Numéro asked Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver about his rise to fame
Today Shayne Oliver is one of the rising stars of the fashion industry. The audacious chief designer at Hood By Air has developed the brand he founded in 2006 with verve and panache. Numéro met up with him.
In 2006 he was an unknown from the New York underground. Today he’s one of the rising stars of the fashion industry. The audacious Shayne Oliver, chief designer at Hood By Air, has developed the brand he founded in 2006 with verve and panache. Winner of the 2014 LVMH Special Jury Prize, he recently put on two memorable events: an experimental performance in Paris this January, followed by a New York runway show in February that read like a political demonstration. Numéro asked him about his rise to fame.
Numéro: In just a few collections, Hood By Air has evolved from refreshing outsider to major contender. How have you adapted to this change?
Shayne Oliver: When we started out, it was about people not being able to ignore us. We didn’t want people to think, “Hood By Air? It’s just a T-shirt thing and they don’t know how to do a show.” Now we’re moving into a new chapter of the brand. It’s like, “Okay, I know you get it.” I feel more confident. To be honest, I look at fashion from an outsider’s perspective. And it’s so weird to be there because we’re doing something that’s quite… angsty. [Laughs.]
Was it to avoid being labelled as an “impetuous young designer” that you immediately sought to establish a defined brand and logo?
What I hated about being called a “young designer” is that I thought it meant you’re not supposed to be glamorous and have this ideal of beauty. And I’m focusing on the beauty behind something that’s aggressive and dark, and I realize that it’s about the execution of it. Even if it’s hideous and beautiful at the same time, people will respond. I really want people to get where I’m coming from. If I do a hoodie, I’m going to do it so that you understand how important I think a hoodie is. Through the process of doing that, we’ve created our own shapes, and now I want to master those things and elevate those ideas even higher. I think that a new version of branding is to master your ideas and make them so well constructed or so well based that it becomes a luxury product and not just a fashion piece.
It seems to me that the particularity of Hood By Air, when you compare it to other newly emerging brands, is that it’s a genuine and authentic part of queer underground culture.
Exactly. I’m not a trained designer, I’m not one of those creators who’s looking to be influenced by the underground, I’m just doing what I think is important. It’s not a question of being a designer who looks at a culture and then puts it on the runway. The reality is that I can’t do anything other than this, I do what I do, I am what I am. I trained myself to do womenswear − I was like, “If you want me to do a women’s collection, I can, if you want me to sell it, I can do it.” I’m doing my own version of that.
In January you put on a very powerful performance in an underground space in Paris, rather than staging a classic runway show. What was behind this choice?
After last year’s ready-to-wear show at the Philharmonie in Paris, I was wondering, “Is this collection going to be reviewed next to brands that are very established and very commercial? Do I need to be compared to those things?” It just didn’t seem natural to HBA. Paris is very engaging and it’s also very engaged already – it’s so historical. But it can be heavy, and I felt that weight last year. It was weird, it didn’t feel special. Everything was amazing, the venue was beautiful, I just didn’t feel comfortable. It didn’t feel hands on. I felt like the venue took over, and we were just visiting. It didn’t feel like HBA is shaking the walls of the Philharmonie! But the performance that we did this year − that felt right. Everyone was working on the show, it was like the same energy as when we started out. I was operating the fog machines and DJing at the same time. Our stylist, Rich Aybar, was looking after the models, it was fun and intense. If I’d done this in New York, it would have felt like I’d already been there. But doing it in Paris felt right, and it was also a newer version of it: higher production, and the clothing was way more theatrical. We’d been doing this string of commercial events, and we were kind of losing what it was, and that just brought it all back. Now we’re going to do one collection and make it very strong. And that’s it. Before we were breaking a collection into multiple collections, and now we’re going back the other way.
Was your performance in January a couture show that dared not speak its name? What would be the right term to describe it?
