A mere two years ago, no one outside New York had even heard of Public School. Their look was edgy. Their first NYFW presentation in 2013 was small, less than twenty pieces, and held in a parking garage. Just last season, I skipped their show that conflicted with a more well-known label. I won’t likely be making that mistake again. This morning, they played to a packed house in the voluminous Arc space at Moynihan Station. There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t know the Public School brand, and founding designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow have become celebrities.
What made all the difference? First, and most importantly, Chow and Osborne are some of the best tailors in the city. Their clothes are exquisitely put together and they manage production of their clothes, manufactured in New York, with extreme precision. Their designs speak largely to the same young, urban demographic that Alexander Wang is in, but to this point they’ve been less mainstream, more pure in their design, and committed to being true to their own personality. Second, as members of the first CDFDA incubator in 2010, they have had some of the best support and advice that a fledgling fashion label could possibly want. They’ve met the right people, shown at the right places, given the right interviews to push themselves to the front of the line.
What pushed them to the front of the line this season, however, was when fashion conglomerate LVMH named the duo as creative directors for the DKNY brand after Donna Karan announced her departure in April. Chow and Osborne’s appoint to the position came quickly, indicating they had been part of a longer conversation before any announcement was made. There is neither a DKNY nor a Donna Karan presentation this season, so many are curiously looking at the Public School show today as a possible hint at what direction they may take the youth-oriented brand.
For starters, urban is still the touch and feel of the clothes we saw coming down the runway this morning. Loose, flowing, and rather neo-minimalist at times, the black, white, and blue-colored clothes at times felt almost monastic, especially as models’ hair was pulled back as tight as conceivably possible into braided ponytails. Don’t tell me those girls weren’t sporting a bit of a headache by the time the show completed. There’s a simplicity to many of the looks that is going to be comfortable. Loose belts and cord ties hold down over-layers (rather difficult to call some of them jackets), cinch waists on occasion, and keep everything from billowing in the breeze. There were even some of the broad trailing straps that we saw in their very first public collection. Much of the set was pure Public School, which is a good thing.
Where the pair gave us a hint of where they make go with DKNY came in some surprising sporty pieces that stood out like dramatic interruptions against the more urban looks. Think off-kilter tennis skirts and sporty knit sweaters both with bright orange piping. The sweaters were knit as a large mesh and oversized so as to keep them as androgynous as possible. While any change to the traditional khaki palette and silhouettes of DKNY will be a shock to that brand’s biggest fans, the duo demonstrated that they can do sporty without completely abandoning their unique aesthetic, which is likely what got them the job in the first place.
I did expect to see more diversity on the Public School runway. Out of 35 looks, only eight were worn by non-caucasian models. Given the brand’s history and strong urban history and base, I would have expected better. In past seasons, the designers have been known to walk in shows themselves. Perhaps the use of a casting agent is the price of moving up fashion’s ladder, but I still think they can, and should, do a lot better. We’re only giving them a four on a diversity scale of ten.
Still, there is a peaceful, inclusive attitude to Public School. Unlike last night’s AW show, after which most attendees were reaching for a stiff alcoholic drink, the Public School show left us with a more peaceful feeling, reaching for a cup of tea. I think this presentation confirmed that the duo were the right choice for taking over the DKNY brand. As they enter the highly corporate world of LVMH, though, they’re likely finding things a lot different than sourcing everything out of New York City. Whether they are able to remain committed to their ideals is something we’ll be watching with more than passing concern.