Purple Magazine
— Purple 76 Index issue 29

Oliver shayne

a love letter to helmut lang
portrait and interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see New York these days? It’s like everyone is really leaving the city. 

SHAYNE OLIVER — Total disaster, no? [Laughs] I think everything that everyone thought was cool is just no longer that place anymore. I don’t think that New York cultivates ideas anymore. And it’s just not the place for it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You incarnate New York, in a way. With the impact of Hood By Air in the city.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah. I started doing runway shows five years ago, but I began the brand with my friends 10 years ago. We were hanging out, we were living under the rules of Hood By Air. A gang or, I don’t know, a society. And we would do projects once in a while, whenever we could get money to show and do stuff. Sometimes we’d have something at a gallery, sometimes we’d do something at a theater, sometimes we’d do something in a club. Sometimes we would do, I don’t know, a pop-up shop. It was very random.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you start to show your collection in a regular way?

SHAYNE OLIVER — Five years ago… both friends and people like retailers were pushing us to do shows and stuff like that. So we began to do shows — “show” shows.

OLIVIER ZAHM — New York was still energetic at that time.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah, yeah. What was happening? Actually, this started happening for us with GHE20G0TH1K [underground party scene, pronounced “ghetto gothic”]. Well, because there weren’t that many laws that really influenced nightlife, to be honest. I think that a lot of issues come from the cabaret laws. You can’t really interact with people the way that you used to. It’s just not the same energy… Really, things used to start from people hanging out in bars. When you hang out at bars, you meet more people. It was less about clubs. The clubs are more like ’80s and a little ’90s, or whatever. And then, the cabaret laws sort of fucked up the bars.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Too much regulation now? Everything is against the law.

SHAYNE OLIVER — It has something to do with, like, you can’t dance in a bar. Or you’re not allowed to have dance club nights at bars. So, you can’t host really big parties. When we were doing parties in the basement, they would tell us that we’d have to split the floors — because you can’t have a certain number of people dancing in one area, or it’s against the law.


OLIVIER ZAHM — So the loft parties moved from Manhattan to Bushwick.

SHAYNE OLIVER — That’s sort of like when it went to shit. [Laughs] Bushwick was a neighborhood that was built on parties… To me, I didn’t really feel like there was an art component. It’s, like, if you built a neighborhood or a local culture based on the Meatpacking District and bridge and tunnel crowd — which would be crazy. I don’t say that Bushwick doesn’t have interesting individuals. It’s just that they all work at bars. They’re not artists first.

OLIVIER ZAHM — For you, the nightlife have an artistic ambition. It’s not just going out for fun.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah. We all hang out with each other because we want to work with each other, or we like each other’s work. We’re drawn by each other’s work. Also, I think one thing that was cool was that you didn’t have to go on Instagram to know everything that was happening. I think what was important about GHE20G0TH1K was that Venus [Venus X] didn’t allow cameras in there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No cameras? No phones?

SHAYNE OLIVER — No cameras. No phones… The only person who was allowed to take photos was Venus.


SHAYNE OLIVER — So, that was very smart, on her part. That was around the beginning of Instagram and Tumblr and all that stuff. I think it kept it very healthy. I think it actually made it suck when she stopped doing that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — At the time, even Instagram wasn’t so powerful. Then it became the tsunami — a massive wave.

SHAYNE OLIVER — It’s like the new television. Do you know what I mean? If you want to be a part of that culture, then sure, fine  — that’s different… I get that money is interacting with Instagram, but that’s pop-culture money, which is different from art money. You can make a living without whoring yourself out on Instagram. I think Instagram is like MTV.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but we’re not speaking about art. We’re speaking about entertaining people.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Right. Exactly. This is more about entertaining people. I think that when fashion becomes a part of Instagram, it’s more of an entertainment thing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s come back to your work and to your Hood By Air show, but also the last show you did for Helmut Lang, the brand. Your shows are more than fashion shows — they have the spirit of an alternative community. It’s a gathering of people who share different sexualities, who also love each other.


OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a beautiful moment. And unique. How do you create that?

SHAYNE OLIVER — Umm… I think it’s really about seeing. I’m very concerned about the people that I’m around. I tend to be like a mother hen. I listen to their problems and their issues, and the things that they feel are going wrong.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You could see that community spirit and underground vibes in your casting.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah, exactly. Which is why models were never really the most important part of it. Eventually, we wanted to have more larger-name models in the shows, so we began to interact with agencies. Before, it was about finding people that we felt communicated what we wanted — friends, muses, people like actual artists who inspired us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like, surprisingly, Wolfgang Tillmans in the show. [Laughs]

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah, I know, it’s crazy. I think when people are working with us, it’s like a back-and-forth. It’s a communication between communities. Wolfgang modeled for me purely because he felt like it was the right time to communicate with this community — the community of what we were doing, and what we were about. Afterward I tried to get him to do a campaign, and he was, like, “Mmm.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — “No.” [Laughs]

SHAYNE OLIVER — But he’s just, like: “I had my moment. I was in it.” I think it was also connecting the generations. I think that a lot of what he did was about that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes — Martin Margiela, Lutz, and the beginning of the ’90s.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah, totally. And these German artists that he was around, and these fashion moments that were happening in London… That was a weird moment, wasn’t it? In the ’90s. It was, like, Alexander McQueen, and who else?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where were you at the beginning of the ’90s? Were you still in school?

