's where they design all of their collections.

Jack McCollough: We just sketch for two weeks straight. Lazaro at one end of the table, me at the other.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: So on that particular visit, they decided to finally visit the world-class arts institution that happened to be just down the road.

Jack McCollough: We're like, "Let's go to the MASS MoCA, I can't believe we've never been up there."

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Lazaro and Jack remember getting lost around the museum's expansive campus, which was once a sprawling factory dating back to the 19th century. It wasn't until the very end of their visit that they stumbled into MASS MoCA's Sol LeWitt wall drawing retrospective.

Lazaro Hernandez: We're like, "Oh, this is the thing that we've been looking for."

Dessane Lopez Cassell: The long term installation occupies three stories of a dedicated building with LeWitt's work covering nearly an acres worth of gallery walls. As someone who once interned at MASS MoCA many years ago and spent all summer giving tours of that building, I can tell you that there's really nothing else like it. Surrounded by all those drawings, most spanning entire walls. You almost feel like you're walking inside of Sol LeWitt's brain. But Lazaro says the thing that caught their eyes most of all, wasn't on the walls.

Lazaro Hernandez: The part that we walked away from that experience being most inspired by, is those sort of those incomplete cube structures.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Lazaro's referencing Sol LeWitt's incomplete cubes, actually a sculpture series, which debuted at the John Weber Gallery in New York city in 1974. To understand the concept, start by picturing the structure of a cube. Once you've got that mental image, now count the number of lines that give the cube its shape. You should have 12. So what happens when you start taking some of those lines away? How many can you take away and still say, "Yep, that's a cube." Following a handful of simple rules, no fewer than three lines and no floating lines detached from the others. LeWitt identified 122 possibilities for totally unique figures made up of as few as three lines that would still read as, well, cubes.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: The scene together, laid out on a grid in the middle of the gallery, the series of small sculptures can almost make your head spin. It's now part of the collection at SF MoMA, but Jack and Lazaro encountered just a few of the figures at MASS MoCA, enough to get their own gears spinning. Here's Jack.

Jack McCollough: We were just kind of struck by this idea of stripping something away as much as possible but leaving enough information still for the viewer to kind of fill in the blanks on their own.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Back at their farmhouse, the guys start reading everything they can find about Sol LeWitt, and in particular, his incomplete open cubes. Then, as Jack says...

Jack McCollough: We started stripping things away.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: And that meant giving themselves some room to play.

Jack McCollough: And we started with some old vintage sweaters and just started hacking bits and pieces away, leaving the crew neck of a sweater, perhaps the sleeves, but taking away the entire body. We did it with motorcycle jackets, we did it with lapels, with trench coats, with knitwear. We just started kind of riffing off this whole idea, and it led us to some interesting places.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Lazaro elaborates.

Lazaro Hernandez: I know with Sol LeWitt, there was that whole idea of he needed at least three elements to have that thing identify as a cube. For us, because we were working with so many different types of forms, that point was different depending on what we were working on. We realized that with a jacket, once you remove a lapel, it no longer felt like a jacket, that felt like an essential element in a jacket. With a pant, two legs. It sounds...

Jack McCollough: We had to find what's that essential detail that really defines that garment as what it is and keep that, and all the other elements we were able to kind of strip away.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: So up in their Berkshires studio, surrounded by what I can only imagine were mountains of deconstructed thrift store finds, Jack and Lazaro sketched out what would become their fall-winter 2019 ready to wear collection. And its defining feature, it's what they started calling remnants, these incomplete fragments of other garments. Browsing through photos of the New York runway show where it premiered, I'm struck by how deeply embedded LeWitt's influence is within the collection. This is not some surface level tribute. You can see Jack and Lazaro really engaging with the concept of reduction within their own medium. These looks are layered, yet they're sneakily minimalist. You might catch yourself filling in the blanks, seeing clothes and accessories that the models weren't really wearing, but are suggested.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: The references to Sol LeWitt, like so many of the influences that play into a Proenza Schouler collection, was specific to fall-winter 2019. But Lazaro and Jack say things went a little different this time.

Lazaro Hernandez: Sometimes you unlock a concept, and sometimes you're done with it after that season, you're like, "Oh, we've exhausted that, we've taken it to its limit."

Jack McCollough: We'd explore this, and then we'd explore that, and just bouncing around all over the place and it wasn't until this collection that we started really building some kind of key ideas and some key codes that now we really are still to this day carrying forward.

Lazaro Hernandez: After the collection was done, we didn't feel like we were done exploring it, really. This idea of reducing and pairing stuff down and taking things to its essential form.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Of course, part of that has to be the allure of minimalism to artistic sensibilities that have maybe grown tired of constantly adding. At a certain point, you begin to appreciate the challenge of doing more with less. But the more Jack and Lazaro engaged with Sol LeWitt, the more they saw this artist as not just an influence, but rather as a creative mind whose project resonated with her own. Lazaro really connected the dots for me.

Lazaro Hernandez: We create a garment on a stand and we create garments on a rack and we work really hard on these objects, but at the end of the day, they're objects. They don't really exist in the real world until another person comes in and inhabits that, actually wears it and moves it and gives it its creases and attitude and gives it its slouch or its personality. In a way it's the instructions of Sol LeWitt's, and then it requires that extra person, that extra party to actually give it its real life experience somehow. And we thought that was such an interesting parallel. No two lines are the same, no two people are going to draw a wall drawing the same. They're going to understand that the instruction's slightly different, the line quality is going to be different, just like two people aren't going to wear that jacket the same. They're just going to give it a different attitude, a different style, different nuance. And that idea of letting go and letting people kind of make it their own is kind of freeing.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Big thanks to our guests, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCullough of Proenza Schouler.

Dessane Lopez Cassell: Sol LeWitt Variations on a theme, is part of the Microsoft In Culture podcast. Follow us or subscribe wherever you're currently listening. This season is written by producer Jordan Rothlein and me, Dessane Lopez Cassell. This episode was edited and mixed by Nat Weiner and features original music by Angular Wave Research. Very special thanks to the estate of Sol LeWitt and to Lindsay Aveilhé, whose research on Sol LeWitt has been integral to this project. This episode features a clip from Sol LeWitt in interview. The interview was conducted by Kate Horsfield at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and appears courtesy of the video data bank. This podcast season is a companion to an app from the estate of Sol LeWitt, which was developed in close collaboration with Microsoft. They used state-of-the-art technology, like artificial intelligence, to help immerse users in LeWitt's life, artworks, and process. Download it now wherever you get your smartphone apps. Sol LeWitt Variations on a theme is a production of Microsoft in collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York city.