Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne are killing it.
The Public School designers are having an awesome year, to say the least. In addition to their diffusion line, Black Apple New York, they launched a denim line last fall. They also found the time to put together an amazing collection for Fall 2013, which garnered them the Swarovski Menswear Designer of the Year Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)—which are pretty much the Oscars of fashion. Check the photos above for a look at their upcoming Holiday 2013 collection. What makes their story unique is that both Chow and Osborne are bonafide New Yorkers, born in the West Village and Queens, respectively.
While both grew up listening to hip-hop, Chow held down positions as an editor at Blaze magazines and penned articles where he interviewed rappers like Big Pun. It wasn't until he took a gig as the Creative Director of Sean John that he and Osborne linked up, leading to the debut of Public School in 2008. We sat down with the two designers and congratulated them on their recent success, talked about the evolving relationship between hip-hop and fashion, and charted their well-deserved rise to the top.
New Yorkers are known for their work ethic, and Public School has a very New York career trajectory. A lot of people aren’t aware that you guys put in a lot of work prior to the CFDA win.
Dao-Yi Chow: Yeah, absolutely. I think the main sentiment has been the idea of aspiration. Just thinking beyond what was around us. I think to myself it’s been one part courage and one part stupidity—where you want to do what you want to do. We set out doing Public School in 2008 and we put the first collection in about 3 months’ time. We had the conversation about wanting to do something, and it all happened so fast. We never really stopped to think like what would happen if this took off, or even what would happen if this business didn’t succeed. So I think part of that stupidity helped us keep it going. A friend of mine was like “That’s a hell of a five year plan.” That sort of caught me by surprise; it hasn’t really felt like five years. This was never in our plan five years ago—I don’t even think we thought about five years. We didn’t even think about the next collection. It was just collection-to-collection. I think the turning point for us is being accepted into the CFDA Incubator Program in 2010, where we had to make a hard decision and it was like “listen, we really need to plan this out.”
Dao, before your fashion industry days, you were an editor at Blaze magazine, and you wrote as Durwin Chow. How did the music industry lead you to fashion?
Dao-Yi: You got all the hard, cold facts huh? It’s like a New York love story, if you will. In my last two years at NYU, I interned with Sony when the music business was huge and everybody was rich. That was where I wanted to be. I played around making music, producing, and was a DJ. Music was really at the heart of it. Music was essentially my introduction to fashion, just from the styling, the pomp and circumstance of early '90s hip hop.
It’s really the attitude and bravado of the music that we pull from.
Being at Blaze and VIBE, my career was centered around music. And that introduced me to the idea of being able to project an image not only through sound or writing, but also through visuals. That was a big part of my upbringing, and New York has always been the centerpiece. I went to school at Stuyvesant before it became Stuy Town—I know I’m dating myself. Those were my formative years of developing this distinctly New York point-of-view, and luckily I’ve been able to carry that throughout my career. It’s like a sweet homecoming to produce fashion in New York and have the collection really be about New York—it being the centerpiece of our DNA is a beautiful thing.
During your tenure at Blaze the climate of hip-hop style revolved around “dressing tough to look tough,” which is drastically different from how rappers dress today. Did that affect the designs? The colors are dark, and masculine fabrics like leather feature heavily.
Dao-Yi: From then to now in terms of how artists dress, the underlying feeling is still the same. It's still about being original and the first and only. I think for us, a lot of our design choices are centered around on capturing a moment. That “all eyes on you” moment—that’s where a lot of the attitude comes into it. We set out to design things that are more augmentative—to make you feel stronger and more confident—things that are inside of you, but brought out by the clothes. It’s really the attitude and bravado of the music that we pull from. You can draw that parallel where our collection feels that way because we’re looking to capture that attitude.
Max, you grew up in New York too. Speaking of music, you said Jamaican music reminds you of when your mom blasted records by people like Gregory Isaacs. Did that influence you?
Maxwell Osborne: I wouldn’t say it influenced me, but it definitely brought me back. I grew up listening to all types of music, mainly hip-hop, but there was always a feeling when listening to reggae—especially old school reggae—that makes me feels safe and happy. But yeah, I grew up here in New York. I was born in the village and moved to Brooklyn at 4. My family all lived in the West Village. I went to school at PS41. In high school I ended up going to a Catholic school in Brooklyn, which my mother felt was the better move for me at that point because I was a little “loose,” and needed some structure, which in hindsight was a good decision.
