Proenza Schouler on a Desert Trip That Inspired a Fragrance

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Proenza Schouler on a Desert Trip That Inspired a Fragrance

Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez’s debut venture into fragrance distills the unique spirit of the house precisely, writes Alexander Fury

All clothing and accessories from the Proenza Schouler Spring/Summer 2018 collection, Proenza Schouler Arizona eau de parfum worn throughout, Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Karen Langley

Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez are sat in Paris talking about perfume. You probably wouldn’t have seen that coming a few years ago, given that their fashion label, Proenza Schouler, has been perceived as one of the pillars of New York Fashion Week and simultaneously representative of a new New York establishment (the next Calvin Klein, if you will); and that, until now, they haven’t had a fragrance to their name. But it’s been on the cards for some time. “It’s definitely something we always wanted to do,” says Jack McCollough, slowly and deeply. “But we were always told, you can’t really approach any of the perfumeries. You’ve got to wait for them to come to you.” He shrugs. “So we waited and waited. And finally, they called us!” “We can keep a secret,” says Lazaro Hernandez, laughing. 

Indeed: that was three years ago, and the process of developing their debut scent with L’Oréal preoccupied them over the following two and a half with barely a whisper bar official announcements. Looking back, the clues were there – not least McCollough and Hernandez’s maturity (38 and 39 respectively, 16 years in business together), design signatures (a devotion to craft, a keen eye for colour and an eye for detail quirks that mark their clothes out immediately, even to the casual observer), and name recognition (five CFDA awards and miles of column inches in press). A fragrance was the logical next step for a label constantly cresting on a wave – the thing to push them to the next level.

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Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Karen Langley

McCollough and Hernandez opted to call their debut fragrance Arizona. As a title, it’s one that resonates with American-ness to even the least travelled in the world; nevertheless avoiding the cliches of Los Angeles or Manhattan, nor the jarring associations of, say, Nantucket. Arizona, by contrast, is redolent of the great outdoors, the American west – and the idea of escaping, which was of vital importance. Getting away, finding space – real space, headspace, you name it. “I guess, ultimately, we wanted to work on this idea of introspection,” says Hernandez. “Everything’s so noisy, everyone’s so busy, everyone’s so overwhelmed that, when we went to the desert, out there on a road trip, we thought wow, this feels actually like luxury. We had space and time to think… and our phones weren’t working! And we were by ourself out there.” He smiles. “Having time and space and energy and no distractions and being able to sit with yourself. That feeling became the starting point.”

“Everyone’s so overwhelmed that, when we went to the desert, out there on a road trip, we thought wow, this feels actually like luxury. We had space and time to think… and our phones weren’t working! And we were by ourself out there” – Lazaro Hernandez

There’s no great point in talking about how Arizona smells – like all perfume, it’s entirely subjective, unique to each wearer once it hits the skin. To me, it smells attractive and interesting, like Proenza Schouler clothes. And also unusual – a duo of perfumers, Carlos Benaïm and Loc Dong (a twosome was chosen to reflect the duality at the heart of Proenza’s success) captured the scent of a torch cactus, which blooms once a year in Arizona’s Sonoran desert, the first time it has been included in a perfume. It’s mixed with pear accord, jasmine and bergamot to create a light, somewhat spaced-out scent.

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Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Karen Langley

Right now, McCollough and Hernandez themselves are pretty wild about scent. “We didn’t know, leading up to this project, that much about fragrance and the history of smell and all that,” says McCollough. “When we came in, they [L’Oréal] gave us a whole history lesson on fragrance and smells and their pure essences. And they came in and they brought all these vials of pure patchouli or turmeric, and then synthetic musk and real musk, and then also all the different fragrances throughout the years, starting with Queen Elizabeth I’s fragrance. They were able to synthesise it off her garments – because they’ve got this crazy machine that can basically recreate the molecular structure of a smell. Of anything. So, we were smelling things like…”

Hernandez interjects. “Your mother’s cooking!”

Back to McCollough again. “Literally, your mom’s turkey dinner, you can synthesise the molecular structure of that and put it into a juice. You can recreate any smell!”

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Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Karen Langley

Often a conversation volleys back and forth between Hernandez and McCollough, the sign of two minds working in perfect synergy (they live and work together, so that’s probably inevitable). Sentences are finished, arguments augmented. Via L’Oréal, at the library of fragrances known as the Osmothèque and quartered in Versailles, McCollough and Hernandez inhaled a fragrant history of the past 40 years of fashion. “We’re all so focused on the visual language of decades,” notes Hernandez. “But the times smelled different ways. You forget about that. So they give you this list: the 70s smelled like this. And it starts to make sense.” For instance, the 90s smelled of clean citrus scents, literally influenced by cleaning products, to match the clean minimalism of the time; the early millennium was feminine and floral, as a counterpart and also reflecting a new revived breed of frilly femininity. “Now, I think it’s probably confused,” comments McCollough, wryly. “It’s everything at once.”

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Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Karen Langley

Proenza Schouler has cut through that – both with its fashion, and with its fragrance. It’s difficult to know which influences the other more heavily. Take their spring collection – constant trips back and forth to Paris encouraged them to shake up their fashion calendar and jettison the four season schedule (pre-fall and resort presentations, in addition to the flagship spring/summer and autumn/winter shows) for a biannual collection schedule shown in Paris. Concentrating down their work into an essence absolue – something richer, stronger, more intense. That collection, presented in July, was infused with hints of Parisian haute couture, with references to lingerie lace and corsetry, the wasp-waisted silhouettes of Christian Dior, and big fat fragrant pansies jacquarded into dresses and coats. Their winter collection was a volte-face – right back to American values, and the US equivalent of French couture techniques, such as crochet and tie-dye. If it had a smell, it’d be patchouli. “I think this, in a weird way, was a little bit influenced by the Arizona spirit,” comments Hernandez. “But we also didn’t want an Arizona ‘out west’ thing. We definitely wanted something that felt a little bit American, a little bit west coast, a little bit organic, herbal. So, maybe that was influenced by the fragrance somehow? I don’t know.”

McCollough interjects. “I don’t think it’s really changed our approach to our collections.”

“No,” bats back Hernandez. 

“If anything, it’s gotten us more interested in working on projects outside of ready-to-wear and accessories,” rounds off McCollough. “It was so nice to take our ideas and apply it to a completely different medium. And I think we were energised. New worlds, other arenas.”

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Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Karen Langley

All clothing and accessories from the Proenza Schouler Spring/Summer 2018 collection.

Hair: Soichi at Art Partner. Make-up: Janeen Witherspoon using MAC. Models: Maryel Sousa at Elite London and Alyssa Traoré at IMG London. Casting: Svea Greichgauer at AM Casting. Set design: Suzanne Beirne at D+V Management. Photographic assistants: Matt Kelly and Joe Reedy. Styling assistant: Tara Greville. Hair assistant: Taeko Suda. Make-up assistant: Chloe Dixon. Set-design assistant: Tom Schneider. Production: Elise Lebrun at D+V Management.

This story originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale now.