Designer Shayne Oliver is standing in the doorway of his white-walled workspace on the Lower East Side looking far more unassuming than any of the sexually ambiguous street toughs and beautiful boys who have come down his runway. Of modest height and with a slender build, Oliver wears a black American Apparel T-shirt, a pair of black trousers that he’s still tweaking and a thick chain necklace. His eyebrows are shaved in a patchwork pattern.
Oliver’s fashion shows for his label Hood by Air are an explosion of counter-cultural ideas, menacing artificial fog and music that reverberates like a sonic blast. But here, on Hester Street, things are virtually sterile: Industrial tables are cluttered with iMacs; a to-do list of yellow Post-its covers several square feet of a wall; a photographer is silently shooting a pair of shoes and the sweet voice of an operatic soprano spills from speakers.
Oliver and his team are in the process of transforming street-bred T-shirts from white-hot Instagram posts into a luxury brand.
“We’re trying to find the archetype of what a modern brand is,” Oliver says.
Hood by Air, still in its infancy, takes the attitude and obsessions of the street — sweatshirts, jeans, sneakers and logos — and elevates them into something loftier and more luxurious. Interest in the clothes has been rapidly “trickling up,” as Oliver puts it, to fashion’s establishment and influential hip-hop artists like A$AP Rocky and Kanye West, who are both fans.
Hood by Air also reflects Oliver’s personal history. The self-taught designer and DJ was born in Minneapolis but spent his formative years in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he still lives. Yet he speaks with a hint of a musical Trinidad accent, rather than a Brooklyn drawl, because he also lived in the Caribbean for a good part of his youth. He is an only child who was raised by a single mother, which gave him a good deal of alone time to talk to his “air friends” and “get heady,” he says. He is also black and gay and has been out since he was about 13 but, no, he didn’t feel bullied because, “I’m pretty thick-skinned.”
These, Oliver says, are the essential elements of his life — at age 26 — that have shaped Hood by Air.
The brand did not enter the fashion sphere quietly. It strutted in off the street full of bluster and confidence. In his first runway show, for fall 2013, Oliver created a stir by using models in a diverse range of ethnicity, body type, carriage and mood. With the show’s dramatic lighting, it was challenging — if not impossible — to tell the men from the women. And in a way it didn’t matter, since they were all dressed from the same pile of clothes.
The music was audacious, more like aural expressionism than anything melodic or linear. A$AP Rocky walked in the show and punctuated its finale. When it was over and Oliver had taken his bow, the audience stumbled out into the streets of New York with the dizzying high that comes from having witnessed something new and fearless.
Over the next two seasons, Oliver continued to use the vernacular of fashion and the formality of the runway to offer provocative and layered commentary on what it means to live in his world where disparate communities bump up against each other on a regular basis; where sexuality is — and is not — identity, and style matters deeply.
And then, this spring, he presented a thoughtful exegesis on gender, race and status that rattled the fashion world, making retailers, editors and corporate moneymen perk up.
“The line really blew up in the last 18 months,” says Robert Rosenthal, buyer and co-founder of Next, a group of five boutiques in northeast Ohio specializing in up-and-coming brands. “He had the right people wearing it. And the look was extremely fresh.”
The brand was hard to find. The fashion elite loved it. It had buzz. “Sometimes that can be more important than the aesthetics of the product,” Rosenthal says, “but this looked unique.”
When Oliver presents his spring collection in New York on Sept. 7 — and a second iteration of it in Paris a few weeks later — he will continue his esoteric ways, diving down a rabbit hole to explore Freud’s id, ego and superego with clothes inspired by underwear. Says Oliver: “It’s like fetishizing these things we put on all the time.”
In his work, fashion is the medium, and the message is both complicated and personal. The aesthetic comes from “me being a queen around a bunch of downtown skater boys. . . . [I’m] noticing the difference between social backgrounds, but people who are rich and people who are not wealthy are digesting the same ideas,” Oliver says.
He ruminates about the fluidity of gender and sexuality; the connection between the street punk and the effeminate party boy; the poor kid from the boroughs and the well-to-do folks living uptown.
Oliver’s style is free-flowing — more organized than a stream-of-consciousness collage but just as loose. The collection includes zipper embellished jeans, leather jackets with intricate lacing, suede cargo pants, lush computer-generated prints, flowing skirts and all manner of gear emblazoned with the Hood by Air logo: HBA.
Oliver was still a student at Harvey Milk High School when he began taking art classes at New York University and showing an interest in fashion. “I grew up being influenced by brands. I was drawn to designers with that crazy identity, people like Helmut Lang and Raf Simons.”
After graduation, he was encouraged to enroll at the Fashion Institute of Technology — but his stay was brief, barely a few weeks. The fashion school, he says, “wasn’t about ideas; it was about gaining skills.”
