This month marks my one-year anniversary of returning to New York City, a place that I called home for over six years before migrating to Berlin on what ended up being a near two-year-long stint (the original plan was six months). A lot can change in any city after being absent for that amount of time, but in the case of the Big Apple, a hub notorious for altering its interests and trend circuit at breakneck speed, the amount of catch-up was mammoth.
The first day I moved into my new digs in Ridgewood, Queens, not knowing where to start in this process of re-familiarization, I eventually decided to make the 52-minute subway trek uptown to a former window shopping haunt on Madison Avenue: Barney's. No, my intent wasn't to raze through my bank account on some rabid shopping spree (though I did cop a few things as there was a sale going on and Europe, despite popular belief, isn't a premiere destination where retail is concerned), but rather take a peek at the historical luxury store's famed window display.
Upon scrolling through Instagram, I learned that Hood By Air, a very un-Barney's brand and one that was gaining substantial traction in New York by the time I left in 2014, was recruited to post up behind the store's vitrines for a month-long installation inspired by its SS16 Paris menswear presentation. The spectacle resulted in a series of hyper-realistic mannequins, created via 3D body scans of models who walked the show, decked out in face tattoos, hair berets, crystal-encrusted dental gags, pacifiers and, of course, the label's trademark thuggishly queer streetwear.
Unworldly sounds of entrancing vocals that looped "HBA-HB-HB-A-HBA," a track produced by Wench, Creative Director Shayne Oliver's ongoing musical project with Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca), cascaded from the speakers above to brainwashing effect, piquing the interest of some unassuming passersby while terrifying the neighborhood's aging residents who were simply trotting to their weekly botox appointments, Birkin bag in one hand, mobile phone speed dialing the family therapist in the other. The whole thing was a complete paradox. It was nonsensical. It was weird. It was very New York.
Since it debuted on the fashion week calendar with its SS14 menswear line, I've had the pleasure of bearing witness to two of HBA's now-legendary catwalk presentations: SS16 and SS17, both ready-to-wear collections. The former show, or rather its after-party, left a sizable impact on my coming back. It had been a year since leaving New York at that point and, though teetering on the brink of arrant mental and physical exhaustion (battling jet lag while striding through New York Fashion Week's unforgiving schedule will do that), I somehow mustered up the energy to make an appearance at HBA's post-show shindig at The W Hotel in Times Square – again, quite paradoxical.
Hosted by GHE20G0TH1K, a seminal underground party night founded by local nightlife queen, Venus X, that played a pivotal role in Shayne's designs during HBA's nascency, the hotel's swanky cocktail bar was transformed into a scene of unequivocal ratchetry; a realization of the brand's surreal narrative that brought all of its characters together under one roof, smack dab in the fiery core of a tourist-infested hellhole.
Basked in hues of UV-A light, attendees toted styrofoam cups filled with jungle juice and got down and dirty to sounds of Jersey club, reggaeton, hip-hop, baile funk, techno, ballroom and Aaliyah all rammed into each other at frenetic cadence. To the left, alpha male rapper types skulked next to arm-flailing voguers and club kids clad in hoodies and patent leather thigh-highs. To the right, polished hotel guests in suits curiously spectated as a 50-something-year-old white woman wearing nothing but an HBA "69"-emblazoned jersey wandered alongside chiseled models smothered in luminescent body paint.
An art-imitates-life moment that completely subverted corporate establishment as well as gender and fashion stereotypes, the party reminded me why New York City has always set the standards when it came to brazen creativity and shameless eccentricity – something I deeply missed. Hood By Air, from the get-go, forged its entire ethos around this celebration of freakish diversity, if not oftentimes misunderstood for it...even though baffling conformists has always been the brand's raison d'être.
Since its first launch in 2006, the brand fiercely purveyed the notion of high-low and sought to deconstruct all aspects of "urban" fashion (years before Vetements was celebrated for it). Culling together visual references that traced back to his own lifestyle and environment, Oliver's ability to combine the esoteric and queer with the aggressive allure of street culture brought life to a cult following that would reach unprecedented heights as his vision progressed.
Upon its resurrection in 2012, after a three-year hiatus in 2009, Hood By Air became a forerunner of the luxe-streetwear explosion marked by graphic-heavy designs, bold logos and exorbitant price points. Early cosigns from A$AP Rocky, Kanye West and Rihanna boosted the brand's youth demographic and made it an inescapable force on the street style sector. But as HBA's designs became increasingly radical, the limited timeline of hype fame sadly ran its course as many consumers couldn't keep up with Oliver's brilliant albeit commercially-fringed creations.
But while mainstream attention waned, critical applaud only grew. From front-page stories in The New York Times to winning awards from both LVMH and CFDA to landing a coveted guest spot at heritage Florentine menswear trade show Pitti Uomo in 2015, the fashion world couldn't get enough of Hood By Air's gender-annihilating, high concept street-couture. And yet, through the thick of it all, the brand's loyal New York-centric coterie remained strongly in tact.
Then, in 2016, HBA was fanning the flame of what seemed to be something of a widespread comeback. In addition to its aforementioned Barney's display, the brand ignited headlines after famously appearing in one of the most talked about musical projects of the year by the most celebrated pop star on the planet, Beyoncé’s Lemonade video saga. Following suit was a widely-praised presentation at Art Basel Miami, a cameo in Rihanna's epic performance at the VMA's, a stellar think piece in The New Yorker and a Pornhub-sponsored SS17 catwalk show that Vogue.com ranked as its #1 collection of the season.
But then, after an abrupt decision to make a ready-to-wear debut in March at Paris Fashion Week (as opposed to its usual New York showing), the brand decided to scrap the show all together. A month later, a rep sent forth a press release stating that Hood By Air would go on indefinite hiatus to accommodate Oliver’s new job overseeing a special collection at Helmut Lang. A very understated exit strategy by a brand that's anything but subtle.
There's no doubt that Shayne will do great things at Lang, a house renowned for its own anarchist legacy during its eponymous designer's tenure in the '90s, but what he achieved at Hood By Air will go down as one of the most revolutionary successes in fashion history. Not only did he open the world of high fashion to a marginalized group who would've been shut out entirely a mere generation or two ago, Shayne, together with his romp-tromp posse of like-minded misfits, reworked ideas of sexuality, luxury, gender, black masculinity and street culture into refreshingly modern collections season after season. Call it niche, call it "gay," call it fuccboi, call it crazy. If there's one thing that the brand isn't, it's boring. RIP HBA, you'll be missed.
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