The latest menswear collection shows in Paris were as bizarre as a fun festival: several luxury groups invested vast amounts of money in order to set up incredible events in exotic locations. Celebrities and fashion editors crowded front rows, jostled by paparazzi. I noticed several anxious photographers looking for hip-hop stars of the moment, and luckily, they weren’t disappointed. A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar and Will Smith were all there. “Where are the rappers?” was the refrain of one overexcited young French TV journalist as he pursued any group accompanied by towering bodyguards. When I asked why there was so much fuss, the same hysterical guy replied: “Didn’t you know that in his teenage years, A$AP Rocky sold crack so he could buy a Rick Owens jacket?”
Nothing on the catwalk, however, seemed to mirror the reality of a rapper’s background. All the boys are mostly white and skinny, with some occasional Asian and black models. All carry an unfriendly demeanor that seems far from the warmth, strength and energy of the rap world.
As the shows took place, one after the other, I finally attended the Hood By Air pre-fall 2014 collection presentation. Sadly, I found myself near the same judgmental journalist: “Hood By Air is not fashion, but clothes for thugs.” To me, however, it’s a breath of fresh air. The presentation takes place in a small bourgeois apartment, where a variety of “unorthodox” models seem affable before an inspired audience of editors, artists, musicians and, yes, thugs. At a first glance, the garments seem to be a more sophisticated version of common street wear. But the cuts turn out to be incredibly well-crafted examples of a unique sort of modern luxury. Meticulously covered with logos and zippers, the clothes flaunt their originality and freshness: some of them look like hijacked police uniforms, some are just mysteriously elegant and suggestive. The music is loud, dramatic, and borderline disturbing. The models are incredibly diverse, with an oddly different kind of beauty that blurs race, gender and style. There is no hint of monotony or marketing strategy: it all just feels creative and right. The atmosphere is different from any other show of the week.
But let’s start from the beginning. Hood By Air was created in 2006 by Shayne Oliver when he was still a teenager. The first items to be released were T-shirts with the “Hood” logo — the notion of “neighborhood” was clearly a big part of Oliver’s upbringing. After a short time at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Oliver reached out to various communities in New York City. He acted as a club promoter for places like the Happy Valley in Chelsea, and he organized vogue dance performances for opening nights of artists like Dash Snow and Rashaad Newsome.
Over the years, the young designer put together the social puzzle of the city, connecting many different people under the umbrella of his brand. Artist and filmmaker Leilah Weinraubjoined the brand, becoming their director of art and commerce. (Weinraub has just completed Shakedown, a documentary about a black lesbian strip club in Los Angeles.) Photographer Kevin Amato, stylist Akeem Smith and musician Ian Isiah all collaborate with Oliver on the making of the collections.
Soon the fashion press began covering the brand, and the word “future” resonated in every article about HBA (as the brand is often abbreviated). And the way their collections are conceived, with an emphasis on community and communication, does indeed feel like a projection into the future. But in my opinion fashion is compelling when it resides in the present and witnesses the time we live in. HBA does precisely that: it translates, in a very modern style, the reality of our multiracial, pansexual, byzantine, transitional, historical moment, when social networks allow people to engender their own mythos and symbology, regardless of how they look, dress or speak. HBA celebrates personal styles that thrive outside of any rules imposed by the fashion business.
The brand is growing fast. Stars like Drake, Kanye West and Rihanna have started wearing Oliver’s creations. A$AP Rocky closed the brand’s 2013 fashion week show, proudly wearing a golden smile and a black outfit; and in his famous video clip for the song “Long Live A$AP” he wears iconic HBA pieces alongside Rick Owens garments.
I sometimes think about that journalist who criticized the Hood By Air presentation but celebrated A$AP Rocky’s illicit efforts to purchase fashion. I wish he was there.