We recently chatted with Dao-Yi, owner and head designer of contemporary menswear brand Public School. With stints as the Creative Director of Sean John before creating his own label — enjoying critical acclaim from editors, shoppers, and the CFDA. Public School went on to be recruited as part of the CFDA’s inaugural Fashion Incubator program. Throughout the interview Dao delves into his inspirations, but more so what lessons he has learned from owning his own brand. Furthermore he offers his opinions on New York’s relationship with fashion and hip-hop’s intersection with men’s fashion. You can read the interview in its entirety below.
Where did the inspiration for the name “Public School” come from?
We had the idea for the name way before we launched the brand. Growing up in New York and going through the public school system, the experience was synonymous with being hard-nosed, original and getting by with little resource. So we really just took that sentiment and attitude and built it into the collection. I think that name really resonates and connects people who went to public school. It’s like a badge of honor in some ways.
Your previous experience includes time as Creative Director of Sean John, in what ways has Public School been different? How has the previous experiences aided in establishing Public School?
Public School was essentially built on the same DIY spirit as Sean John. We both tried to develop something that didn’t exist before. Obviously Sean John went on to become this huge behemoth brand that crossed over to so many different consumers, whereas the Public School aesthetic is a bit more narrow and specific. We try to highlight the imperfections over making everything look super shiny and new. Sean John was the ultimate aspirational brand and I think combining high and low references really helped to develop the concept for Public School.
What prompted the decision to debut at New York Fashion Week?
We were selected to be part of the inaugural CFDA fashion incubator which essentially was an intensive two-year prep program for designers to build their brands into legitimate businesses. With the help of our mentors and the great team at the CFDA we felt empowered, as their leading emerging menswear initiative, to finally show during NYFW. In some ways showing during NYFW marks your arrival in the fashion industry but for us we mostly felt responsible to take full advantage of the program and all the resources it afforded us. It was more or less our graduating final project. Also the entire collection was produced in New York so it was only right that we debuted here.
What’s the general vibe among fellow designers?
We showed at Milk Studios this season. They select a handful of designers and assign a specific slot on the fashion calendar. The schedule is so jam-packed that there are usually 3-4 shows going on at the same time. So you really don’t have time to see anyone else’s show, plus you’re so incredibly busy getting your collection together that you can’t think about anything else. However some of our CFDA incubator neighbors who’ve been shown for a couple of seasons were super helpful with last-minute tips. Prabal Gurung was always in our studio reassuring us that everything would be great.
How does the city of New York play into the design process?
There wouldn’t be a process without it. It was important to us and the brand to manufacture the entire collection, every single piece, in New York. We worked with some factories that employed 100 sewers 40 years ago to having less than a dozen staff currently. Building relationships with the owners, pattern makers and sewers truly added color to our collection. We discovered new life and energy in buildings we had passed a million times prior and of course traveling to and from the different neighborhoods/boroughs only augmented our love affair with the city.
What are some of your favorite materials and textiles to design with?
In terms of cloth, I would say heavier fabrics like flannels, meltons and twills. I love really strong silhouettes like outwear and fabrics that hold that shape. Other than that I would say leather. I know that’s so bad to say but I really love how much character and grain each skin has. It’s lux but tough at the same time.
You went through a special incubator program, can you explain a bit more in detail what it involved?
We were one of 12 designers selected to participate in the first fashion incubator produced by the CFDA and the City of New York. For two years we shared a floor in a rent subsidized building in the garment district and were assigned a group of mentors specific to our company, ranging from Diane Von Furstenberg to Nick Wooster, who helped provide direction on everything from merchandising, to sourcing, to production, council and sales. The incubator also helped pair us with potential investors, retailers and special collaborative projects. We basically were walked into the tightly-knit fashion community and given the same resources and benefits of a CFDA member. Rarely does something actually accomplish exactly what it sets out to do and the Inc program did just that. It provided a step up for emerging designers to become big time designers with a healthy business.
How do you feel about the overall level of support for fashion in New York? The United States?
The CFDA Incubator is testimony to the fact that support for American designers is alive and well. I think New York also truly values having the fashion industry as a major contributor, not only to its economy, but to the culture and energy of the city.
What are some of the major issues small brands face when going a higher production route?
I think mainly quality and a level of production expertise. There aren’t many factories or ateliers that can make say a great full horsehair canvas jacket with hand pad stitch. That’s just the reality of where the business is. You have to know the level of quality you need and then go out to find the right partner who is willing to meet those demands. Distribution is also another issue, there are but so many stores that can carry a $2500 leather jacket and even less customers who can afford to buy it. Money is a constant reminder how tough this business is. Having enough cash flow to continually pay for production and materials and development all at the same time is not an easy thing.
What’s the transition of working in urban to high(er) fashion?
Really just breaking through stereotypes and misconceptions of not having the same level of sophistication or exposure. The part of fashion that I could live without is the constant judging of appearance and where you came from. People always want to put you in a box and if you jump out of that box, then people get really uncomfortable. You know it takes just as much talent to develop a collection for a $400 million dollar business as it is for $400,000 one.
Hip-hop has seemingly found a unique relationship in menswear. On the one hand, the dapper side of fashion has gone hand-in-hand with classic hardcore hip-hop. What are your thoughts on these two contradictory entities?
Hip-hop was the last great genre to truly establish a clear lifestyle that transcended the music. At the core of that lifestyle is to do and have things before anyone else. The inherent spirit to be first and (sound, look, talk and walk) different, although weakened over the years, still drives hip-hop artists and participants to want and claim things that either weren’t meant for or were made exclusive to them. Luxury brands have long tried to distance themselves from the hip-hop generation but interestingly enough it’s only helped to create more demand. You want what you can’t have, but in hip-hop not having what you want makes the chase even sweeter.