Shayne Oliver Is Revitalizing America’s Avant Garde

Shayne Oliver, probably the only avant-garde designer in mainstream American fashion history, is something like a comeback king. He first put his label Hood By Air—which he ran with a collective that included filmmaker Leila Weinraub and designer Raul Lopez—on hold in 2017, and said it would relaunch on a few occasions since then. There was a short-term partnership with Helmut Lang in 2017, an interview with Kanye West that teased a “rumored” combeack in early 2019, and then a highly structured new organization announced in the summer of 2020. But the first three days of fashion week in New York fully cement his return. Thursday through Saturday at The Shed in Hudson Yards, Oliver, under the aegis of his collective Anonymous Club, is staging a multi-part fashion and performance event called Headlessness, including a show on Friday where he will debut his new fashion line, Shayne Oliver. “The idea is that every night breaks down the throughline of the Anonymous Club conversation,” he said over Zoom last weekend. “Within those three nights, I act as the costume designer.” Anonymous Club, which Oliver launched in July 2020, is formally an incubator for young designers to collaborate in the HBA universe and launch projects, but like much of Oliver’s work, it is also a sprawling, amorphous idea that fuses the interests, tastes, and characters of the designer’s scene.

Last spring when HBA launched the second iteration of its comeback, called Veteran, the reboot was less of a typical relaunch and more like the drawn-out performance of a comeback. This new three-night extravaganza takes the notion even further. “The point of this exercise and exhibition is to create that space for Anonymous Club to have set events where it doesn’t necessarily have to be defined by fashion or music or art,” Oliver said. “But you know when you hear ‘Anonymous Club Event,’ you’re gonna get a little bit of all of it.”

The animating existential question for really anyone under 40 today is how to create change. Do you reinvent things from within? Or do you ignore the system and do something totally your own? Anonymous Club and the HBA universe seem to suggest that Oliver believes the latter, but he is careful not to divorce himself from the fashion system per se. “I love being a designer,” he said. But even now, though New York’s fashion scene has changed since Hood By Air exploded into the world, “everything that is in opposition to that certain conversation is seen as underground. I still don’t get that term. It’s really a frustrating thing. Is it ‘young designer’? Is it ‘underdeveloped’? Like, what are we saying here? You know, to me, even when we were at our largest points of success and were selling at 250 windows, we were still having this conversation.”

“And it really was a deterrent for me,” he continued, “and trying to figure out this Anonymous Club conversation, I was like, Well, if you’re gonna consistently call these things–maybe they’re emerging ideas, maybe they ‘re whatever–but they don’t need to be put into your conversation of underground or I’ll think about it. It’s showing. It’s prevalent. It’s happening.”

It all sounds a little abstract, I know, but that’s sort of the point. He sees contemporary fashion as being domination by a big and necessary conversation about reparations—about what Black and queer designers and creatives are owed and what the system has denied to them in the past. It was happening when HBA first existed, but on a smaller scale. “And now,” he said, “I think that it’s more that fashion on a whole is teaching itself how to interact with those things. I think that’s great. But I still like to explore even outside of the grounds that are being held right now.”

In other words, I suggested, if you have to converse too much with the mainstream, then you don’t have the time or energy to really push boundaries and innovate and go wild in the way you want. “Because you’re talking way more than being cool,” he said.

Many New Yorkers, even young ones, probably have a certain memory of Oliver’s world as brash and aggressive and unsettling. But it’s a real pleasure to recall, in conversation with him, what a fashion-phile he is. He lives and breathes it, and thinks with a thrilling originality about the purpose and drama of the fashion show. His universe, especially as he is presenting it now through Anonymous Club, is its own beacon of insiderness. It’s a titillating throwing of shade at the humdrum concept of inclusivity. Already, and even without producing regular collections, he has become to contemporary New York what Yves Saint Laurent’s crew of socialities and wannabe artists was to 1970s Paris: exclusive, sensational, enviable. The difference is that even in Saint Laurent’s most celebrated period, his collections were nostalgic, romantic romps through the clothes of previous eras. Oliver has an enthralling commitment to total newness, to the bizarre, to alien.

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