ON THE OCCASION OF NYFW, AS A PREVIEW OF KALEIDOSCOPE’S UPCOMING FALL/WINTER ISSUE, THE HBA FOUNDER AND FASHION REBEL TALKS COMMUNITY, EXPERIMENTATION PROCESS, AND HIS NEWEST COLLABORATION WITH THE LEGENDARY HELMUT LANG LABEL.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you come to fashion? Was it kind of an epiphany, or was there any other trigger?
Shayne Oliver: I 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?
Who were your heroes when you started, the people who inspired you? Did you have mentors?
When 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.
So you started drawing inspiration from this scene, outside the fashion world?
Totally. 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.
You 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?
Essentially, 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 emotion or the emotive energy that I’m getting out of it, blend it with my own inspirations, and create something new.
What would you say was the beginning of your own brand, HBA? I remember when I was a student in the early ‘90s, I met Helmut Lang a few times in Vienna. He was one of the first people I met in the fashion world, and he always told me this idea of having a brand but not having stores. He was kind of obsessed with it.
Well, I think it’s already so hard to exist in an age where everything is so fast and vast, and there’s so much offering, that you have to focus on what you’re really trying to convey. The job of selling is really not that of the designer, to be honest. There has to be someone who works with you who can take that energy and translate it into a retail idea. I think that’s why retail is failing so vastly—because no one is actually really caring about the ideas of the designers that they’re interacting with, you know what I mean? That’s why I think it was really important that Helmut was proposing these ideas when I was coming up. It was cool because I was working with intimate store settings, like skater stores and stuff like that, where the product was obviously special because it was unlike anything else they had. It allowed me to really feel out who was important to me, what I cared about, what I didn’t, and which customer I actually wanted to interact with.
At LGBT high school, I encountered so much attitude and style, and everything sort of developed from there.
How did the brand name come about? I once spoke to Albert Hofmann and he knew the exact day and hour when he discovered LSD. Do you remember the day you had the epiphany for Hood by Air?
Yeah, 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. I had been working on something else with a different name, but that 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.
Did that name come with a manifesto?
Definitely. 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.
And what keeps you going now? What is the most exciting thing in 2017?
I 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. It’s very like, “Whatever, you can’t put your finger on me.” 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. I think that individuals are very important, and that gets lost in the mix. 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.
Can you tell me more about this collaboration, Helmut Lang seen by Shayne Oliver? I remember when I spoke to him, it must have been 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. But you’ve got also your own past and energy, so I was wondering how these connect and how you’re approaching this project.
It 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. 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. So 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.
There’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?
Yeah, 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, and the relationship between the two. A lot of the things that we’re doing are undergarments being used as day-to-day items, so the bra becomes sort of an ambiguous accessory, and you can either interact with the femininity of it or you can wear it casually. And the same goes for the suits, the boots, etc. It’s very in my world, in that sense. Also, within HBA, 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. But in this case, I’m doing more of an homage to Helmut by having real women and real men take part in the runway show. I think that’s where it’s going to get racy and interestingly complicated—when these Helmut characters begin to interact with the casting that we’ve created for the presentation.
I opened up a unisex category for Helmut Lang, taking things he did on that borderline and just calling it what it is.
Your penchant for collaboration extends also to music. A couple of months ago, I had a chat with Alejandro Ghersi, aka Arca, who Björk introduced to me, and he told me you’re working on a collaborative album. Can you tell me about it?
Yeah. At the time, I was doing GHE20GOTH1K, 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.
Douglas 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.
That 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.
Parallel to the Helmut Lang collaboration, are you working on anything else right now?
Well, 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.
There is also the question of the evolution of your factory. I think it’s interesting how often, when an enterprise becomes successful, it brings people in as well as out, moving on to their next personal adventure. I mean, Alejandro Ghersi was your intern; I suppose there are a lot of exciting interns there now. How does it work?
Hood 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.
Your base for quite some time has been New York City, specifically Brooklyn. How has it changed and gentrified within the last few years? How do you see the city now? What is missing?
For 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 homebody, and I really think it needs to break out of that if it wants to become a hub for creativity. 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. No one has that place where the idea of just chilling out is a real idea, you know what I mean? Like, the coolness thing is out of control at this point. I don’t really see anyone being weirdos.
The problem is that no one wants to make mistakes.
Yeah, 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 mean, 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.
And in the next generation, do you see any younger emerging designers, artists, architects, who you’re excited about?
Right now I like this brand Barragán.
Like the architect, the Mexican architect?
Yeah, and the founder is Mexican, too, 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, you know what I mean? In order to maintain that, they need to maintain a certain level of attendance and crowd. And I think that’s what’s holding it back. It’s like a very valid point of why people would keep going in the same direction, you know? But I don’t think it’s good for anyone, including them. You may have to go broke, you know, in order to succeed, even at a higher level. I think that is the thing right now. I don’t know. But I do feel like, again, right now I’m also playing a corporate game and I think I have a bit of an outside perspective.
In New York, the coolness thing is out of control at this point. I don’t really see anyone being weirdos.
And 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? Someone like Helmut left the fashion world to become an artist. Now, one could potentially do everything at the same time.
Yeah, 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. I think before it was like, the mediums, they would sort of like homogenize things. You know, you say that you’re like a painter and then you live the life of a painter based on the fact that you’re actually delivering that way, but you’re not bringing anything to the table and you can kind of get by on doing that. 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, I’m 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.” So you begin to create this thing. 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 this thing as opposed to just being a designer and sitting there whimsically designing things. So I feel like, it’s almost like studios, as opposed to the distinction of fashion, photography, etc. It’s just a studio, which is where I want to move things into—just having a studio and working out of that in that way. That seems like the most positive at this point.
And 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?
At 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!
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LULA HYERS