Shifting between a cohesive educational approach, intended mystery, and a play with misunderstandings, Anonymous Club is the newest, multifunctional, collective project by Shayne Oliver. Emerging from the gay, black subculture of New York City, and situated amid a network of influences ranging from Andre Walker to the late Virgil Abloh, the designer plays with notions of performance art, the archive, and the museum, to keep pushing the lines of the runway.
PHOTOGRAPHY: MARC ASEKHAME INTERVIEW: FREDI FISCHLI AND NIELS OLSEN
FREDI FISCHLI & NIELS OLSENWe would like to start the conversation with the notion of the “museum.” The first night of “HEADLESS: The Demonstration,” your recent project at The Shed in New York, was titled MUSEUM. Different sources from your work were staged, for example a runway showcasing early pieces by Andre Walker. We experienced it as a performative wunderkammer, or a cabinet of curiosities. We are curious, why did you decide to situate the debut of Anonymous Club and your new SHAYNEOLIVER collection in the museum space? The museum is a space of promise, but also one of problems, for example as a colonial place or with respect to its impact on mechanisms of gentrification. We think this contradiction expressed in MUSEUM would be an interesting beginning for our conversation.
SHAYNE OLIVER“Headless” had a lot to do with practice. Experimenting with the idea of what Anonymous Club could be, and capturing as much of that collective experimentation as possible in these three nights of music, fashion, and performance. The original idea for the first night, which in a way dismantled the project within itself, was that Virgil was meant to curate it with us. So we dedicated that first night specifically to his memory, and then also paid homage to someone that is still here with us, handing over an “Anonymous Vanguard Award” to Andre Walker. People tend to forget how inspired Virgil’s work was, and that he opened a conversation for people who maybe weren’t aware of different aspects of fashion. And so I wanted to shed light on someone we had in common, who was a huge inspiration for Virgil as well in terms of his storyline, and his history, his approach to design. But going back to the context of the museum, for me it really just has to do with my connectivity, my history as a creative director and working in collectives. I’ve always looked at HBA, even though I created it, as something that I was working for. And so things that I have had opportunities to work for, and engage with, and learn from—I put them within this “museum” category. To me, a museum is educational, essentially; so the term is meant to foster an educational conversation.
FF & NOThinking about collective archives, we are curious about your approach of re-seeing Hood by Air’s history?
SOIn the past, I’ve never really kept a lot of things. Because of the amount of work that was being produced, I couldn’t even afford, and still cannot afford, to keep everything. It’s a lot, a lot, a lot of work. Especially from the early days, I don’t have those artifacts anymore. So I have to speak to them through new presentations. It’s a very strange that people wait until something is extremely past tense, to allow it to be archived. I think that because a lot of people are so accustomed to looking at art in a past tense context, without the artist actually being present, there’s no respect for current archiving. But it’s so important to me to speak about it currently, because I am so attached to the work— even though I have taken a hiatus and moved on, it’s still very attached to who I’m known as.
FF & NOIt’s interesting how you explain this re-staging of your archive that is somehow nonexistent. This idea is also valid for the book we did together, titled Screensavers: Anonymous Club Archive (2017–2021). Anonymous Club expresses an enigmatic or mysterious authorship. The project shifts between a cohesive educational approach and intended mystery and a play with misunderstandings. We wonder if this is for you a strategy to overcome the idea of the self as “living currency”?
SOYeah. I mean, I’m trying to get to another place, a place that I feel strongly about. For me it’s really about finding the bearings of the things that I actually like and doing them on my own. Because if I don’t have the skill to have that conversation, then I can’t create longevity for that conversation to continue or become its own. Even with the dismantling of the HBA Collective—I don’t want to try to repeat that model, because there were people that just aren’t present anymore. And I think it’s unfair also to try to do that. That being said, I think what I’m doing here is figuring out how to be hands on with everything, without being a control freak—just treat all my projects as learning experiences. I am doing it with intention, and I’m trying to understand what spaces make sense for what I’m trying to do. When I look at fashion currently, it’s not to say that I don’t think that there are cool, amazing things happening ... But I think new people have to prove that they understand what the old vanguard was doing before them. That’s what I intended to do with HBA. And now that I have some sort of tenure in a way, I’m trying to build a seniority, be sort of anonymous and say, “I’m an institution, and look at how these things are moving in and out of this institution.” I was speaking to someone about how new kids always have to do the runway show, and it has to be straightforward, you know what I mean? The larger houses are doing the cooler things in a much more innovative way—obviously that comes with funding and all that stuff, but the ideas are more advanced in those areas. The skip line between where I’m at, and then being at that level, that middle ground is not intriguing to me. Trying to look like I’m sellable—I’ve been there. I’ve proved myself for years of sellability. Now I’m just ready to build a house.
FF & NOHow did you come up with the title “Headless” for the three-night live exhibition?
