The Hood by Air founder and fashion rebel SHAYNE OLIVER to Hans Ulrich Obrist about community, experimentation process,
and his newest collaboration with the legendary label Helmut Lang.
INTERVIEW: HANS ULRICH OBRIST
PHOTOGRAPHY: LULA HYERS
HANS ULRICH OBRISTLet’s begin at the beginning. How
did you come to fashion? Was it kind of an
epiphany, or was there any other trigger?
SHAYNE OLIVERI think it started with my family, with
the creative relationships I had with my mom
and my grandmother. They were always very
DIY, used to make their own clothes and gave
me leverage and tools to begin making my own
when I was very, very young. So I guess it all
naturally grew out of that and I haven’t really
looked back since, you know?
HUOHUO Who were your heroes when you started,
the people who inspired you?
SOWhen I first began paying attention to fashion, I gravitated towards what was popping out
of New York Fashion Weeks—which around
that time was people like Sean John, Helmut
Lang and Kenneth Cole, and on the European
side, Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. But also brands like Diesel
and this idea of making things that are personally effective as opposed to mass marketed,
because at the time, Diesel wasn’t as mass
market as it is now. So I guess I was drawn to
streetwear, but also to the people who were
doing the most outlandish things.
Later on, I began drawing more inspiration
from real life. When I came to New York, I
was hanging out with musicians, artists and
DJs, who got me into being more performative and expressive. I had transferred from
regular high school to Harvey Milk, which is
the LGBT high school, and started hanging
out in the community. I encountered so much
attitude and style and gesture and musicality,
ways of carrying yourself, and everything sort
of developed from there. The influence of that
was very, very important.
HUOSo you started drawing inspiration from
this scene, outside the fashion world?
SOTotally. I was just going to Club Lust and
hanging out with people like Sophia Lamar. I
was sucked into this DJ hell world, and I became very much into minimal and cold wave.
I got with skaters, and the crew of Dash Snow
and Terrence Koh. To be honest, even more
than the work itself, that’s really what was
important to me—the personalities I was encountering, people who had their own sense
of creating a presence. Witnessing how they
interacted with the world around them, their
take on music, culture, politics, etc., and trying
to illustrate that within a loosely based fashion
language—that was inspiring for me.
HUOYou didn’t come from a traditional design
background—you don’t sketch, you don’t drape.
So how do you work? Is it more like collaging?
SOEssentially, I like to take all my favorite
clothes and cut them up! Like, I don’t have my
own wardrobe, because when I buy something
for myself, I end up destroying it and making
something new out of it. That’s something that
I’ve habitually done over the entire course of
HBA, and I guess you could say that I continue to do it now, with the latest Helmut Lang
collaboration. What I try to do is start from
pre-existing clothes, take the emotive energy
that I’m getting out of it, blend it with my own
inspirations, and create something new.
HUOWhat would you say was the beginning of
your own brand, HBA? How did the brand name
come about? I once spoke to Albert Hofmann
and he remembered the exact day and hour
when he discovered LSD. Do you remember
the day you had the epiphany for Hood by Air?
SOYeah, I was at a party at 205, a now-defunct
club on Chrystie Street. I used to DJ and emcee
there for Aaron [Bondaroff] and Dash [Snow]’s
nights. So there was a lot of freestyle, ideas
flying around based on whatever was happening that night, or the vibe, or the song that was
playing. “Hood by Air” was one of the quotes
I took away from that night. It stuck with me,
became my mantra and never left my head. I
began living by it and working in the direction
of that vibe, that ethos. And this was when I
was 19, which would be 2006.
HUODid that name come with a manifesto?
SODefinitely. I wanted to elevate the ideas that
I felt were important and that were being taken
for granted, or heavily referenced but in wrong
ways—very distant, selfish, distorted ways that
were either over-sexualized or over-intellectualized. I wanted to really bring some reality to
it and deal with them full on, as opposed to
watering them down or exoticizing them. That
was what kept me going for a while and what
inspired a lot of the first collections.
HUOAnd what keeps you going now?
SOI felt the need to organize my past, because
essentially I was just experimenting for so long.
Now I think that I have a criterion basis, my own
templates, that I can dig into and build new,
other worlds. I think the focus should be on the
person, the individual remaining very strong.
Like, in the past few years, what happened in
New York was everyone fiddling with ideas of
gender and race and wanting to be free and
not having labels. But personally, I feel it’s time
to lock down and become more precise and
have very bold ideas rather than the bold idea
of not having one, if that makes any sense.