I used the word “couture” because I couldn’t find another one. These looks are to work and to show, they’re not meant to be bought. We’re going to have this thing about ideas, and I don’t care what people call it or how it’s received. It’ll be like our own reference rack, and we’ll use that research and put it on the runway and make it ready-to-wear. Our reference imagery is nothing fashion. We don’t collect designer clothing, we’re not buying references. It’s purely based on personal likes: what we want to wear, what we miss, what we feel is HBA. Right now we’re starting to archive the collections. Before that, when we were looking for a sample, no one knew where it was because no one had catalogued anything. Now we’ve done that, and we see shapes that we did, and we’re like, “Oh my god, we did that?!” And we’re proud. We’re working on a collection called Legend, which will bring together all of our pieces that we think are legendary. And we’re really excited about it. When we started out, some of the pieces were so aggressive that some of us were like, “Oh! Put that thing away! Let it rest.” But now we’re amazed we did them. So that’s what this collection is going to be about. It’ll be very secretive, it’ll have a special tag, and we’re going to make it available only to specific retailers to tell the story of HBA.
Originally you were a DJ. Presumably it’s fair to say that music plays an important role in Hood By Air?
It totally feeds into the way we do our shows. I love DJing so much, I can read the energy of the room. If I want to piss you off, I’ll piss you off more, and if I want you to fall in love, I can, I have the control. If people are bored, I want to wake them up, or make them pay attention to some detail of the clothing. That’s how it was in January. I was like, “Oh my god, this is nuts! Let’s push it even further! I want more fog, let’s play this kind of music.” People started dancing behind the DJ booth. It was like I was doing a DJ set and being in a studio and at a show all at once. It really energized the team. That’s how we are all the time, listening to the most beautiful music at the highest volume!
Under the name Wench, you launched a duo with the producer Arca, who does the soundtracks for your runway shows. What role does he play in Hood By Air?
He’s been so involved, he’s definitely a soft-spoken part of HBA. Arca chooses what he wants to do − he’s excited to work because he builds his world. This freedom intrigues me. I love going to London to see Alejandro [alias Arca] in his studio. He has this sort of glass door and glass roof, and it’s like sleeping outside. I love being in that environment, and I wish I could work with him more. Ideas are going back and forth between Wench and HBA, and I think it’s really cool. We have a whole album, and I want to go to London one weekend and record even more. I want to start doing these things that feel more modern, but not in a fashion way, more in a cultural way.
Your ready-to-wear show in New York took migration as its theme, and appeared very political. Among your models was Slava Mogutin, an artist and LGBT activist.
Yes, it was political because of what I’m experiencing of the political side of fashion. Being involved in these situations that are not necessarily me. And being responsible in those situations. Holding my ground. In a way suffering, hating it, not happy in it… The “bitch” graphic came from there. Me feeling like a bitch having to be submissive in certain situations but also powerful and very much held up. It was about me coming back to New York and everyone thinking I was extremely serious − no one thought I was fun any more, no one wanted to hang out with me, because I had a business and I had to work sometimes and couldn’t always hang out. That made me almost resent what I was doing. And I was like, “Why am I doing this if my people aren’t responding positively to it or to me?” So I kind of broke down all this, it was about collapsing all those ideas again, shapes that we’d been working on, deconstructing them, making them luxe, and reconstructing them. Also I used Slava because I know him and I identify with him. He’s like in the paradigm, in the process of our office, his work is always on the blue board, constantly. He’s so political, the feminine side of homosexuality, the vulnerability of it, I think he exposes this. He’s like an old feminist. The whole process was exciting last time, it’s really where we shine. We were like, “We’re gonna do travel tags as logos and we’re gonna wrap them like they’re luggage.” We had time to do things properly, and as a result it was smooth. We’re like family now, we’re comfortable with the power we hold together. And that’s really cool.
Interview by Delphine Roche
Portrait by Harry Eelman
Touch-up: Nicole Dubach