“I never claimed to be a designer,” Oliver explains. “My interest doesn’t come from wanting to create the nicest cut. I want people to look good, but I don’t sketch. I don’t drape. I just recently started fitting.
“I’m kind of going backwards,” he admits. “I have a [dress] form, but it’s sort of for the team.”
That team is made up of a handful of friends, along with three outsiders, who produce the self-financed line — a tight group Oliver calls “the family.”
Oliver’s world is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s “factory” in the 1960s — with musicians, artists, dancers and designers all socializing and influencing each other, says Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president in charge of menswear for Barneys New York.
“Youth culture remains a vital source of inspiration today, especially when it comes to fashion,” Kalenderian says. Oliver “taps this nerve so powerfully. . . . His clothes are a sensation, and like other fashion artists today like Marcelo Burlon [of County of Milan] and Virgil Abloh [of Off-White], they are creating a universe of pop-culture in fashion that is very current and electrifying.”
Within the Hood by Air family, one friend serves as the closest thing the company has to a president. Others, including Venus X, Arca and Total Freedom, produce the music that drives the shows. Another created the bombastic aesthetic mash-up of fashion tribes. Ian Isiah is the brand’s ambassador.
“He found me in the club like Jesus found the disciples,” says Isiah, 25, only half-joking.
“We found each other because we were like each other: black and gay and from Brooklyn,” Oliver says.
Isiah’s job, in part, is to wear the Hood by Air brand in public. And he does that quite well. Isiah is a singer and has significant stage presence even when his tall, lean figure is folded quietly into a chair. His black pants, with the HBA logo near the knees, are paired with black boots, a black T-shirt and a black leather jacket. His eyebrows are dramatically shaved into a patchwork pattern — just like Oliver’s.
Hood by Air began as a notion in Oliver’s imagination, and long before there was a brand or even a first collection, there was a name. “People were asking, ‘What are you working on?’ A brand called Hood by Air. It’s always an idea first,” Oliver says. “The way you put on something rather than what it actually is.”
The name refers to taking an outsider’s look — or at least a bird’s-eye-view — of life in his community. An aerial view of the ’hood. It also refers to getting dressed and looking sharp. “It was being on the outside looking in at society, living in Trinidad and looking at America and seeing what’s cool and what’s not.”
For Isiah, Hood by Air is rooted in identity. “It’s about not changing who you are even when you’re stepping into a new environment, but allowing this new environment to understand you,” he says.
The first product appeared in 2006. It was a $75 T-shirt with the word HOOD printed in large letters — so large they read as stripes. Oliver sold it to a shop across the street — a $75 T-shirt in a store that specialized in $20 ones. The collection grew from there. With $4,000 and a friend with connections to Dominican tailors, Oliver created a small collection. Then the friend moved away and everything stopped.
The break was useful because even though Oliver didn’t really consider himself a designer, he was learning the hard lessons that most every designer faces. “We were thinking you put [the merchandise] on the rack and the magic just happens,” Oliver says. “Now we understand that’s not the case.”
The brand returned at a time when logos are once again desirable and street style is of particular fascination — not just finding inspiration in it but in actually elevating it so it exists in the luxury world. Hood by Air is expensive. A sweatshirt goes for a little more than $400. A coat can cost $1,500. “Collections like HBA are clearly feeling the pulse of what this consumer is hungry for,” says Barneys’ Kalenderian. “And the high sell-outs of new deliveries are proof.”
Hood by Air offers a new take on luxury and forces a reassessment of how the culture defines status — and even who gets to write that definition.
“On the Upper East Side, a lady wears [Louis Vuitton] and people respect her. In Brooklyn, somebody wears Timberlands, really baggy Levi’s and a plain white T-shirt and a Gucci belt and you think that person is really fly and has their [act] together,” Oliver observes.
“As a kid growing up, I loved logos, so it’s really exciting for me to have a logo,” he says. “I don’t want to step back from it. I just want to know what it means for me. Can something be pushing to be smart and still be logo driven?”
Hood by Air has attracted the attention of fashion’s king makers. It was on the short list for the first LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. Sponsored by the French luxury goods conglomerate, the competition exposed a dozen finalists to top designers, editors and business people. Oliver didn’t win the top prize, which came with a 300,000 euro (about $390,000) award. But he received one of two special prizes that included 100,000 euros (about $130,000), as well as a year of mentoring.
The payoff has been in receiving help from LVMH to clear hurdles such as accounting and sourcing. Oliver’s success also means seeing his ideas digested by others in the fashion industry and working hard to remain distinct.
“Once a look works, you’ll see it up and down the food chain,” Rosenthal, the retailer, says. “He’s doing high fashion stuff now, trying to fit into the category of Rick Owens and Raf Simons. That’s a hard world to fit into.”
But if he manages to do so, Oliver very well might change it.