A friend of mine on Instagram was like “Oh shoot, is that Max from elementary school?” and they were like “Oh, you’re designing now? That’s so crazy. You were always the creative one.” They told me I wrote this song in class in 4th grade, and I had no recollection of that. It’s funny how things come together. Nothing was planned. Me getting into fashion wasn’t planned. I have an arts school background, but I hardly went to class. And then my mother got mad at me about messing that up and then she tried to force me to be a lawyer. She paid for a semester and I never went—I got in trouble for that too. Then I started working at a Tommy Hilfiger as a sales associate.
Is it true your boss at Tommy told you that you were “too good for the job?”
Maxwell: Yeah. This lady Molly, I forget her last name. She was older. Everybody thought she was the biggest bitch, but she was kind of cool. She wasn’t really a bitch but she was focused. Before her everyone that worked there was was super comfortable and she was the new boss that came in and tried to set some rules. I was around 19 or 20 years old, I had left SVA after a semester. I just started taking the product seriously after not caring too much about it. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my life, and I started really liking clothes.
I’ve always liked clothes, but I started looking at clothes from the business side. I was brushing up on clothing design, and starting to appreciate garment construction. And then an internship arose at Sean John where a friend of mine suggested I intern there. So I did.
And that’s how you and Dao-Yi met?
Maxwell: Yeah, but we weren’t even cool then, because he was in another department and I worked in the design office. Latter on we ended up working in the same office and struck up a friendship.
Is it true that Diddy would keep lighting candles in the office?
Maxwell: Yes it is. His assistants would come and say something like “You have a meeting with Puff at 5,” and they would come light the candles at around 4:30 so the room would smell right when he walked in.
What did your time at Sean John teach you about the clothing industry?
Maxwell: I learned a lot about the sales, the marketing, the understanding of who buys the product, and the whole business side of things that you never really think about when you’re young. You can’t just make good clothes and get them out there. You need to make sure it gets produced, it sells, and you’re hitting numbers. Sean John was great for being able to travel the world, research, see all types of products, and opening your eyes up a little bit. I learned quite a lot from there actually as far as dealing with factories.
Dao, Diddy had a nickname for you right? He would always refer to you as “The Kid?”
Dao-Yi: Yeah, the night before my interview with him we saw each other out at a club and it made an impression on him. He called my future boss and he was saying: “We gotta hire the kid, the kid, that kid!” That was sort of where that came from… but Max is more “The Kid” than I am.
The whole streetwear industry didn’t exist back then. People classified brands like Sean John as “urban” wear. Dao, you were also at Mecca for a time. What was the relationship between hip-hop and clothing brands like?
Dao-Yi: During my time at Mecca, we were all kids that embodied the acronym that FUBU stood for—For Us By Us. I cringe when I hear that, but it really is true. I think it’s probably because the people at that time were specifically designing for themselves.
That’s really the idea of what Public School is: It’s our experience growing up in New York.
The music had spawned a whole new fashion industry. Going back to Triple 5 Soul, Cross Colors, Karl Kani, those brands were at the heart of it. They were the start of a multi-billion dollar industry. There was nothing like that. I remember being in high school, shopping at Patricia Fields and seeing the original FreshJive tees—that was the start of streetwear, if you will. Big business and hip-hop made that urban space what it was.
Before Public School, you had a Miami store called Arrive, where you were selling brands like Visvim and Supreme. Why head south?
Dao-Yi: That was in 2005. I had been at Sean John for five years, and I felt that I wanted to move on. That was really the precedent for what Public School would become. The store was sort of aspirational, high and low. You will see a lot of boutiques that have that mix now, but in ’05 Miami it was a rarity. We were carrying Margiela, Junya Watanabe and Comme des Garcons, but we’d also have Stussy, Supreme, and Visvim. That’s really what interested me, to be able to have that point of view and be able to combine those things. You would have to go overseas to find stores that would have that same mix. But I think it’s more less what we wanted to do with Public School.
Public School first launched in Spring 2008. You said the design process was "like you held a sword in one hand and a pen in the other." What did you guys mean by that? Does that still apply to the current creative process?
