It didn’t come as a surprise to Shayne Oliver’s many fans that his long-awaited return to New York Fashion Week this past February wasn’t exactly about clothes. In lieu of a traditional runway show, the protean designer staged three days’ worth of multimedia performances at the sprawling cultural center The Shed titled “HEADLESS: THE GLASS CEILING by Anonymous Club.” For Oliver, the spectacle reflected a newfound dedication to artistic vision. No longer in that mix: Hood by Air, the norm-shattering streetwear brand that helped pave the way for expanded definitions of beauty in the fashion industry, beginning with the label’s influential first runway show almost a decade ago.
The happening also revealed to the public what Anonymous Club—an initiative helmed by Oliver that’s emphatically separate from HBA—is capable of realizing. The collective, as the designer characterizes it, unites creatives with wide-ranging backgrounds—the musicians Ian Isaiah, Tama Gucci, and Total Freedom among them—most of whom have long been in his orbit. Its ultimate goal? Fostering mutually supportive artistic collaborations outside of mainstream fashion’s constraints.
Spurred by this practice, Oliver has further forayed into the art world with “Museum, Anonymous Club,” presented at the Upper East Side gallery Egan and Rosen. The exhibition continues to push the 34-year-old designer, who now also performs under the moniker Leech, and his work beyond the realm of fashion and into the broader visual arts sphere. On display are five wall-hung sculptures derived from a series of rigid, oversized circle- and rectangle-shaped collars featured in HBA’s spring 2015 collection. At Egan and Rosen, the reimagined versions take the forms of acrylic, aluminum, oak, or “synthetic ivory” discs, from which geometric patterns, including HBA insignia, have been cut out of the material. Removed from a runway context, the works take on new conceptual meaning, tied up with the complexities and emotions surrounding ownership.
Here, Oliver opens up about his pivot to the art world, his relationship with the early HBA, and the reason why we should all rethink Ralph Lauren.
What do you consider to be different about the art world vs. the fashion world?
Within fashion, the runway has always been the focus: the presentation of a new entity or a new archetype that you're presenting to the world through this one walkway, or this performance space. I’ve always seen that as being very connected to performance art. As far as the art world is concerned, it’s more like artifacts from those archetypes, then moving toward the feeling when you observe these performances. Because, in your memory, [a performance] begins to resonate as a time capsule of emotion. So art is like the artifact of those moments.
What motivated you to do this show at Egan and Rosen?
I guess to prove that point more within the depths of working on this brand, creating things that are not the clothing, not actually a part of the collection, or the brand itself—it’s like an actual artifact of the collection and of the performance itself, of the runway. This was going back into my own archive and seeing what initially felt like, Yes, it may have a logo on it, but it’s not a Hood by Air product. I was already doing these things that were reflecting the brand as demonstrations and/or understandings of what I was trying to implement that designers are only expected to put within the clothing. It felt like a static version of that understanding and the practice that I’m building at the moment with Anonymous Club.
So these collars are recreations of accessories worn in HBA’s spring 2015 runway show?
Yes. They’re essentially set pieces, which were being discarded and stepped on. It was funny to see the clothing being cherished on racks and in bags and then these precious, pieces being demolished. A few of [the originals] were destroyed because of how they were stored within the archive. This practice of the things that I actually find so precious about the design process, I want to be able to put into a space where people can interact with those parts of it.
The collars, reframed as visual art, are an interesting reference point; their utilitarian value isn’t necessarily on par with that of, say, a shirt.
[They’re] definitely a choice, right? If you’re going into that realm of putting on a collar, outside the idea of imprisonment, you’re making a specific choice to enjoy or fetishize or create a statement of imprisonment. Thinking about those walls of what HBA was—a collective, an upstart brand, a friend group—[is] something that now imprisons it, too. Even the way the brand is moving forward now, still being a founder and a shareholder, stepping away from that initial feeling that was freeing, but also so imprisoning, from my understanding of what that brand is and means to me—as a person, not as a business person.
When you say “what HBA was,” you mean that it’s different now?
