“I started the collection in a kind of selfish manner,” says Max Vanderwoude Gross, about how he launched Proper Gang just over a year ago. “I have certain aesthetics about clothes that I could not find in the marketplace. So I set out to make what I wanted to wear. I want clothes that are simple and approachable.”
Gross, 26, was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and grew up in the Washington D.C. suburbs of Maryland. As a youth, he worked as an auto mechanic and demonstrated his early entrepreneurial spirit by briefly helming a custom T-shirt business. “As an adolescent,” he admits, “I had wandered onto the wild side of gang activity and seriously considered joining the Navy rather than pursuing college.”
Thankfully, he enrolled in the Parsons Design and Management Program instead, and moved to New York. In addition to school, he began working part-time at Opening Ceremony, first in the office of Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, then in the showroom that represents young designers hoping to start their own collections. Soon after, he was part of the ACNE team that opened the Swedish brand’s first flagship store on Greene Street, advising in sales and customer service.
After graduation, Gross became a manager in production and sourcing, handling all the logistics for a New York-based menswear company. At the same time, he continued his studies, taking classes in management at NYU and product development at FIT. “I have never taken a fashion design course,” he says. “It’s been mainly business.”
Opening Ceremony bought his first showing of original samples—streamlined cropped and slightly boxy jackets and shirts, pique polos, and heavy cotton pants cut just above the ankle in bright blues, sharp greens, whites, and blacks—for their New York, L.A., London, and online stores last spring. (“I didn’t have the resources to do a trade show so it was by word of mouth.”) All the jackets, shirts, hoodies, and polos—cut to fall above the natural waistline—and pants, in cotton or fleece—cut above the ankle—accentuate Gross’ affinity for unique and timeless garments without added fuss. The clothes are made in the U.S.—some locally—with fabrics coming from all over Europe and Asia.
“I want Proper Gang to be an American brand without necessarily resorting to heritage, to sportswear, and to hip-hop,” says Gross. “The name, Proper Gang, has significance for me, since
I was in a gang as a youth. While gangs can be viewed as negative, a gang can also provide the sense of a chosen family that is united in its rejection of social norms, its selectiveness of membership, and its creation of a unique language. But in the end, it’s just the name of my gang.” Of the brand’s logo—the empty quotation mark, the double halo, and the dollar sign—Max says he created it with his sister, a graphic designer, to convey a design that “takes you to a particular place in which meaning is present but it’s based on your own association. You end up possessing the experience, by attaching your own meaning to it.”
“Street culture and style is real,” he argues. “It’s youth; it’s exploration; it’s expression; it’s rebellion; it’s individuality. It’s a mash-up and re-purposing of what is served up by the media machine as mass culture. It’s about taking what you like, trashing what you don’t like, and fucking around to come up with your own formula.”
Was streetwear more interesting in the late ’90s than today?
Back in the ’90s, streetwear felt more unique, authentic, and less aware of itself than it is today. Now, in the age of the Internet and the corporate hand scrambling to grab hold of anything that speaks to the millennials, it’s hard to maintain something that remains cool. There was something grassroots; there was a sense of discovering something new. Now everyone has access to everything all of the time. And that moment of newness is fleeting.
What music influences you?
I listen to a lot of different genres of music, but if I had to choose one to highlight, it would be hip-hop. It’s less about the related fashion and all about the attitude, the rebellion, the beats, and the streets. The subject matter feels anarchistic. I identified with that most growing up and still do.
Do you think athletes have as much of an influence on fashion today as musicians?
I don’t think athletes themselves have much influence on fashion today. Rather, I think the athletics and the athletic uniforms have influence on fashion. The material, the style, the functionality, its close ties to the streets have been a major part of hip-hop fashion since it started, and now everyone is doing a rendition.
“It is very hard doing this by myself,” he says, about launching a fashion business without serious financial backing. “I am still learning each day and finding the direction for the brand. The business side is most difficult.” However, Gross says he isn’t in a great hurry to find a partner, and only if he finds someone who understands his work and approach.
Yet, in a mere three seasons, Gross’ cropped silhouettes in easy pieces—made with really nice fabrics—signal the emergence of a signature style for Proper Gang’s clothes. For now, the brand remained off the radar of mainstream fashion. Whether Gross can evolve his style sufficiently in order to compete in the tough arena of the menswear market depends on how fine-tuned he remains to the fast-changing vibes of the street and high-fashion, yet retain his own signature interpretations.
Photographer: Oliver Kearon.
Style Director: Long Nguyen.
Associate Fashion Editor: ZaQuan Champ.
Models: Dorian Cobb for DNAmodels.com, New York and Taejahn Taylor for Requestmodels.com, New York.
Location: Dreamhotels.com, New York.
Grooming Notes: Daily Moisture Defense Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 15 by Lab Series for Men. Hair Building Fiber by Toppik.