Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air isn’t simply a reflection of youth culture: He’s its champion.
“We’re not looking into the past or too stuck on the future,” he explained, chatting in his Chinatown studio. “We’re experimenting on the current time period and about the present. You can’t move to the future if you’re not making a commentary and moving the present forward.”
In its two years as an official label, Hood By Air has gained a cult following from hip-hop royalty like Rihanna, Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, among others. But most intriguing is the label’s unique ability to balance its “cool factor” and street cred, while also meeting the needs of retailers like Barneys New York, Selfridges and Opening Ceremony.
The singular vision has contributed to the brand becoming one of the buzziest labels on today’s international fashion scene, and it continues an upward trajectory.
At 26, Oliver is certainly one to watch, having won one of two special LVMH Prizes for Young Fashion Designers and 100,000 euros ($123,000). His three-pronged spring presentation began on the runways of New York, flowed into an installation for a presentation in Paris, then concluded with a dynamic performance and party at the Museum of Modern Art. Now, he’s been named a special guest at January’s Pitti Uomo.
The son of Trinidadian parents, Oliver was born in Minnesota, spent his childhood in Trinidad and moved to Brooklyn before his teenage years. Though the locations in which he lived were vastly different, one aspect of childhood remained the same.
“Wherever I went, I was surrounded by strong women who were very powerful,” he recalled, counting his female cousins, his aunt and single mother who taught him about responsibility and that power and authority could come from a feminine perspective.
“I never thought that the man was the best thing,” he said. “Power is ambiguous — it’s not the broad shoulders to accentuate masculinity. Power can be an easy feeling.”
When Oliver moved to Brooklyn, he found his fashion voice and his distinct sense of style. He would pore over his aunt’s Vogue magazines while blending pop culture references like TLC and observing skateboard culture.
“I was going out to all the fashion parties at 13,” he said. “I discovered Williamsburg at Club Luxe and all the record shops. I also was a city scoundrel and I’d go there anytime I could and pursue everything before 11 p.m. I thought I had a good pulse of what was going on in pop culture and fashion.”
But it was Oliver’s admiration for Raf Simons and Nicolas Ghesquière that inspired him to pursue fashion as a profession.
“I wanted to understand where they were coming from and why they did what they did,” he said. “Looking back at their archives, you can really see just how much went into their designs.
“I later met Nicolas during the LVMH Prize,” he recalled. “I almost peed my pants after talking to him. When I met Raf, he was very practical. ‘How many stores do you want? Do you even want stores?’ I get that from his designs as well, very practical.”
It was a surreal experience for the FIT and NYU dropout, who started his brand haphazardly in 2006 as a local screen-printed T-shirt line. There was one style at the time, with the word “Hood” emblazoned in big, bold letters.
“Hood By Air meant to get fresh, get done up, be a dandy,” Oliver said.
The brand produced its first collection in November 2007, selling to Seven New York in 2008 before taking a hiatus.
In 2012, Oliver decided to relaunch the business, focused on creating a lifestyle brand. The company has since expanded to a “Classics” line — a mix of printed pieces and separates — and a women’s collection that was shown in Paris.
“HBA now is all about comfort, swag, confidence, urbanness, graphicness,” he said. “They’re graphic, but still staples in the closet.”
Moving forward, Oliver has restructured his business, thinking on a more global scale. With time spent in Milan, Oliver said he hired three full-time Italian designers who will take charge of the business’s creative side.
He’s also taking his fabric more seriously. Starting with next season, Oliver said he would only source Italian fabrications and leathers. Production will also be in Italy, he said. “The quality of everything is just so much better there.”
In the past, the designer sourced fabrics from New York, Canada, the U.K., as well as China.
After Pitti in January, he will show men’s in New York, and will continue to show women’s in Paris.
Oliver said he wanted to expand the brand and hopefully open a flagship.
“I want to emulate businesses of heritage luxury brands like Prada and Louis Vuitton,” he said. “They are fashion concepts that came out of the necessity of products, like Vuitton luggage. I see logo shirts as the necessity that built this brand, and I want to stay true to what we’re known for.”