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The Evolution of… Hood By Air

Continuing BasementApproved’s Evolutions series, Aswan Magumbe charts the evolution of interdisciplinary artist Shayne Oliver: architect of inimitable US label, Hood By Air.

Hood By Air’s Instagram account currently stands still. A blank canvas. Story highlights for previous shows sit quietly on the digital shelf. Where Bottega Veneta under Daniel Lee’s stewardship may have abandoned their participation on Gram in protest against the current state of fashion and its insatiable appetite for newness, brands like Hood By Air (or HBA as it’s commonly stylised) have also chosen to forgo the endless content slog and forged a new path on their own terms.

Shayne Oliver’s Hood By Air crept up on the fashion industry like a Trojan Horse, combining an undeniable vision of luxury with a subversive agenda to disrupt the status quo; ushering in a new generation of diverse talent, all demanding to be seen. Dreamt up in 2005 by Shayne and fellow Ballroom performer, Dash Snow, HBA was founded a year later in a partnership with designer Raul Lopez. If you only get one come up in this game, Shayne’s is the stuff of legend. The label almost instantly blossomed into a metaverse of community, fashion, and performance that would elevate the very idea of streetwear in the minds of the industry cognoscenti. Credited by Virgil Abloh as ‘ushering in a new era of American designer,’ many ascribe the ascent of collaborating streetwear brands BEEN TRILL and Pyrex Vision to Shayne’s HBA paving the way. His carte blanche refusal to play by the rules of fashion’s old guard laid the foundation for a new archetype of  tastemaker to emerge; the point of ignition for a veritable rocketship that led to Virgil becoming the first African-American designer at the helm of a storied European maison. Raised by the bright lights and largesse of Ballroom and club kid costumery, it was only a matter of time before his ascension through dance hauses and nightclubs like GHE20G0TH1K would allow a house of Shayne’s own to take shape.

Evolution of Hood By Air - BasementApproved - Feature - Hood by Air x Pyrex Vision x Been Trill products
Evolution of Hood By Air - BasementApproved - Feature - Black and white images from HBA look books

Studying Performance Art at prestigious New York University, Shayne was surrounded by fashion and art and not long into his academic journey he began combining these passions. Initially modelling garments for his own performances, these fashion statements quickly evolved into ready-to-wear collections that garnered critical acclaim despite their rudimentary techniques and fabrications (echoing the raw talent that saw industry heavyweights like Alexander McQueen and Zac Posen catapulted from relative obscurity onto the world stage). And then the tastemakers caught wind. Remember Rihanna’s pink Lara Croft moment at the 2016 VMAs performance? Shayne absolutely understood the assignment. This collision of a quintessentially American HBA ringer tee with girdled chaps remains one of Shayne’s most iconic moments to date. If you haven’t seen it, where have you been? Other noteworthy stans of HBA include streetwear moguls Kanye West, Virgil Abloh and Travis Scott (a trifecta which have become a de facto kiss of life for fledgling fashion labels). HBA found additional support from A$AP Rocky (although that relationship turned sour) and designer and fellow CFDA Award winner Telfar Clemens (yes, that Telfar) who also modelled at Shayne’s earlier shows.

Shayne’s first presentation for HBA was held at Terence Koh’s A.S.S gallery in Chinatown, New York and was a performance-driven fashion spectacle for the history books. A radical queer aesthetic hung above the performance like a glittering ballroom chandelier. Some of the scenes even mirrored Jennie Livingston’s 1990 ‘Paris is Burning’ documentary, an iconic document of queer culture on film. But behind the visual majesty, the deeper significance of Shayne’s work was finding its footing; shifting the gear on streetwear from a lifestyle ideal to become an art and design movement with its own gravitas and cultural clout. The show was so influential it saw Shayne lauded, ‘the 21st century Andy Warhol,’ by The Guardian

Evolution of Hood By Air - BasementApproved - Feature - Rihanna wearing HBA to perform at the 2016 MTV VMAs

True to his streetwear roots, Shayne’s first HBA drop was a run of screen-printed t-shirts. Setting HBA apart from the beginning, the designs were loud and experimental, often playing on recognisable motifs in pop culture such as the Warner Brothers’ logo (many seasons before corporate fashion irony from labels like Balenciaga and Vetements became mainstream). It would only be a matter of time before this strong streetwear foundation would hybridise into a high fashion fusion, colliding two fashion subgenres that had previously been considered oil and water. Shayne’s growth with HBA was the fashion equivalent of the perfect plaintiff: an essential case study to demonstrate just how timeless and credible streetwear is and can be. In an interview with The New York Times’ senior fashion critic Vanessa Friedman, Shayne said, “I think you really have to understand your own pace. Streetwear has been doing that, which is why I think streetwear is so modern now.”

Of course, this pace has become a focal point for the brand. Despite the announcement of a new collection titled ‘The Prologue’ and campaign images released this past July featuring supermodel Naomi Campbell, the brand’s four-year hiatus from 2017 – 2021 (during which Shayne enjoyed a well-recieved season as designer-in-residence at iconic NYC label, Helmut Lang) is further testament to Shayne’s determination to participate in fashion on his own timetable. With time, and perhaps maturity, the intention for HBA has evolved. The mood boards are less plastered with fierce sketches and ferocious references and are more focused on Shayne’s introspection and his analysis of who the HBA customer is and what they embody today. Having recruited the expertise of i-D’s fashion editor and stylist Carlos Nazario, HBA is in the perfect position to ride the wave of their reentry and truly dominate the season’s ahead.

Evolution of Hood By Air - BasementApproved - Feature - Naomi Campbell in the Hood By Air campaign

Perhaps this is best evidenced by the sense that early HBA was ahead of its time in many ways. Credited as a defining force in the modern-day gender fluidity that shapes streetwear culture (and global discourse) in 2021, inclusivity has been built into the very fabric of the label and rings true to the audience and not as part of some negligent marketing strategy. As a Black gay man, with a twang of Trinidadian in his accent, Shayne knows what it means to be an outcast. But growing up in the frenetic multicultural hub of Brooklyn, New York (and attending Harvey Milk High School – a school designed to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth) Shayne’s nourished creativity provided him an escape hatch. A chance to step out of the box he’d been put in and fight for a seat at the table. And it’s a seat he wants to share, recognising that HBA has become a voice for this generation, one that encompasses all the good things about fashion and isn’t afraid to challenge the outdated systems the industry was built on.

Who knows what Hood By Air will drop next, but Shayne and the HBA family are taking their time. With a captive audience, the cosign of a litany of cultural icons, and the requisite vision to truly say something with his work, HBA is almost destined to succeed. But high-level creativity is a process and, unlike many of his contemporaries, Shayne is in no rush…

Evolution of Hood By Air - BasementApproved - Feature - A selection of Hood By Air products

Written By
Aswan Magumbe