Dao-Yi: Yeah, that was sort of the idea behind Public School. We’re all students and teachers at the same time. The sword and pen represented that duality. I think that’s still very much the case.
The sword represents the cutting-edge attitude that we try to build in to the collection. And the pen—which was originally a feather quill—represents the artisan side of it. That definitely still holds true. We always talk about “finding perfection in imperfection,” that’s really our mantra. We toughen up pretty things and make ugly things beautiful. We extend that metaphor into New York City. People consider it as a grimy, hard city, but within it there’s beauty and excitement.
Do you guys think it’s the greatest city in the world?
Dao-Yi: Absolutely. New York is the greatest. It’s our muse. Every morning on the train to work is where we draw inspiration. That’s why it’s part of the namesake: Public School Made in New York. It wouldn’t be Public School if it weren’t made in New York.
In 2010 you launched the streetwear-oriented line Black Apple. What was the inspiration behind that?
Maxwell: Black Apple was actually the other name for Public School. In the beginning, the line was either going to be “Public School” or “Black Apple” and we kept going back and forth. We actually saved Black Apple to be the higher-end line, and it ended up becoming our diffusion. It started with Urban Outfitters actually. They saw Public School and really liked some styles. They wanted to see if we could do a stripped-down version of some pieces that weren’t made from real leather for their stores. So we made some samples for the showroom, and other stores saw them and ended up carrying the line too.
How did it feel to design a capsule collection for the New York Knicks?
Maxwell: A dream come true.
How did that happen?
Dao-Yi: A friend of ours who works for Madison Square Garden casually mentioned us to their head merchandiser. We went to a meeting to present and we talked about how New York was our inspiration and the Garden was our backyard. So they wanted to work with us. That was one of the coolest things done so far.
Now that the Nets are officially in Brooklyn—and their color scheme is predominantly black—would you consider working with them?
Maxwell: Nope! We’re Knicks fans. It’s funny because we both play basketball, so it kind of felt like our jerseys were hanging up in Madison Square Garden.
The CFDA win is huge on many levels. Two minority designers making a collection informed by New York and hip-hop culture clinching the award makes a statement. How did it feel to get on that stage?
Dao-Yi: That’s a great thing about Public School, the brand—and also the real public school system. Growing up in New York— that’s the reality. Everywhere you look and everywhere you go, it’s so multi-cultural. There are so many circles crossing and worlds colliding, and that’s really the idea of what Public School is: It’s our experience growing up in New York. So it’s sort of poetic justice that we were able to break through and even just be nominated for an award like this and have the recognition of our peers and the industry is amazing. And to do it on our terms and to do it with our background makes it feel even better.
We’re in an industry where it’s hypocritical for me to say: “I can do without people judging people on appearances.” That’s what our business is based on—dressing people and making them look good. But it’s about creating and sticking to your own point-of-view, and that’s the most important thing to us. The most valuable thing that we own is our distinctive point-of-view—which is influenced specifically from growing up in New York. Going to public school, doing the brand here in New York, it brings it full circle that we won. We feel extremely lucky and grateful for that.
The key is that you guys did it your way. There’s a New York Times article that talks about you guys wanting to make a 5-panel and someone saying “it was a little too hip-hop.” Now, you see guys like Kanye West and A$AP Rocky sitting front row, and Alexander Wang is playing hip-hop at his shows and parties. Do you think that cultural shift has been a boon to Public School?
Dao-Yi: When Alexander Wang does it, it’s a little bit more ironic. But when we do it, it’s more expected. In either case, music is music. I think that music will continue to influence other artists, whether it’s designers, sculptors, or writers. Music just happens to be one of those things we care a lot about and are influenced by a lot. It just so happened that we grew up on hip-hop. We can’t really say that we don’t get the recognition. We won the CFDA award, so we can’t say that anymore.
I think that hip-hop has that element about it that draws people to it. There is that pomp. There is that circumstance. There is that chest-bumping bravado. It’s about attitude and style as well as the substance, and sometimes it’s more about the style than anything else. I think that’s why artists and designers are especially drawn to it. But for us, we’ve been listening to it since we were little kids. It wasn’t like it was cool to us just now. It just feels normal. It’s not ironic if we do it, or if A$AP Rocky comes to our show, or if Jay-Z wears one of our jackets.