Maybe people miss the point of what actually
all of that work, those bodies of work, those ideas are actually about. Because sometimes
they can homogenize things and make queer
into a trend, which should never be the case.
That’s not the idea behind it.
HUOCan you tell me more about this collaboration, Helmut Lang seen by Shayne Oliver? I
remember when I spoke to him in the mid-‘90s,
he told me about the energy he got from history and the past. In this case, Helmut Lang is
the past and you’re building upon that.
SOIt was very weird, because I had been
screaming that I wanted to work with Helmut
Lang for so long, and everyone was turning
a deaf ear on me. Then all of sudden, when I
left it alone and gave up on it, I got a call from
Isabella [Burley] who had just been appointed
new Editor-in-Residence here.
To be honest, it was very hard at first, because
obviously there is such a vast body of work
that needs to be taken into consideration. So
I started by taking out my favorite pieces and
seeing if they were even available physically in
the archive, which a lot of them weren’t. Then
I began to incorporate designs from HBA that
never made it into the commercial world. And
by merging these things that may have been,
these neglected or underappreciated things,
I started to create the collection.
HUOThere’s a quote by Helmut: “It’s insulting
to men and women to insist that they fit a certain profile.” Is this something that interests you
about him, how he defied normative categories?
SOYeah, definitely. Right now, for instance, I
opened up a new category that’s essentially
unisex, taking things he did that were on that
borderline and just calling it what it is. It’s the
most open part of the collection, and I think
the most distinctive aspect of the collaboration.
The casting and choreography of the show
will have a lot to do with these ideas of the
individual versus the homogenization. I like the
notion of creating an army of people that are
vastly distant from each other, but for some
reason, they all seem like they’re coming from
the same nation or idea.
HUOYour penchant for collaboration extends
also to music. A couple of months ago, I had
a chat with Alejandro Ghersi, aka Arca, and
he told me you’re working on a collaborative
album. Can you tell me about it?
SOYeah. At the time, I was doing GHE-
20GOTH1K, an underground party in New York
I co-hosted with Venus X, but I took a break
to dedicate myself full-time to HBA. Actually,
Alejandro started out as my intern, and we’ve
been making music for this project throughout
the entirety of that, editing it constantly. So it’s
been really cool to see how the music has
evolved and how it also stays fresh.
The project is called Wench and will be coming
out the day of the Helmut show. It’s essentially
like an exorcism for myself and a lot of things
I’ve been going through, physically and mentally. I told Arca about this character I wanted
to create called “the Sexorcist,” this oversexed,
heavily bodied, curvaceous yet skeletal character that’s my alter ego on this album. Then, as
time went on, we began to humanize the music, doing ballads and things like that, so the
project is very vast; it has extremely romantic,
slow moments and then extremely repetitive,
almost mantra-like moments.
HUODouglas Gordon once talked, in reference
to his own work, about a kind of promiscuity
of collaboration: lots of different collaborations
with different fields. That seems to apply to your
work as well. For example, I am also curious to
hear more about your collaboration with Pieter
Hugo—an amazing photo project which was initially a book but then also became a collection.
sOThat was an amazing experience. It was
meant to document the collection, to be sort
of a campaign, and then it turned into so much
more than that, a project in its own right. We
went to Jamaica to photograph some members
of an exiled gay and transgender community
in Kingston often referred to as Gully Queens,
because they live in a gully (or drain) beneath
the city. These people are very reluctant to communicate with people in general and be a part
of pop culture; they are very shy, anti-American,
anti-fashion. So for them, it was like putting on a
second skin, because those sort of entities are
very uncharted. When the imagery was ready,
Pieter decided to make a book out of it, and I felt
like I needed to print them on clothing. Usually,
we try to veer away from that, but that was one
of the few moments that it felt really organic.
HUOParallel to the Helmut Lang collaboration,
are you working on anything else right now?
sOWell, I’m figuring out the next steps for Hood
by Air. It has a lot to do with personal freedom
and the exorcism of getting all these things out
of the way. After presenting the Helmut Lang
collection, and releasing this album that I’ve
been working on for the past five years, I’ll be
able to figure out what all the rest of it means
and expand on these ideas. But one thing I
know is that Hood by Air is a huge project,
and regardless of the shape it takes, it will always be a part of me. It doesn’t fade without
fashion, because it wasn’t necessarily built out
of fashion—it was built out of a thought and
experimentation process. So I might actually
open up the platform of the brand to other
people, like a residency or something.
