Fashion's Whiz Kids

updated 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

For two guys whose whole world is clothing, they're pretty blasé about dressing themselves-or getting dressed at all. Some days designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez (whose loft in Manhattan's Chinatown serves as home and workplace) stay in their boxer shorts while they're conjuring up women's wear for their hot label Proenza Schouler (christened after their mothers' maiden names). Nor do they do much preening on the nightlife circuit. At the end of a 14-hour day the duo (both 25) are apt to collapse in front of the TV with roommate and business partner Shirley Cook, 24, to watch Animal Planet. As McCollough explains it, "We're just like kids...we're definitely laid-back when we have free time."

But the Real World vibe belies the team's status among trendsetters. McCollough and Hernandez, who graduated from New York City's Parsons School of Design just a year and a half ago, have been discovered by posh stores including Neiman Marcus in the U.S. and by celebs including Demi Moore, Kristin Davis and Marisa Tomei. "It's crazy but we try not to think about it," says Hernandez. "It's just awesome that we can do what we want to."

Their most sublime—or, perhaps, surreal—celeb moment: dressing Moore for a Vogue shoot last summer. The photographer snapped Demi reclining on a table as the pair sewed her into a sequined top. "Amazing!" says Hernandez.

Though they're a "great team" who happen to be "fantastic together" (in the words of McCollough's doting mom, Joan), their early years were very different. Hernandez is the only son of Fulgencio, an oil company rep, and Estella, a beauty salon owner, both Cuban immigrants. Growing up in Miami, he spent much of his time hanging out with Estella at her salons. "All there was to do was to sit reading Vogue, Elle and Cosmo," says Hernandez. "That imagery got stuck in my head."

Not until 1998 did he enter that world, though: On a visit to New York City, the premed student at the University of Miami met some designers and began to see fashion as a real-life industry. "I thought, I can do that,' " he recalls.

Transferring to Parsons that fall, Hernandez found himself in the same circle as McCollough—a "hippie kid" from Montclair, N.J. Creative from the start, McCollough (the son of Huston, a retired investment banker, and Joan, a housewife) had attended Walnut Hill, an arts school near Boston, and perfected his tailoring skills with a sewing machine his mom bought him when he was 14.

At Parsons, McCollough and Hernandez discovered that they shared an aesthetic—and a desire to explore the fashion world. After internships with designers (McCollough with Marc Jacobs and Hernandez with Michael Kors) they teamed up on their final project—a minicollection that caught the eye of Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barneys New York. Though they were fledglings, Gilhart bought the line for fall 2002. "Their clothes are very sophisticated, very urban," she says now, "but there is an ease to them. Jack and Lazaro are lanky and easy, and there's that feeling in the clothes too."

The pair worked frantically to produce that first collection. Once they hit Barneys, "all the stores started coming to us," says McCollough. These days their creations are selling from $270 (for shirts) to $10,000 (for a patent-leather raincoat). And their names are whispered—along with Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs—as possible replacements for Tom Ford, who left his post as Gucci's creative director.

Even if they never run a legendary fashion house, Hernandez and McCollough have a lot to be happy about. But better even than the recognition and the brushes with celebrity, they agree, is walking down the street and seeing Proenza Schouler on a stranger. "You know they splurged," says Hernandez. "They spent $500 on a skirt, which is a lot of money, because they love what you do. And that is a really cool thing."

Allison Adato. Rebecca Paley in New York City

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