Top of the Class: Meet Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School

Since joining forces in 2008, designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow have redefined our perception of contemporary American fashion. The duo, who were recently appointed creative directors of DKNY, have garnered widespread industry acclaim with their own brand, Public School. Designed and produced in New York, the label incorporates elements of sportswear into a precisely tailored wardrobe in muted colours. Fresh off the plane to celebrate their latest success as the winners of the inaugural 2014/15 International Woolmark Prize for menswear, Osbourne and Chow discuss Americana, adolescence and their special capsule collection.

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How did the two of you meet?

Chow: We were both working at Sean John at the time and then we developed a friendship outside work. We were there together for maybe three years in total. I left six months before he did, and I opened a shop down in Miami – a men’s and women’s boutique. We were doing a small collection at the store, so I asked Maxwell if he wanted to help us with that. And that’s the genesis of Public School.

So, would you define Public School as an all-American fashion brand?

Osborne: We normally say it’s a New York brand, but really it’s about the mindset of cities like New York, like London, like Tokyo. I think our inspirations always come from the idea of convergence – always travelling, always seeing other things. So yes, deep down it’s rooted in New York’s energy. But that’s the same energy you get from London, Tokyo or another metropolitan city.
Chow: I think ‘American brand’ means something different now from what it did maybe 10 years ago. We first launched in 2008, and at that time we were manufacturing everything overseas. Then we stopped from 2010 to 2012. When we relaunched, we made everything in New York, in the Garment District. Looking back, I think we took it more seriously when we relaunched and moved everything to New York. We’re just sort of redefining what it means to be an American designer.

Tell us about the inspiration for Public School’s autumn 2015 collection…

Chow: Fall 2015 was really the first time we took a personal trip back to our adolescence. It’s funny, because for me that was maybe the most influential time in my life, and now I was able to reference it in my work. It was a trip talking about the collection with my friends who I went to high school with, because things that we were into then are sort of relevant now. We were wearing bigger, baggier clothes, moving around the city with a backpack and being inspired by all these technical outerwear and snowboarding companies. Reappropriating things that weren’t necessarily meant for kids living or hanging out in the city. Making it your own – that was the concept. It’s all about being influenced by the street and getting our culture at this level. Which is why coming to London feels like coming home in a way, because I think that’s how most people get their information – by walking on the street.

Was your Woolmark collection inspired by similar nostalgic memories?

Osborne: That was inspired by really understanding what wool was, and Merino specifically. We actually designed the collection based on the attributes of Merino wool and taking that to the extreme: we developed this collection based on a world where nothing but Merino exists. There is very little trim in the collection and there are no zippers – it’s a world where you have to survive with only this wool. It’s like a futuristic, post-apocalyptic take on Merino – there’s the hood that makes sure you stay warm and cool at the same time; the pants with the oversized sweater; the double layers – but still kept very Public School. We took the Public School aesthetic of playing with proportions – a lighter-weight sweater that can be long or cropped; pullover sweater vests with a high turtleneck – and incorporated it into the Woolmark collection.

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How does the Woolmark collection fit with your autumn 2015 designs?

Osborne: Our Woolmark pieces were created prior to the Fall 2015 collection. But what did come out of that was our growing knowledge of wool and Merino wool specifically. So there are some good sweater moments in our Fall collection, based of us playing around with the Woolmark collection.

What is the relationship between your menswear and womenswear?

Chow: For us, the concept is sort of one and the same. We don’t necessarily see a big distinction. Of course,
as we continue to evolve what womenswear is, I think that will begin to live on its own. But, initially, the concept was really a direct connection between women and menswear. We saw that in our everyday lives; our girlfriends would be wearing menswear, adapting menswear. So that was something that we wanted to share – share fabrics, trims, silhouettes and ideas across men’s and women’s [clothes].

Your first DKNY campaign features a Peter Lindbergh image from 1994. Why?

Chow: When we first got there, we really wanted to have a fresh start and not rely so heavily on the archives of the house. But all those original campaign images, like the Peter Lindbergh shots, were so strong and really defined an era beyond DKNY. They just grew on us.

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So you do visit the archives?

Osbourne: Yes, but for us it’s less about the clothing archive and more about the history archive. Not revisiting the garments so much, but understanding where she [Donna Karan] came from and then also bringing back those historical moments. With that Peter Lindberg image, it felt so clean and clear what DKNY was and what it represented: this New York street, this woman in this big city, ‘Exchange’ on the street sign, and knowing there was change at the time. There are so many little subtleties in that image. We knew that there was going to be no product ready to shoot the campaign and that image actually felt the most right.

INTERVIEW: Felix Bischof

PHOTOGRAPHY: Alex Nightingale Smith

Since publishing this article, Public School has presented its Pre-Fall SS16 collection in Dubai in collaboration with Cadillac. Here are three videos released on the label’s Instagram account that highlight concepts behind this new collection.

Series 1: Exploration

 Series 2: Form 

 Series 3: Construction