NEW YORK — At the recent Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum, the most glamorous night of the year in New York fashion, designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne were doing a little star-gazing.
They headed over to fellow (and more established) designer Thom Browne. “We totally groupied out on him,” Osborne says. “We were like, we want to take a picture with you!”
Probably, though, there were plenty of folks totally groupie-ing out on Chow and Osborne. Only two years after nearly shutting down their catchily named Public School label, they’ve become some of the fastest-rising stars in American fashion, with a dance card of high-profile fans – the powerful Vogue editor Anna Wintour among them – and expanding from their menswear base into women’s designs.
The past year has been a whirlwind. Last June, they won an award for emerging designers in menswear from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Five months later, they won the coveted CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, which comes with $300,000. In February, they held their first official New York Fashion Week runway show.
And now, Public School is up for the main menswear award at the 2014 CFDA awards Monday . They’re up against designers they greatly admire: Browne himself, and Rag & Bone’s Marcus Wainwright and David Neville.
Clearly, Chow, 40, and Osborne, 31, have found a way to stand out.
In fact, that’s the concept behind their label’s name.
“If you’ve ever gone to public school, you know – it’s a lot of kids fighting for very little space,” says Chow, who attended New York’s famously competitive Stuyvesant High School. “To stand out, you have to separate yourself and be authentic, original. Those were things we wanted to embody in our collection.”
And even though it’s safe to say that most people who can afford their high-end designs probably send their kids to private school, Chow quips: “This is definitely not a Private School collection.”
Chow grew up in Queens, Osborne in Brooklyn. But they spent most of their time in Manhattan, and they say that’s what influences their design style. It’s a style that’s bold, somewhat futuristic in shape, and mainly black. Many have called it street-influenced, but the designers resist easy definitions.
“Everybody wants to hear your elevator pitch,” says Chow. “We don’t need that.” Adds Osborne: “We just make our product, using New York as our muse.”
What that means is an ethos that’s both edgy and modernistic, says Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ magazine.
“American menswear is so often based on the classic and the preppy,” Moore says. But Chow and Osborne “are opening a different door. They’re saying you don’t have to follow the usual rules.”
A point of pride for Public School: Their clothes have so far all been made at home.
“It feels great,” says Osborne, “just knowing it’s made in New York.”
Chow notes, though, that the next collection will contain sweaters, for example, made in China.
“The plan is to keep a big part of it here,” he says. “That’s a big part of our identity. But manufacturing 100 percent of your clothes here AND trying to become a bigger business just isn’t a reality.”
The two men first came across each other at the fashion house Sean John. Chow was VP of marketing and creative director; Osborne was an intern.
The two debuted Public School in 2008 – what they now call Public School 1.0. Not satisfied, they rebooted the line in 2012.
For their promising rise since then, the designers cite the help they’ve gotten from all over the fashion world, including fellow designers such as Prabal Gurung, who has mentored them. They also note that among menswear designers, there’s a camaraderie that isn’t the same in the world of womenswear.
Womenswear might be much more competitive, but Chow and Osborne say they’re ready – though they take pains to point out they’re not abandoning menswear. To the contrary, their menswear collections will heavily influence their women’s clothes in terms of fabric and shape.
The ultimate goal?
“We want to be able to affect as many people as we can,” Chow says. “We don’t want to be a niche brand, a small label that only a handful of people know about.”
Or, as Osborne puts it: “We want to flood the world with our vision.”
“Wow,” his partner comments. “That’s poetic!”