First impressions matter. The first time I encounter Shayne Oliver, it's at his new studio in Chinatown, where fittings for the upcoming Hood by Air show are in full swing. The scene is typically antic: looks flying on and off, assistants rifling through rails of clothes, models crowded onto folding chairs and one battered sofa. Lil Wayne blasts from a laptop and containers of Chinese takeout are scattered here and there. Somewhere in the center of the chaos is Shayne Oliver, impresario of this whole thing, leaning on a table jumbled with sports bras and hair weaves, watching the goings-on with an expression of… the only word for it, really, is beatitude.
It's not that Oliver is a saint. But he has a way of looking like one. It's a surprise to find such a quiet, unassuming man at the heart of New York's most genuine fashion phenomenon in many seasons. Shayne Oliver is a designer, and Hood by Air is a fashion label. These statements are true, but only in the way it would be true to describe SEX as a boutique in London in the seventies and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood as its proprietors. In both cases, you miss the main point, which is that people come along sometimes and change the rules of the game.
These are early days for Hood by Air, but it's not unreasonable to think that Oliver, and his entourage of close collaborators and like-minded friends, could set the fashion world topsy-turvy.
Hood by Air's signature is a hyperinflated, insistently chest-thumping logomania; on some of its early shirts, the letters HBA were blown up so large as to be unintelligible.
Oliver, on the other hand, is soft-spoken. A touch fey. As a teenager, he commuted from the rough Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York to the Harvey Milk High School, an East Village public school designed for students who are at risk in their own communities. Most of his peers were, like him, gay. Or lesbian. Or transgender. Or whatever. The "whatever" is important: One of the original tenets of the Hood by Air credo is that what you are—color, creed, gender, sexuality—is totally unimportant. It's not about tolerance; it's about voiding difference with a big shrug. You're a boy who wants to dress like a girl? Whatever.
That was an attitude encouraged in the art and club scenes Oliver found in Manhattan and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and in which he made friends like Venus X, the DJ. In 2010, she invited him to be a guest DJ at her dance party, GHE20G0TH1K, where they played hip-hop, punk, house, you name it. The GHE20G0TH1K parties were exciting—the first underground scene to emerge in New York in a long time that actually felt like a happening. Its demographics were as mixed as the music Oliver and Venus played.
Shayne Oliver is a designer, and Hood by Air is a fashion label. These statements are true, but only in the way it would be true to describe SEX as a boutique in London in the seventies and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood as its proprietors.
"I started making clothes because I wanted stuff to wear that could move between these worlds," Oliver explains. "This art world of downtown, in Manhattan, and this other world that I went home to—there are things that connect them. Brooklyn is really hustle-driven. People are always looking for something, trying to get on. But it's the same downtown. Both places, there's an interest in power. A respect for it." The label's name, Hood by Air, originated as a coinage that asserted Oliver's power through fashion: "New slang," he says, synonymous with "getting swagged out or dandied up."
At the end of the night, swagged out and dandied up, Oliver would return to East New York, a place where people weren't particularly "whatever" about things. "What saved us in Brooklyn is that people thought we were insane," Oliver says. "We'd come home at night from parties in the city wearing these crazy looks, and people wouldn't mess with us. So I guess that's why there's such an intimidation factor in our clothes. I was trying to find a look that said 'power.' People had to sense the authority."
Authority—communicated by exaggerated sizing, big logos, and in-your-face graphics—was also one of the quintessential attributes of urban streetwear. Labels such as Fubu, Enyce, and Ecko rose to prominence in the nineties in neighborhoods like Oliver's East New York. Hood by Air borrows from them liberally, and, in what is one of its key innovations, treats them as a valid jumping-off point for luxury fashion. Oliver isn't appropriating anything—this is fashion vocabulary that belongs to him already, and he's just elaborating it and elevating it and fusing it with other languages of style. In this way, his work most closely resembles that of Westwood and McLaren: He's doing for the elements of urban streetwear what Seditionaries did for DIY and studs.
"Shayne's brand really is a bridge between fashion and urban street culture and music," says Matthew Williams, a creative director who works with Kanye West and is one of the principals of DJ/fashion collective Been Trill. Williams was one of those people buying
T-shirts off Oliver in the early days, and they've gone on to collaborate on various projects, including videos for Nick Knight's online platform, SHOWstudio. "The fashion world has really looked down on the look and feel of urban streetwear, I think," Williams says. "Which is unfair and, at this point, just silly. I mean, we've all grown up on hip-hop, right? And what Shayne is doing is saying, 'Hey, this is valid.'"
As time has gone on, Hood by Air has grown beyond its T-shirt beginnings into a full cut-and-sew collection. (In a canny business move, Oliver has introduced a Classics line to keep the now best-selling T-shirts constantly on offer.) New materials, like organdy overlays and parachute fabric, gave rise to new silhouettes and sheer effects. But the graphic play that characterized the original shirts remains central to the designs. "When cut-and-sew came in, it was about making that graphic element move," Oliver explains. "Like, with color-blocking or by landscaping fonts or imagery. Even now, that graphic element is the key. If we're using zippers, we're using them in a graphic way."
"He's really clever about how he pulls the Hood by Air elements through everything, like the logo dress shirts at the show," says Jesse Hudnutt, the men's buyer for Opening Ceremony, which has been buying HBA since Spring 2012. "For us, it's not enough just to buy the tees anymore; to have a fuller representation of the brand, of its sensibility, we need some of those special pieces, too."
Hudnutt goes on to point out that Hood by Air's aesthetic influence may be starting to rear its head industry-wide.
