The cult designer broke new ground when he launched his label, Hood By Air, nearly a decade ago. After a hiatus, HBA's second act is poised to be as exciting as its first.
Interview by Martin Lerma
Shayne Oliver is ready for a comeback. His New York-based label Hood By Air changed fashion by unapologetically showcasing Black thought and queerness when it launched in the early 2010s. But the brand has been on hiatus since 2016. Platform spoke with Oliver about why now is the right time to restart HBA, what artistic experiences inform his current work and how TikTok is the key to understanding the ways kids are growing up.
How would you describe what you actually do?
I never use the term creative director because I never actually found out what that was. I think through the practice of experiencing communities, I’ve become like a community enthusiast. I think about fashion and art in those ways, how those two things make people react. It depends on the context. If I’m in a fashion studio, I’m going to move as a designer. If I’m over I’m in the studio making music, I’m moving as a producer.
There’s been a lot of discussion of your creative studio called Anonymous Club recently. What is Anonymous Club?
We’re taking our time with the relaunch of Hood By Air, and Anonymous Club is a multidisciplinary practice, a creative safe space where ideas can flourish. Then we choose how those ideas go to market. They don’t have to be judged only within the context of fashion ideas.
Since you mentioned working on the relaunch: Hood By Air’s been on hiatus for a bit. What made you decide now’s the right time to tackle it again?
Having it exist is important. I felt the need for HBA to be a voice that was promoting Black thought as opposed to it being just the narrative of a Black designer. I think it’s Black thought that creates clothing that a Black person has made. The industry always makes it about the Black designer. It’s too much of that storyline. I think now that that’s calmed down and I’m not attached to that, even though I am a Black designer and very aware of that, at least Hood By Air can be about Black thought and not just this Black designer thing.
Your work was years ahead of the fashion industry in trying to address issues of race, gender and queerness. Do you think the industry has gotten any better or more nuanced since the last time you showed?
I think some people who've been working for a while have gone from being totally rejected to mastering how everyone else is trying to move forward. I think it's really excellent that someone like Telfar has mastered that. It’s so weird that all these creative people were so connected to each other a few years ago and are now figureheads in this conversation. Virgil [Abloh] never refers to himself as a designer. These guys are Black thought people because they were rejected for so long and not being called fashion. Now, the industry wants to call what they do fashion. It’s such a huge shift, which is why I think Virgil at Vuitton works so well. Because it’s such a product-driven conversation, he doesn't have to be considered just a designer. It’s more like Vuitton has a curatorial energy to it as a brand. I’m not saying he doesn’t know how to design clothes. It’s more about what is being promoted there, which is really cool.
In general, they’re always acquiring us for our tastes instead of our talents. When it comes to fashion incorporating new conversations about people of color and queerness, I don’t think the queerness aspect is there to be honest. I think people bait gay people a lot.
What kind of art pulls you in?
Performance art has just always been a thing for me. People who use their bodies have always been related to my fashion interest. When I started doing presentations, it was about presenting something via clothes and playing with what people think something represents. In other ways, I was very fascinated when I came of age and started going to shows with how it centralized the idea of commerce for a lot of people, the way people take in ideas around the art world and how it is a mini capsule of a lot of elitist systems I have experienced in my life.
As far as the actual art, it's always been something I thought you should be paying attention to if you were also creating something. The art scene was always that thing that kept me healthy as someone who was engaging with downtown New York. My mom would consistently take me to galleries, and I grew up down the block from the Brooklyn Museum.
Do you have any art memories that really stick out to you?
I started performing for Dash Snow back in the day, and I think that got me open to doing other performances. That got me working with Rashaad Newsome. I’m not saying that’s my pinnacle of art, but that’s the experience that got me understanding it. I guess being a muse in a way and seeing how that translated in a project was interesting.
What other things, subjects or objects do you really care about?
I’m a huge music head. It got me through very strange times in my childhood. I’ve always been super obsessed with vinyl and really obscure sound. I’m old school in the way that I don’t really like objects. I think it stems from moving around in my youth so much. I have keyboards and a music set up in my house. I’m into having that stuff around. The energy of those objects really excites me.
What music have you been listening to lately?
Being a granny, I just literally go into TikTok. I like how TikTok makes song codes. I’ve been downloading all the songs and playing them in my own sets and trying to understand what that means for the world opening back up and the clubs in general. No one wants to talk about it, but clubs were getting lame before Covid happened. I’m getting into these obscure bands that existed in the late 2000s that I didn’t really pay attention to because I was so involved in fashion. It’s almost like campy youth culture in a way.
Is that an internet rabbit hole you’ve gone down lately?
Tiktok is definitely a rabbit hole for me. It’s really clever to see how the kids are growing up on TikTok. The kids are understanding the reality they’re in. I guess that’s always shocking to every generation – how much the kids actually get the world they live in. They’re taking in the information in a very visceral way that we can’t, or we can but it surprises me how much responsibility they take for their own time period. Some of it’s monotonous and there are always going to be followers in generations and whatnot, but it’s still funny to see.
Is there something you’d want to start over again?
Now that Hood By Air is finding its space and Anonymous Club is continuing this conversation, I’d want to go back to that first Hood By Air moment because I loved working with that group of people. It was so much fun, but we’re all grown up now and we can't do it. We could still work together, but it wouldn't be the same. I want to pass that torch on to new people, kids we put into residency at the studio. I still love those people and I’m still really close with them. It felt totally natural to take a break with the brand, but it stopped my practice and I hated that. I loved the process I was doing, the designs I was making. That's really what hurt about ending it, but the dispersal felt natural.