It was about a half hour before midnight and halfway through a presentation Hood By Air was doing during Art Basel Miami Beach when designer Shayne Oliver jumped into the Delano's hotel pool. He was fully clothed (including his knee-length, high-heeled boots), but he was not alone. Models wearing clothing from the designer's latest collaboration with photographer Pieter Hugo were already submerged. Wearing the dress-length t-shirts that feature Hugo's portraits of LGBT Jamaicans, the models tried to keep up as Oliver started swimming casual laps.
"I have a million dollars on in a hotel pool. I'm wearing million dollar clothes in the hotel pool," hypnotically chanted performer Ian Isiah. Earlier he had been a performing song that riffed on the repeated lyric "Don't you f--k with my energy if you want this pussy."
Meanwhile, Instagram-cast models wearing outfits from HBA's previous runway collections stood on the outer edges of the pool holding up mini-spotlights. Their shoes, including those double-sided cowboy boots, were submerged in about an inch of chlorinated water.
The night, all put together by MoMA PS1, also featured Grace Dunham, little sister of Lena, performing spoken word. "Dissolve your inherited wealth," the Manhattan native told the crowd. The rapper Princess Nokia performed a rousing set. She ended it by disrobing down to a swimsuit and taking a dip in the pool as well. But that wasn't it: the event also featured lots of smoke, strobe lights, and an after party featuring a performance by Ssion at the hotel's on-site club FDR as Jacolby Satterwhite and an out-of-drag Violet Chachki danced on.
Three hours before Oliver's swim and many more before the after party, the scene inside FDR was far calmer. The Hood By Air crew had commandeered the cozy club as the night's prep space. The brand's chief executive Leilah Weinraub, who is featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, shared take-out noodles with Dunham and others on the club's couch. Elsewhere, Isiah did his own make-up in a spare mirror and stylists were steaming the sheer cloaks and oversized shirts that would be on display later.
The main focus, though, was on preparing the models. Most of them have never walked a regular runway show before, least of all a fashion show-meets-performance art piece that would be taking place in a pool. You can read more about all the models that took part here.
That model cadre had been assembled by HBA's casting director Walter Pearce. He had found them all through word-of-mouth recommendations by friends and through casting notices on Instagram. Pearce himself only heard of the project about three weeks ago, and only had one day before hand to actually meet models in person. For this project, he asked prospective models to DM him a few photos, and then whittled down the possibilities from there. Of course, Miami Beach is the kind of town where half the population under 30 looks like a model (of some sort or another, anyway), and unsurprisingly Pearce got a robust response to the notice.
"No matter the project, but especially in Miami, you get people like, 'Have you looked at the brand or any of my work or even the clothes?' It doesn't even make sense. It's not even an insult to them. It's just like this doesn't make sense at all," he said. "But it's cool, though, to get that big of a response because I'm known as someone who takes someone who might not be a model and I give them chance."
That Miami Beach tanned and toned look isn't HBA's vibe, and it wasn't what Pearce had in mind. A few of the models were out-of-towners who just happened to be around for Basel, but most come from mainland Miami and it's inland suburbs and neighborhoods like El Portal, Fontainebleau and Wynwood.
"Whenever I do location-based work, it's really, really interesting to me to use almost entirely people from the area. That adds something strong to me," Pearce continued. "Most of my casting tends to be like that. It's not like I go to Paris and find all of the hottest girls in Paris. You find these other sides of wherever you are. That's what I like about street casting. You're representing things that aren't shown in a fashion context ever."
Of course, when you think of Florida, well, you can't help but think of the state's trademarked weirdness.
"For this, I was trying to do like really Florida," he said. "Half the crazy stories that you read in the news that blow your mind are from Florida. So I'm like, I know there's like freaks here. I was trying to get like a real, weird actual Florida vibe, because otherwise why do it here?"
That didn't mean the models weren't striking. There's Christopher, a tall, blonde 16-year-old who wore a leather codpiece, harness, and something like a dry cleaning bag who said this is the most exciting thing he's ever done. Brad, a 31-year-old regular in Miami's art and music scene who also works on Everglades Restoration projects during the day, had a dramatic haircut and otherworldly eyes. Then there was Harley, who might pass for something like Miami's visual answer to Jaden Smith and eagerly posed for behind-the-scenes pics like a pro. Pearce said they all passed both his test for looks, and, more importantly, attitude. "The attitude is half the reason I chose them. Someone could look so cool, and if they don't have the attitude that's needed for the project, then its just not going to work," he said. Often times, others take note of the discoveries Pearce makes.
"Sometimes I turn them into real models," Pearce said. "I've cast people, street cast, and then they end up getting signed to an agency and they end up walking huge shows. It happens all the time."
Could tonight end up being someone's big break?
"You never know until all of the sudden next season they're walking in Paris."
Of course, only a handful of the models have high fashion experience (the one agency-signed model had temporarily decided to move back in with his grandparents to save money, and didn't find out about the gig through his agency, but rather by replying to one of the Instagram calls). One had to wonder if some might be caught off guard by the clothes they were tasked with wearing.
"The thing about Hood By Air is that a lot of people know the brand because of its strong graphic element," Pearce said. They're not necessarily on Vogue looking at their runway pieces, and then when they get to an editorial or a show, sometimes they're like, 'Wait I could put on heels?'"
He says all of the models that night were comfortable with their outfits. Carlos, a 24-year-old from Wynwood, had on one of the most daring looks of the night. He was wearing simply a black vinyl brief of sorts. "I'm fine with it," he said. "It's what I signed up for."
Pearce's casting is only part of the wider project. The mastermind is the man who will wind up in the pool a few hours later.
"Shayne's really smart about knowing what to do with these types of opportunities," said Pearce. "He's really good at atmospheric stuff. He knows what he wants it to look like."
Pearce, himself, would go on to spend most of the rest of the pre-show time dealing with any last minute issues, checking in with his models and making sure they had something to eat, and spinning techno tunes behind the DJ booth.
About a half-hour before showtime, the FDR's regular staff, booty shorts and tights-clad bartenders included, had come in to prepare for the night. Meanwhile, the HBA crew was amid a flurry of last-minute activity. The models seemed like the calmest people in the room. With makeup on their necks and hands and wearing HBA's edgy designs, they packed up their real clothes, made small talk, and lined up by the club's doors before marching out to that pool to what turned out to be their high fashion baptism.