“Americans don’t do fashion, they create fashion apparel,” says Shayne Oliver. “Regardless of how many people try to do fashion, it lives in France.”
While bold, brash and certainly at odds with many of his fellow American designers, this perspective serves as a reminder that fashion can rise to the level of high art while apparel, even if functional, is often just a forgery. It’s a lofty vantage point, but one that Oliver can afford after a decade of acclaim as the creative force behind Hood By Air, the avant gardist streetwear label—known for its hoodies and jackets that subvert everything from The North Face and NBA logos, but the idea of street style itself—which he founded in 2006 with Raul Lopez. After a strong debut, the duo put their operation on hiatus in 2009—Lopez to start his own line while Oliver hosted the GHE20G0TH1K (Ghetto Gothic) dance party around Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. “I never really waited on anyone to validate what I was doing. It’s never really been about trying to be a fashion brand for me. When we began to evolve into the world of commerce, fashion was just a way of cataloguing the ideas we were putting forward.”
Rumors about the brand coming to a complete halt have swirled of late—and in fact, at press time, an HBA hiatus was announced—with Oliver involved in a project for Helmut Lang, and CEO Leilah Weinraub focusing on her filmmaking, including SHAKEDOWN, which is included in the Whitney Biennial. Rest assured, this is only a temporary hiatus, and the collective enterprise that fuels HBA—Oliver, Weinraub, Ian Isaiah, Akeem Smith and Paul Cupo—will continue its creative vision in the near future.
“We’ve never really been open about the business side of the brand, we were just adding value to the ideas we already feel very passionate about,” says Oliver. “I didn’t go to fashion school, but I totally understand the business now. Moving forward,” he says, “would have to be about knowing the balance with commerce and how I control it by creating new categories and markets.”
Unlike so many designers who exploit their inspiration, Oliver is friends with many of the people who have motivated his aesthetic choices. He tapped two notable non-conformists—performance artist Boychild and A$AP Rocky, who has both praised HBA in lyrics before the show (only to dis them a year later in the song Multiply which he first performed at Coachella)—to walk the runway for HBA’s Fall 2013 presentation while German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans took to the catwalk for the spring 2017 show.
“I guess it’s pretty cliché, but Egon Schiele is someone who has influenced me,” says the designer, from his atelier in Downtown Manhattan. With the runway as his canvas, Oliver is a designer channeling his inner artist—much like Helmut Lang, Hedi Slimane and Martin Margiela before him—who is consciously turning the body into moving sculpture wherein clothing is a medium much like any other. “I think shape comes from the lack there of, and is based on something that isn’t always there. With Schiele, it’s almost as if the lack of clothing in his drawings makes the shapes of the body so important.”
One might have expected Oliver to choose an artist focused intently on minimal, angular shapes—not unlike his designs—such as the massive sculptures by Richard Serra, but this mention of Schiele actually reveals a lot about the designer. Through the years, his line has often been oversized and expansively hung on the body but there is a particular level of sensitivity evident when speaking with him, exposing his relationship to the industry. Both he and Schiele could be described as deft, provocative and stylized.
During HBA runway shows—styled by Akeem Smith—the body is regarded as an interactive plane or a mirage we often associate with avatars. His focus isn’t on attraction but precision—evident with an attention to garment construction—and is in direct relationship with the people he surrounds himself with.
“There’s glamour and then there’s fashion and both are extremely important,” he says. “Without defining what fashion is, glamour is more about Darwinism and what is genetically, scientifically attractive and keeps people motivated to procreate. A lot of people think that is what fashion is, but sometimes things that are beautiful, don’t create space. I’m attracted to space.”