"This [whole] season was, like, logomania," he notes. "And that's Shayne's thing. You really feel like he owns that. And I think you see him influencing people with the way he plays with who gets to wear what. I mean, a couple years ago, hip-hop guys, they wouldn't touch silk. But Shayne pushes that."
Not everyone appreciates the hip-hop association that hangs over Hood by Air. "Please," says Leilah Weinraub. "People like A$AP Rocky aren't wearing Hood because it's hip-hop. They wear it because it's punk."
Weinraub has a point. And you want to take her point, not only because she is Shayne Oliver's key consigliere and newly titled director of art and commerce at Hood by Air. She's essentially the number two, though the organization is less a hierarchy than a collective. It's hard not to notice that Oliver uses "we" when he talks about his work. In addition to him and Weinraub, the Hood by Air crew includes (but is not limited to): Kevin Amato, the multi-pierced photographer and casting director who has been shooting all HBA's collateral and casting the brand's shows and editorials since 2006; Akeem Smith, who works with Oliver on show styling and the design; Ian Isiah, a stylist as well as an aspiring musician; and a host of all-purpose ambassadors, who do a little bit of everything.
The multiplicity of Hood by Air is a key part of its difference from traditional fashion culture, with its emphasis on the singular, genius designer (and dismissal of the roles of the many others who work behind the scenes). It's this group mentality that seems to puzzle observers and may contribute to the reductive placement of HBA in the hip-hop box. "We're versed in many different languages," Weinraub asserts. "Queer culture, black culture, whatever. Maybe people need a point of entry, so they say, 'Oh, this feels hip-hop.' Okay, but that's not our thought process, it's not what we're putting into the clothes."
Oliver is slightly more conciliatory. "I can see the hip-hop thing, the street thing," he says later. "It's there. Because it's in me, I know what that stuff means because I've lived it. But I guess there's something…limiting to the idea that people see that more than anything else. I feel like that's another way of creating separation.
"These categories exist," he goes on. "There are a lot of categories. I feel like maybe they've been done to death. It's like, who cares?"
If Hood by Air isn't about categories, what is it about? "It's about beauty, a new image of beauty. And power," says Weinraub. "I think that's what fashion people are interested in."
There's no question that fashion people are interested. Between the first and second shows, a blue-chip PR firm signed HBA as a client. Suddenly, editors in chief were materializing in the front row. Selfridges flew Oliver to London to promote a new collaboration with Corgi. Nike obligingly provided the moon-boot-style footwear for the show. "He didn't seek out the 'legit' fashion world," insists Julie Anne Quay, the founder of the online platform-cum-store VFiles, which has been an avid supporter of the brand. "They came to him. Shayne is just doing what Shayne does. And he's doing it well, and it feels like the future because it is the future, and so all these established entities, they want to tap in."
"The guys in the show aren't the kind of models you usually see walking down a runway," says Kevin Amato, who casts the shows. "They're not 'fashion.' But they're our fashion. They're Hood by Air."
The question that looms over Hood by Air is what, exactly, HBA and the fashion establishment want from each other. For the moment, the two sides are regarding one another with interest, but also some wariness. Oliver and Hood by Air have brought an infusion of energy and self-possessed verve to the jaded classes of fashion. But can that spirit and independence endure if everyone wants a piece?
"They're always looking for the new, aren't they?" Weinraub says. "And that's what's new about Hood—that new image. It's like, when Boychild was in our show last season, people were like, is that a man? This is a menswear show, right? But then no one was mad to find she's a woman. It doesn't matter what she is. She's just powerfully beautiful. Or beautifully powerful." It's not irrelevant that, yes, Hood by Air is technically a menswear collection, if HBA would even acknowledge such a category in any way but technically. (Boychild, for the uninitiated, is a San Francisco–based performance artist who appeared in the debut Hood by Air runway show last season, alongside A$AP Rocky, as well as the Spring show. She, too, is a kind of member for life of Team HBA.)
"There is a conscious effort to bring in people who haven't really been represented in fashion," says Amato, who supervises all of the casting—much of it nonprofessional models. "There's a whole vibe I'm always looking for; it's very specific. Like, the guys in the show this season—big dudes—they aren't the kind of models you usually see walking down a runway. They're not 'fashion.' But they're our fashion. They're Hood by Air."
"I think I've just always gravitated to people who blur the lines," Oliver says. "Like when I started getting into the art scene, seeing Terence Koh, that made sense to me. All my friends are like that—they aren't easy to categorize. I think that's the electricity in the brand, that's what's alive in it; the people who work on Hood and people who inspire Hood, that sense of independence is their day-to-day. It's not just something they're wearing, you know?"
"My friends aren't easy to categorize. That's the electricity in the brand. The people who work on and inspire Hood—it's not just something they're wearing."
The first time I met Weinraub, we got into an argument. I told her I didn't think fashion could change people's minds. Or, more accurately, I said I had never seen a fashion show that made me reconsider my assumptions about the world.
Weinraub was aghast.
"That's crazy," she said. "Of course fashion can change people. Of course it can."
We were having a little sidebar at the photo shoot for this story. The various friends and family of Hood by Air were trundling in and out of the studio: models, both those who have worked with Hood by Air from the beginning and those who, like the supermodel Joan Smalls, are newly discovering the label; Matthew Williams, Oliver's sometime collaborator, was there with his toddler son and very pregnant wife; Virgil Abloh, who maintains his own streetwear label, Pyrex Vision, but also works on graphics for Hood by Air; members of the A$AP Mob; a few representatives of what Oliver calls "new breeds," club-kid auteurs teaching the makeup artists how to salsa between shots. And Shayne Oliver among them, that quietly beatific expression on his face.
Weinraub fixed me with a hard look. "If you can't see fashion's potential for change," she said, "then maybe that's on you. Maybe you're just not seeing."