Dressed in their signature head-to-toe black, Maxwell Osborne (with his everpresent dark-tinted prescription glasses) and Dao-Yi Chow (in a flat-brim baseball cap) are perched on the armrest and the back of a black leather love seat in the men’s department at Holt Renfrew Vancouver.
It’s the third day in the city for the design team behind New York–based streetwear label Public School, and they’re already getting a feel for Vancouver and for Canada on their inaugural visit north of the 49th parallel.
“We’re thoroughly impressed,” says Osborne, mentioning the Celebration of Light and the restaurants of Gastown as highlights. But the real payoff has been meeting their growing Wet Coast fan base face to face.
“We’re in a weird position where we’re still so new. For [Vancouver] customers to take the time to meet with us and talk about their favourite piece—ones that we might have forgotten about from two years ago.…It’s amazing and everyone needs to hear that feedback sometimes.”
Of course, Messrs. Osborne and Chow have not been wanting for accolades lately. The last year has been a whirlwind for the design duo, who seemingly took home every conceivable fashion award they were eligible to win. In June of 2013, Public School won the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Swarovski Award for Menswear. Five months later, they were honoured with the most coveted CFDA award of them all, the Vogue Fashion Fund, which carries with it a US$300,000 cash prize and nods of approval from Anna Wintour and their mentor, designer Prabal Gurung. And this past June, Public School was tapped as the North American representative for the International Woolmark Prize, to be determined in January of next year.
They admit the awards and approval are nice (as are the cash injections that come with them), but both insist it hasn’t really changed them or Public School in the least.
“We still work the same way,” says Osborne. “We still bounce ideas off each other the same way and we still look to achieve our philosophy of finding perfection in imperfection. Nothing should be a pretty picture. To us, that’s always at the top of every collection.”
The push-and-pull of collaboration has been integral to the creative dissonance that marks the Public School label, whose dominant colour remains black this season.
Motorcycle jackets are reimagined in wool for fall 2014 ($615 at Holt’s) and the humble jogging pant ($310) is decidedly dressed-up. In this latest collection, seams crop up in unexpected places, collars are never traditional, shorts are sometimes worn over jeans, and cropped jackets are paired with longer knits underneath.
As with any talented, passionate pairing, there are compromises and stalemates in the design process. “Things usually go in the direction of the one who talks last,” says Chow with a laugh. He turns to Osborne and play-acts an imaginary confrontation: “ ‘What? You’re still talking? Okay, man, you got this one.’ ”
Their friendship began in 2001 when Osborne interned at Sean John, the fashion label of hip-hop impresario Sean “Diddy” Combs, where Chow was a vice-president of marketing. The professional partnership kicked off in 2007, when Public School’s first collection was created for Chow’s now-defunct Miami boutique.
Despite winning a business-development award from CFDA in 2010, the pair shuttered Public School, unable to bring their ideas to fruition the way they wanted. A two-year hiatus and a few tweaks later, they re-emerged with a renewed focus that included moving all production from China back to factories in the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Here, too, Public School goes for the unexpected.
“We don’t want to do it the way people say to do it, whether it’s a neckline or production,” says Osborne. When it comes to Public School, he says, “something should always be off a bit.”