I wasn’t supposed to go to the Fall ’15 Hood By Air show, which the pioneering New York brand held in the bowels of the New York Stock Exchange. I was a style assistant at the time, and though I went to a handful of presentations, Hood By Air was a big deal, reserved for the style editor. Who that Sunday morning (Hood By Air had the ecclesiastical habit of hosting its shows at noon on the seventh day) got on the train in full fashion week regalia only to immediately get off again, holding back a mouthful of vomit with both hands. “Go to Hood By Air,” she texted me. “Get pictures.” I sprinted out of bed.
Shayne Oliver, the baby-faced genius behind the brand, was born in Minnesota, spent his early years in Trinidad, and eventually settled, with his mother, in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Fascinated with reworking traditional uniforms (of masculinity, of wealth, of sexuality) from an early age, he founded Hood By Air in 2006 with Raul López. Within a year, Manhattan boutiques were carrying the brand’s coveted graphic t-shirts, which sold at $200 a pop. By 2009, the brand was put on ice: López left to found his own brand (Luar Zepol) while Oliver concentrated on the underground New York City party series GHE20G0TH1K. When Oliver revived the brand in 2012, he had a new partner, filmmaker and scene mainstay Leilah Weinraub. Together they powered HBA’s second chapter of unprecedented ascent.
Hood By Air’s name — a makeshift portmanteau of “hood” and “putting on airs” — was apt. When I took my seat at “Daddy” in the basement of 23 Wall Street, fashion industry mainstays like Grace Coddington were sandwiched between kitted-out club kids. Models in luxe layers of camel wore disturbing facial stockings; long black dresses were styled to be genderless. A Total Freedom mix intercut The Isley Brothers and Wayne Shorter with a quote from the TV show Empire: “I want to show you a faggot can run this company.”
Before “Daddy,” there was a feature in New York, a front-page story in The New York Times’ Arts section, a special award from LVMH Prize For Young Fashion Designers, and a stint as a special guest designer at the heritage Florentine menswear tradeshow Pitti Uomo. The reviews were glowing. Within a few years, Hood By Air’s mixture of deconstructed streetwear, couture fabrics, immaculate tailoring, and genderless silhouettes were smacking fashion convention upside the head, and Oliver was getting paid to do it.
Hood By Air never did things quietly. Oliver stretched out his 2014 Fall showings into three parts, titled “Ego,” “Super Ego,” and “Id.” He has sent out models in crystal-encrusted dental gags, perspex pillories, and, once, a lubed-up Wolfgang Tillmans wearing only underwear and a coat. When WWD asked Oliver and Weinraub to send over an example of their mood board, they sent back a porn screenshot. (One collection, which debuted last year, featured a “collaboration” with PornHub.) But the announcement earlier this month that Hood By Air would go on indefinite hiatus was uncharacteristically quiet, a whimper rather than a bang. There was at least one warning sign along the way: Hood By Air canceled its March showing at Paris Fashion Week, but a label rep insisted at the time that the brand would continue, and that it was merely transitioning to accommodate Oliver’s new job overseeing a special collection at Helmut Lang.
Helmut Lang is itself an interesting beast. Founded in 1986 by its eponymous Austrian designer, the brand has originated nearly every recognizable streetwear trend you can tick off. Luxury bomber jackets? Parachute detailing and excess zippers? High tech, utilitarian fabrics? Yep, yes, absolutely. Strands of Lang’s DNA are evident everywhere from Kanye West’s Adidas aesthetic to Virgil Abloh’s Off-White branding to Hood By Air’s zipper-heavy designs. In 1999, Helmut Lang (the brand) was acquired, along with Jil Sander, by Prada, and Lang (the person) jumped ship shortly after. The resulting Helmut Lang collections were trendy, limp ghosts of its past. Six profit-shedding years later, another large fashion conglomeration, Link Theory Holdings, snapped it up and appointed new creative directors, who departed in 2014 — right around the time Shayne Oliver was on the rise. Three years later, Oliver works for Helmut Lang and Hood By Air is on hiatus.
Young designers getting snapped up by large, faceless fashion conglomerations with infinite, enticing resources is something of a trend. Balenciaga, owned by Kering (which also holds Alexander McQueen, Gucci, and Saint Laurent) snapped up designer Demna Gvasalia last year after the Georgian designer made waves at the helm of the Vetements design collective. Gucci, floundering amongst millennials, found new life in designer Alessandro Michele, whose neo-romantic creations have revitalized critical, editorial, and celebrity interest, while Instagram campaigns like the meme-based #TFWGucci have earned it a place in the public consciousness beyond fashion. The bland conglomerations that concentrate the majority of fashion’s power in their hands have — through consolidating and reallocating resources between houses and shedding underperforming brands at will — turned luxury fashion into a highly lucrative, incredibly depressing industry.
What fueled much of the fascination with Hood By Air wasn’t its editorial potential, or the probability we’d spot it on the red carpet (I’m not sure we ever did, although Beyoncé wore the hell out of a “Daddy” fur coat in LEMONADE), but rather the opposite. Fashion consumers and critics loved Hood By Air for its sheer improbability, for Oliver’s success in a notoriously impenetrable industry, for his ability to transform his personal ideas of masculinity and sexuality and luxury into uniquely contemporary collections. Consumers loved that a fashion brand wasn’t afraid to talk about gender and power and bondage and sex and late capitalism, to send out invitation cards featuring Francisco Goya’s gory painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son.” I’m sure the endlessly talented Oliver will do dope things at Helmut Lang, and that Helmut Lang will benefit from the air he breathes into it. But this was Hood By Air’s second hiatus, and who knows whether we’ll be blessed with the chance to experience a third. Long live HBA.