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How Hood by Air's Shayne Oliver Captivated the Fashion Industry

The young designer took an unconventional route towards becoming the industry's latest darling.

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Shayne Oliver, the 26-year-old Minnesota-born, Trinidad and Brooklyn-raised creative behind Hood By Air, has gotten quite a bit of recognition from the fashion establishment over the last year. In the past six months alone, he's been recognized as one of the top new kids on the block both nationally, as a nominee for the CFDA's Swarovski Award for Menswear, and internationally, as a runner-up for the inaugural LVMH Prize

But even before the fashion establishment took notice, Hood By Air became a cult favorite of in-the-know cool kids and celebrities like Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and Rihanna. Product drops at hip retailers like Vfiles sell out within hours (the label is also stocked in Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, Sneakerboy in Australia, Dover Street Market in New York and Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles). 

Hood by Air's success represents a blurring of the line between streetwear and fashion fashion, which few brands manage to cross. And despite his success, Oliver still seems to be grappling with his place in the industry. "I don’t want to fight to be considered a designer, " he said. "If people don’t think that’s what I’m doing I’m not going to try to convince them that that’s what I’m doing, I’m just going to keep doing it." 

Since launching in 2006, the brand has lost a co-founder, shut down, relaunched and grown to include two separate lines: Classics, which is made up of sweatshirts and tees with the brand’s signature oversized block letters, and a separate, more directional ready-to-wear range which featured embossed and grommeted leather zipper-adorned pieces for fall 2014. His pre-fall offering just came out and he has two presentations slated for this coming fashion month. In the midst of all this, we sat down with Oliver to understand a little bit more about the seemingly meteoric rise of Hood By Air and where it's headed.

How did Hood By Air get started?

Well we started in 2006. I was going to work on a magazine and Raul [Lopez] saw the project and he said he’d help me build a company. So we started raising funds together and I began to take whatever money we made and started putting it into something larger.

It really started with one t-shirt in 2006 and then the company began in late 2007. The first collection was made in November 2007 and sold to Seven New York at the beginning of 2008.

Did Raul handle more of the business side?

Yeah, in a way. It was always us hanging out and the ideas would flow well and it’d be natural. It really was just like an entire lifestyle. He was also really good at business, he was great at flipping money. He was always hustling and figuring out how to get things done.

Do you think new designers need that in their companies? I think you still have someone that fills that sort of position now.

Leilah [Weinraub] acts as COO and she really acts as the ambassador for the business and creative and really connects both; she really makes both worlds make sense with each other. That’s very important to have someone that really knows and loves what they are doing as opposed to getting someone that’s hired and is just doing it as their job. You really need someone that really gets it and believes it and can push it. You can’t really hire anyone that’s been doing [the business side] for years to just do that for you.

Do you think the Internet has played a big part in your success?

Yeah, of course! It’s really cult Internet culture [that has helped my business]. It’s really so random and weird, like Tumblr-esque cultures. It’s cultivating a lifestyle via these online layouts.

[Myspace] helped for sure but it really always comes down to the people that are behind it. I think there’s someone with the big idea that gets it and then can connect it with the people that are on the Internet. Because I’m so anti-Internet in a way. I go to like Worldstar Hip Hop and Twitter to be nosy with my friends and that’s kind of it.

So the label took a break from 2009 - 2012. What happened during that period?

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Well Raul had left the country during that period because he said he was going to go to school but was working on his own collection. In the midst of that, I was left production-less and when you’re working with someone that closely, your ideas rub off onto the other person. So I felt a little drained. I felt like I needed to take a break so I found redemption in music.

I put my creativity towards working with my friend Venus on Ghe20 G0TH1K and creating music with her and also DJing with her. I was using the DJing to make money to fund future collections and in the midst of that, [HBA] gained community support and a cult following from these influencers. It was all these people who had really connected with it while it was happening and thought that it needed to come back.

Can you explain a little bit about your “Classics” line?

Well, Classics launched before the break. It was the second collection where we started moving into really intricate pieces and there were new ideas that were formulating from these concepts that I was building from the ground up. I just wanted to keep the roots there.

Do you consider what you do streetwear?

I don’t get what that means really. Like does ‘street’ mean what people wear on the subway? What is that? I think it’s a categorization that’s just lazy.

People wear different things in the street all over the world. Streetwear in Italy is totally different from here; there it’s flared jeans and Pumas. So I don’t know, it’s just lazy.

I read you’ll be showing in Paris and New York this season. Why is that?

Yes, next September we’ll be showing twice. It’s really going to have to roll out for people to understand but we’ll be figuring out how we’re going to present the ideas. It’s meant to teach the consumer how to interact with the brand and showing them how to wear it.

The presentations aren’t meant to split up the ideas, it’s meant to teach people how to approach the ideas of the brand. It all comes from one hub and one concept but we’re just going to break it into these pieces so people get it more. We just want to make the message clearer. It won’t be a diffusion line or "easy wearing;" it’s just more of a style guide.

So you have a pretty controlled stockist list and really close relationships with some of your retailers like Vfiles. How have you developed those relationships?

Well, the buyer for Vfiles actually used to work for Hood By Air back in the day and he helped to relaunch the collection and was one of the first buyers that bought it when it came back out. We just have a really close friendship and that allows for things to happen. But I think that now we’re focusing on the brand and it has to be healthy for the brand so I think that [our partnership] is one issue that we have.

You’ve been getting a lot of awards recently with the CFDA and LVMH. What does that mean for you?

At the end of the day I think people are seeing what we actually want to put out, which is ideas. We’re really into ideas and also are showing an interest in using the business as art. I think [the awards] are just sort of validating in a sense, because people just need that. It’s also them appreciating what we’re doing which is really cool because we do put a lot of work into it and people don’t really realize that. They think we’re this huge thing and I’m like still in my 20s and most of the team is as well and it’s just us. We don’t have consultants and big business.

What’s come out of the LVMH Prize Special Prize so far and what are you looking forward to?

So I’m working with the same people that I was working with before but I don’t think I’m going to get matched up with a specific person. I think it’s just more like [LVMH] is going to help our company become a better business. I think the mentorship is also about showing me where the best place is to invest the [100,000 euros].

[Overall] I’m hoping to get higher quality and obtaining this sense of lineage and respect for the brand that a huge corporate company like theirs has. I really want to be able to sort of emboss our stamp and make it known that “this is very HBA” and this is a staple in fashion.