I mean, even if I assembled another team of creatives and collectors, it would never be that specific [original] team. For better or for worse. That timeframe and that actual situation, in itself was freeing at the time, but I had to step away from the brand to allow it to be its own thing, to have its own ethos that can live outside of me.
What was the thinking behind the name Anonymous Club?
With Hood by Air, the name is so specific. But the artists are so fluid—I think that the ethos, and the thing that connected us, is what the name represents. Now, we don’t need that as an ethos. We understand it, because it’s now such a specific thing that exists within the world. I think the demographic is probably the same—the people, the kinds of artists are in the same realm. We were all putting it toward making clothing and now it’s more than just that. It’s like, “Now, let’s break down our music,” “Now, let’s formalize the conversations we were having around set design”—all these different aspects of the way that we were working together. This is a place to celebrate that and to protect that process, too. Because when you’re in fashion, no one is protecting anything but the clothes. Period. You could work on a symphonic 57-minute piece of music, but then, right after the show, no one gives a shit. It’s not cataloged, it’s not appreciated. That process is what Anonymous Club is housing. Or practice, I should say.
Would you say that you’re trying to subvert the idea of a fashion brand? It sounds like this practice arose out of frustration with the expectation that a fashion brand be one-dimensional.
Yes. That’s why I always found streetwear interesting. The clothes are the simplest things, the things that people are always wearing. In a way, streetwear is essentially like workwear, life-wear. If a brand is for skaters, for instance that brand is showing you the utilitarianism of the clothes while also showing you exactly how I feel when I’m skating. That’s what makes me an American designer. I love the context and how progressive the designs have been within the scale of the quote-unquote fashion history within Europe, and even Africa—just all historical dress—and how it disconnects when it comes to American fashion. Ralph Lauren, that’s a conceptual designer.
Even though the clothing isn’t conceptual, essentially he’s a person from the Bronx who is big-ing up and playing into this elitist world. That’s a set design! I think that’s what American designers do well, but then the clothing isn't there. There’s always that disconnect. That’s the same thing with streetwear. The feeling, the essence, everything is there. But then the clothing isn’t. Sometimes I feel there’s not a place—especially as an American designer—where you can enjoy your idea of how we engage with clothing, which is very set. We have to see the world, it has to be present—it’s not just a runway concept.
But sometimes when it comes to New York fashion, it changes every season. I think that’s why Helmut Lang, for instance, found more love [upon coming] to New York—he was repeating designs, or fell in love with specific things. The designers attracted to showing in New York, I think, have this tendency to repeat things because they're not in this fashion cycle, which tends to be very [snaps fingers] going through trends and all that. I wanted to create a space where I could enjoy the idea of design, and the formality of it, through the formality of fashion, and that industry, and also the business, as an American designer [who is] in love with lifestyle, in love with the mind-frame and in love with the process of how I’m gonna wear this, why I’m gonna wear this. That’s what Anonymous Club is trying to do: to break out these parts of the creative process, to [let them] have their own respectable moments, and/or have this time to really be thought out.
What can we expect from Anonymous Club in the near future?
Right now, I’m just building as many things around the concepts of the collections, and/or music projects, and/or archetypes and artifacts. There’s a few different aspects to it: growing into the music part, and having that live; growing into the fashion part through collaborations. Anonymous Club was not necessarily meant to be a fashion brand. Innately, because of the practice that it has, it will have a lot of fashion elements and have its own brand identity. But it goes in and out of that context.
What’s the significance of highlighting these physical spaces—the set of a performance, or the room of an exhibition—in relation both to Anonymous Club and your own creative trajectory?
I think it became more important over time as things became more digital. Human embodiment and things that reflect that—it’s so rare. Now, we don’t tend to emote outside of trying to record [a performance]. Focusing specifically on the live aspect where everyone has every reference point. You can’t really reference a reactive… reaction! [Laughs.] Because it's a jolt in that system. It’s a jolt within the algorithm. I’m not saying we're in a matrix—
They’re like glitches. They’re glitches that can't be put in a box. When these moments are happening—based on these live performances or these performance art-practices that I’ve made for myself—these glitches are the moments that have to be emphasized so that the conversation can move. I don’t think it’s going to stay the same, the way it is. It’s going to evolve.