HUOThere is also the question of the evolution
of your factory. I mean, Alejandro Ghersi was
your intern; I suppose there are a lot of exciting
interns there now. How does it work?
SOHood by Air is a community-based idea,
and Shayne Oliver is just the founder of that.
Right now, it’s moving more into a place where,
as opposed to having interns, I want to be
more of a mentor. And I don’t know if that
means we’re even going to have a physical
space, you know? I feel like it’s a waste of time.
I think that people get comfortable in a space,
and they almost become victims of the space,
when really, the people are the fortress, the
people are the institution. And I think it’s great,
because now we get to pick and choose—the
kids and talents come to us and we’re able
to nurture them. First I need to find a home,
though, because I’ve been traveling so much
and I haven’t been able to get a place! Once
I do that, I can sort of balance the personal
part of myself and the mentor part.
HUOYour base for a long time has been Brooklyn, New York. How has it changed and gentrified within the last few years? What is missing?
SOFor one, locations are missing. You’re not
really allowed space and the pricing is prohibitive, but like, duh, these are obvious things.
And Brooklyn, it’s just not the right vibe. It’s
very strange, the energy. I don’t know of anywhere that you can actually play cool music
without it having to be really cool. That’s really
a huge issue. Like, the coolness thing is out of
control at this point. I don’t really see anyone
HUONo one wants to make mistakes.
SOYeah, exactly! For instance, right now I’m
like, how about someone play rock, you know?
I’m tired of hearing ballroom scene beats, a
house remix of a pop song. I may have brought
it on myself, but even if it’s something you
like, you almost end up loathing it. Like, “Oh,
I brought this to all these people and now they
can’t get enough of it and it’s the only thing
that they listen to,” you know? That’s when you
start realizing who the real experimenters are.
huoAnd in the next generation, do you see
any younger emerging designers, artists, architects, who you’re excited about?
soRight now I like this brand, Barragán—the
founder is Mexican, in and out of New York. I
also love Vaquera. They represent very well the
new idea of ambiguity, you know? I do yearn for
a bit more preciseness from the newer younger
generation. I feel like no one is being structured—not regimented, but just like a bit structured and having some sort of singular voice,
you know? But maybe that’s a thing of the past.
When it comes to music, I’m very underwhelmed. I don’t really know anything that’s
really catching me at the moment. I think people are making their living, and they’re getting
by, and I think that’s what’s holding it back.
You may have to go broke in order to succeed,
even at a higher level. But I do feel like, again,
right now I’m also playing a corporate game
and I have a bit of an outside perspective.
huoAnd also, of course, there is an increasing
fluidity in terms of creative practice, more exchange between the disciplines. Maybe that’s
on the positive side? Now, one could potentially do everything at the same time.
SOYeah, I think so. At this present moment,
what’s cool about the way everything has been
broken down is that at least now you know who
cares about having a voice and has a voice.
Before, the mediums would sort of homogenize
things. You say you’re a painter and then you
live the life of a painter, but you’re not bringing
anything to the table. I think that those sort of
ideas are dying out. Now it’s just people who
are actually willing to work and have an opinion, and progress toward a certain viewpoint.
And then you end up having to do a lot by yourself. Like, you're trying to find a photographer,
for instance, and you can’t really do that, so
you end up being like, “Fuck it, I’m just going
to do it myself.” It’s sort of like how Hedi used
to do. Even Helmut was like one of these first
fashion curators, you know? Like, this idea of
curating as opposed to just being a designer
and sitting there whimsically designing things.
So I feel everything is about the studios now,
as opposed to the distinction of fashion, photography, etc. Which is where I want to move
things into—just having a studio and working
out of that in that way.
huoAnd do you see any place right now
where that is happening? Sometimes it’s a
club, sometimes it’s a museum, sometimes
it’s a factory, sometimes it’s a studio—that specific place and moment where things come
together. Do you see anything that you’re excited about in New York?
SOAt the moment, I don’t really know. I could
be working so much that I’m being blind, you
know? It could also be me getting old. But I feel
like that’s really needed, for sure. Something
institutionalized. A platform like Know Wave,
for example, constantly pushing ideas, is one
I consider important. What they’re doing here
at Helmut Lang with Isabella, working like an
artist’s estate, is a very interesting idea that
people should play around with in New York.
And give younger people better jobs!