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah, I was still in school. I was born in Minnesota, and my grandmother took me away from my mother. She took me to the Caribbean. So, I began growing up in the Caribbean, and then my mother would have me come back to Minnesota. I grew up in the Midwest and the Caribbean, and then I moved to New York when I was, like, 10. I came to New York right at the end of the ’90s. But before that, I was looking at everything through the lens of someone in the Caribbean. So, for me, the adventure was seeking out all of this stuff. It was very hard to find any sort of album, and it was so expensive! So, you would have to save up all of your money to buy a CD. You know how in America it’s, like, $15? In the Caribbean, it’s $50 or $60, to buy one album. It was insane. Because you have to spend your money on it, and you have to think about it. [Laughs] It was an investment!

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Hood By Air is a collective project, in a way. It’s you and friends?

SHAYNE OLIVER — Basically, this is the breakdown. I’m the designer. But I design for a group of people that I basically hang out with all the time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this collaborative spirit is very important. Even though you’re the designer, you’re the head. You’re the guy who finally is responsible for the clothes.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Mm-hmm. Well, for me, I’m very, very shy. Before I started HBA, I used to be very physical about the way I wanted to present things, and it was about me being the muse. After a while, I didn’t really like the position of the frontman.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was too egocentric? Or too narcissistic?

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah. And then I began to — not pass along, but sort of allow or teach people things that I was trying to do, so that they could also live it out. It was half that, and half being extremely inspired by the people that…

OLIVIER ZAHM — That you met.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah. So, to me, I think — it being post-conglomerate, post-ego-designer, post all of this stuff… It was important for me to be able to see the statement from the outside, as opposed to being the statement. You know what I mean. And me always having to represent everything. I’m not perfect. I’m not a person who wants to be perfect. I want to live my life, and I don’t want to be judged for it. You know, that’s part of the freedom. So, I feel like I can’t really represent a brand. Or I didn’t really want to represent it non-stop…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Under control, under pressure or under examination.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Exactly, I was trying to move away from being the person who was in the forefront, everyone was looking at me — me being black, me being gay, me being hypersexual — and not focusing on the work.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s going on in America these days? Everything turns totally politically correct.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Which is so weird, especially in New York. I knew this was going to happen. It’s very obvious. It’s so American to say “Okay be yourself. You have the freedom to be whoever you want, but you’re not allowed to do anything with it.” So this is why I sort of stepped away from a lot of the craziness. I became very angry in the last couple of seasons of HBA because of this new…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Conservatism?

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah. And I just sort of lashed out. But I think people missed the point of what I was trying to do. It was not about me and my sexuality. I became offended. It was about the work, the clothes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — People look at you instead of your collection.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah, exactly. They would look at the collections and be, like, “Oh, this is why he’s doing that.” And that’s not why I’m doing that. It’s because I’m speaking about something bigger than

OLIVIER ZAHM — And your clothes are expressing this freedom.

SHAYNE OLIVER — At a point, it was like I was freeing everyone else, and I wasn’t being allowed to be free. I was becoming enslaved by my work. I would be the moniker for everyone to look at and be, like: “Oh, that’s really cool. This idea is okay to speak about.” And I didn’t really feel like I was being able to do that in my personal life, or as an artist… because every time I did something, it would be categorized as this or that. Either I was being categorized as streetwear, or I was too gay. In streetwear, it was “too gay.” In fashion, it was “streetwear.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — But your ambition is very high. To me, you’re a true designer. And your name is already part of fashion history. From Margiela to Helmut Lang to you now, there’s a connection. And to Rick Owens, also. It’s very important because you create innovative clothes — in form with the evolution of sexuality, but only in form. At the end of the day, you’re creating beautiful clothes.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Stopping Hood By Air for a moment allowed you to collaborate with the brand Helmut Lang. This was a smart move, because it reminded people that your name is part of a fashion history and that you’re extending this history.

SHAYNE OLIVER — What is so funny about that collection is that people who actually know Helmut Lang’s original collection could tell that my collection was maybe 75% Helmut pieces. All Helmut. No new things. Basically I reassessed it. A lot of that stuff was from the archive. I literally, piece for piece, copied every single thing that Helmut did. I just maybe changed the details or shifted things. So, the idea behind it was just taking Helmut things and pulling them, and stretching them, or corseting them, and things like this. I was showing people how Helmut Lang could connect with now, and with what I do. With how things are moving forward in time in history.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s impossible to copy exactly. You always reinterpret with your own vision. You could try to copy, but you couldn’t. [Laughs]

SHAYNE OLIVER — I know, I couldn’t. Yeah, exactly. I tried as much as possible… Before, I used to talk about sexuality, and now I wanted to talk about sexiness. Because for me, when I look at Helmut, I think about someone who is intellectually looking at sexual behavior, and how people are attractive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You didn’t want to do “Helmut Lang for the transgenders.”

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah, basically. It’s more international, more subtle, more open. I didn’t want to make it the hood, and be, like, “Oh this is Helmut Lang, but ghetto.” Or whatever people think those terms mean. Nor did I want to be, like, “Oh, I’m being white now.” Or whatever.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, did Helmut like it? Do you know what his reaction was?

SHAYNE OLIVER — I don’t even know. I have no idea. I hope he did. It’s so weird because a lot of people who worked with him have come up to me. And they’ve said they liked it. I don’t know how he feels about it. I’m hoping at the very least that he thought it was amusing… Because I think, more than anything, it’s about respect. That’s what it was really about — respecting what he did.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To the next step.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Yeah. To be honest, this is also why I didn’t do something that was completely…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yourself.

SHAYNE OLIVER — Myself. For me, it was more of a homage to a designer who inspired me dearly. It was like a love letter, basically. Which is why I wanted the collection to be emotional…

OLIVIER ZAHM — And this is what we need. We need love letters, right? And no Instagram posts. [Laughs]

SHAYNE OLIVER — Exactly. No, for sure.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Thank you, Shayne.


[Table of contents]

Purple 76 Index issue 29

Table of contents

Purple Index 76

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