When Shayne Oliver began experimenting with gender on his Hood By Air runway, it was a "vacant playground no one was playing in," says the New York-based designer. Since his streetwear brand launched in 2006, Oliver has actively pushed queerness into the realm of luxury fashion, casting LGBTQ models, delighting in overt sexuality, and celebrating femininity with each collection--an attitude that's found its way onto every label's mood board 11 years later.
"I don't really feel a part of the conversation anymore," Oliver says, questioning whether fashion's queer fixation today has become too exploitative. Instead, the provocateur happily gravitates toward the fringes, where he's less concerned with accessibility than he is with authenticity. "Queerness is part of our lives, so when it becomes a conversation piece, my friends and I go the opposite direction."
Perhaps that's why Oliver took a break from HBA this year, closing down his CFDA award-winning brand at a time when its ethos has become a framework for the entire fashion industry. This past season, he assumed the role of guest designer at Helmut Lang as part of its newly launched Helmut Lang Design Residency program. Under editor in residence Isabella Burley (of Dazed & Confused), Oliver was invited to fuse his disruptive edge with Helmut Lang's signature minimalism for spring 2018.
Shirt: Helmut Lang Seen by Shayne Oliver, Glasses: Hood By Air x Gentle Monster
The resulting runway show, one of New York Fashion Week's most sought-after seats, was Oliver's "love letter" to Lang himself. "It was an homage to someone I have been infatuated with since birth," he says, adding that he defied expectations by creating something entirely different from HBA. "I didn't want to be like, 'Look how I'm flowing.' It was more about me saying, 'This is how I feel when I see Helmut.' I wanted to create something beautiful, and out of respect to his name."
As beautiful as it was, Helmut Lang through Oliver's lens was still unabashedly queer, featuring trans models like Sophia Lamar, and allusions to BDSM culture via chastity belts and oversized leather bras worn across all genders. Beyond its fashion, the production also recalled HBA's hectic energy, as Oliver's cast nearly ran down the catwalk, rushed as if they were about to miss their morning subway. It's fitting, given that he's long been inspired by what business means in New York City. "I'm making fun of it," Oliver says, "but I'm also encapsulating and reinforcing it."
But when Oliver thinks about power and masculinity and Wall Street, he envisions women wearing the suits and running the show--never men. "It's the feminine authoritative energy I know," he says, citing his predominantly female family (especially his aunt) as a core influence. "I identify women as the ones handling business." In Oliver's world, the femmes are in complete control, and the men are often the ones who are sexualized.
Whether he's collaborating with PornHub and covering models' faces in fake semen or spotlighting fetishes with bedazzled S&M-style pacifiers, Oliver has always knowingly brought these radical, outsider notions to the upscale market--and his steep prices consciously reflect what it takes to do so. "There's a lot of blood and sweat behind these ideas," Oliver says. "So if you want to bite into the culture, eat all these lemons, and say, 'I'm a part of this,' you have to actually pay for it. There's a cost."
This declaration lies in stark contrast to other heavy hitters in the industry who are racing to become more accessible, and also more inclusive, but despite his expanding platform, Oliver never intended to speak to everyone. "The idea is that I'm different than you, and you have to respect it," he says. "As opposed to, I'm different and I'm also the same as you. We actually don't like the same things, and that's OK. Queerness has to do with me being different than you and you saying you can handle it."
Photography: Roger Erickson Styling: Ian Isiah Groomer: Camille Thompson at Exclusive Artists using Peter Thomas Roth (Cover) Jacket: Helmut Lang Seen by Shayne Oliver Photographed at Ludlow Studio, New York, on October 3, 2017