SOI think it has to do with the idea of unhinged output in the context. It’s somehow about the ridiculousness of being at an opening, and be like, “Are you going to get a performance? Are you going to get a fashion show?” But the format is unhinged. Because essentially, the monolith, the architecture is what I think is the piece, you know what I mean? A friend showed me this film Dogville (2003) by Lars von Trier, which was very inspirational to me. It’s like, the play is happening, but the set is really the important part. The way that it operates is really important, and how it’s multifunctional, this sort of thing. Weirdly, the term “Headless” essentially navigates the history of my relationship with Akeem (Smith). We came up with that term just from being silly, like using lingos from the gay subculture, the black subcultures of New York which we grew up within and out of. It’s about being able to come up with new meanings for words that embodied codes of discretion. The title derives from not having your head on, and so your body is instinctual—but it’s easily manipulated too.
FF & NOFurther expanding on the expression “Headless,” several iconic images were created out of activities by Anonymous Club. The fictional protagonist LEECH, for instance, had this distorted or sometimes deleted face. Do these depictions relate to headlessness?
SOHBA made me dislike being a public figure. I thought it was cute at first and then it became like a job. Prior to the HBA relaunch, I started going to interviews with my face painted white, because I was trying to deter them from taking photos of me. That really broad conversation was happening around blackness that for me was not in the right place. Because I don’t understand all blackness. People have different experiences in their blackness. So that led me into this space of blankness. To me, it was like creating a homogenized black story that essentially made all black people white. Anyway, that being said, the idea of the “headlessness” of it all, and like not being there, but presenting things that are very obviously present, was just something that I wanted to play around with as much as possible. I feel like Anonymous Club is closer to a technological company, than a fashion brand. Like in the beginning of Macintosh, when the idea was to create products that just weren’t there, trying to get to a place that wasn’t. But also in the sense that it’s meant to be progressive and hopefully help people to move forward in a socio-technological way.
FF & NOAs you know, one interest we have in deletion, was also how our conversation initially started with the notion of “retail apocalypse.” Deletion can also be read as a possibility for reinterpretation that the urban realm and fashion have to go through. In a way, they resonate with the reinterpretation that you do of yourself. Coming to New York recently, we witnessed the reality of retail apocalypse happening in areas like Broadway, so many stores closing and the tough situation of urban struggle for survival. We have this fascination in the fading urban realm. Before digitalization and the pandemic, there was this idea of a flâneur wandering through the city, looking at people and things. This understanding is now replaced by the internet, with the objects looking at you instead of the other way around. How important is the community and looking at other people for you in your practice? We wonder if your practice responds to the ongoing retail apocalypse?
SOYeah. I mean, to me, it’s like the idea of a boutique is in question. When I was talking earlier about this middle ground with the fashion labels, I think the aspect that really is missing is boutique. That was what was really cool about New York, that there was a lot of boutique conversation. But the way that cities are changing, is like boutiques are no longer coveted. For me, if I travel, I’m still very much enticed to go to establishments that I know are the totem pole for things. But I think that the labels that should have those totem poles are not the ones that are present. I think Telfar should have a boutique.
FF & NOWe were astonished when we saw your first SHAYNEOLIVER collection, it was unexpectedly beautiful. It expressed a romanticist notion of beauty— the looks depicted wild flowers and the models were carrying white roses.
SOYeah. I took on the role of a costume designer for the clothing. I wanted to make sure that everyone was dressed well, and that there was a story being told. It was way more Shayne-like, than anything I ever did before. Coming out of HBA, I gave a little bit of HBA direction to my Helmut Lang stuff and to all these other collaborations. Because essentially, that’s what I’m known for, and that’s the reason people want to collaborate with me. But I’m having a conversation in the open studio now, and I can really engage with bigger ideas that are just more personal. I was speaking to the experience that I had making the record with Arca, and I wanted the clothing to feel more like that. It is about the beauty within the darkness and not seeing things. We wanted people to get glimpses of the clothing more as elements of theater, as opposed to the runway.
FF & NOSince we read your work through our perspective informed by art, one reference that came to mind is Bernadette Corporation, that began as a series of parties in the infamous Thierry Mugler room in the New York of the ’90s and became an art collective camouflaged as a faux fashion label. Or there’s artist Anne Imhof, who like Anonymous Club has a hybrid approach towards installation, music, performance, and art. What is your relation to the discourse of these examples? Do you also draw from art?
SOPerformance art is extremely influential to me. I feel like it has this religious feeling to it most of the time. My connection to performance art has perpetuated my love for the concept of the runway and deterring the lines of what runway is—creating a more appropriate space geared to what you think the reality should be. So that’s really important to me.
FF & NOYou are currently working on your first art exhibition taking place at Ramiken in New York?
SOOh, yeah. It’s basically a museum show, playing off of the past work that I’ve done.
FF & NOWow, we’re curious. What an ending—we started with the museum, and we are ending with the museum.
Shayne Oliver is a New York-based fashion designer, musician, and creative director. He is the founder of the fashion brand Hood By Air and the multidisciplinary art collective Anonymous Club.
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen are co-directors of the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), Zurich.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARC ASEKHAME PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT: ANDREAS LUMINEAU CREATIVE DIRECTION: ALESSIO ASCARI