Shayne Oliver on her first solo art exhibition, Anonymous Club and HBA
Shayne Oliver’s many fans weren’t surprised that her long-awaited return to New York Fashion Week last February wasn’t exactly about the clothes. Instead of a traditional runway show, the protean designer held three days of multimedia performances at the sprawling cultural center The Shed titled “HEADLESS: THE GLASS CEILING by Anonymous Club. For Oliver, the show reflected a new dedication to artistic vision. More in this mix: Hood by Air, the norm-shattering streetwear brand that helped pave the way for expanded definitions of beauty in the fashion industry, starting with the brand’s influential first runway show almost ten years ago.
The event also revealed to the public what Anonymous Club, an initiative led by Oliver and distinctly separate from HBA, is capable of achieving. The collective, as the designer defines it, brings together creatives from a wide variety of backgrounds – including musicians Ian Isaiah, Tama Gucci and Total Freedom – most of whom have long been in its orbit. His ultimate goal? Promote solidarity artistic collaborations outside the constraints of mainstream fashion.
Spurred on by this vision, Oliver officially made his solo debut in the art world with “Museum, Anonymous Club”, currently on display at the Upper East Side Egan and Rosen Gallery. The exhibition pushes the 35-year-old designer, who now performs under the name Leech, and his work beyond the realm of fashion and into the wider sphere of visual arts. On display are five wall sculptures derived from a series of rigid, oversized circle and rectangle shaped necklaces featured in HBA’s Spring 2015 collection. At Egan and Rosen, reimagined versions take the form of acrylic, aluminum, oak, or “synthetic ivory” discs, from which geometric patterns, including HBA insignia, have been cut into the material. Removed from a runway context, the works take on a new conceptual meaning, linked to the complexities and emotions surrounding the property.
Here, Oliver talks about his pivot to the art world, his relationship with early HBAs, and why we should all rethink Ralph Lauren.
What do you consider different in the world of art compared to the world of fashion?
In fashion, the runway has always been the focus: the presentation of a new entity or a new archetype that you present to the world through this catwalk or performance space. I have always considered this to be very much related to performance art. As far as the art world is concerned, it’s more about artifacts of these archetypes and then a movement towards feeling when you observe these performances. Because, in your memory, [a performance] begins to resonate like a time capsule of emotion. Art is therefore like the artefact of these moments.
What motivated you to do your first solo art exhibition?
I guess to prove that point deeper into working on this brand, creating things that aren’t clothing, that aren’t actually part of the collection, or the brand itself – it’s like a real artifact of the collection and of the performance itself, of the track. It was going back to my own archives and seeing what I had felt in the first place, Yes, there may be a logo on it, but it is not a Hood by Air product. I was already doing these things that reflected the brand as demonstrations and/or understandings of what I was trying to implement that designers are only supposed to put into clothes. It felt like a static version of that understanding and practice that I’m building right now with Anonymous Club.
So these necklaces are recreations of accessories worn during HBA’s Spring 2015 show?
Yes. They are essentially set pieces, which have been thrown and trampled on. It was funny to see the cherished clothes on racks and in bags, and then those precious pieces demolished. A little of [the originals] were destroyed due to the way they were stored in the archives. This practice of things that I find so valuable in the design process, I want to be able to put it in a space where people can interact with those parts.
The necklaces, cropped in visual art, are an interesting landmark; their utilitarian value is not necessarily comparable to that of, say, a shirt.
[They’re] definitely a choice, right? If you go into this area of putting on a collar, apart from the idea of imprisonment, you are making a specific choice to take advantage or fetishize or create a statement of imprisonment. Thinking about these walls of what HBA was – a collective, an upstart brand, a group of friends -[is] something that now imprisons him too. Even the way the brand is evolving now, still being a founder and shareholder, moving away from that initial feeling that was liberating, but also so imprisoning, from my understanding of what this brand is and means to me – as a as a person, not as a businessman.
When you say “what is an HBA”, do you mean it’s different now?
I mean, even if I put together another team of creatives and collectors, it would never be so specific [original] team. For the best or for the worst. This delay and this real situation, in itself been liberating at the time, but I had to step away from the brand to allow it to be its own thing, to have its own philosophy that can live outside of me.
What was the thought behind the name Anonymous Club?
With Hood by Air, the name is so specific. But the artists are so fluid – I think the ethos, and the thing that connected us, is what the name stands for. Now, we don’t need that as an ethos. We understand it, because it is now such a specific thing that exists in the world. I think the demographics are probably the same – the people, the types of artists are in the same field. We all used it to make clothes and now it’s more than that. It’s like “Now let’s break down our music”, “Now let’s formalize the conversations we had around set design” – all these different aspects of how we worked together. It’s a place to celebrate that and to protect that process too. Because when you’re in fashion, nobody protects anything but clothes. Period. You could be working on a 57-minute piece of symphonic music, but then, right after the show, nobody gives a fuck. It’s not cataloged, it’s not appreciated. This process is what Anonymous Club hosts. Or practice, should I say.
Would you say you’re trying to flip the idea of a fashion brand? It seems that this practice was born out of frustration with the expectation of a fashion brand being one-dimensional.
Yes. That’s why I’ve always found streetwear interesting. Clothes are the simplest things, the things people always wear. In a way, streetwear is basically like workwear, lifewear. If a brand is aimed at skateboarders, for example, that brand shows you the utilitarianism of clothing while showing you exactly how I feel when I skate. That’s what makes me an American designer. I love the context and progressiveness of the designs across quotes fashion history in Europe, and even Africa – just all the historical outfits – and how it disconnects when it comes to fashion American. Ralph Lauren is a conceptual designer.
Even though the clothes aren’t conceptual, it’s basically a Bronx person growing up and playing in this elite world. It is a scenography! I think that’s what American designers do well, but the garment is not there. There is always this disconnect. It’s the same with streetwear. The feeling, the essence, it’s all there. But the clothes are not. Sometimes I feel like there’s no place, especially as an American designer, where you can appreciate your idea of how we engage with clothing, which is very established. We have to see the world, it has to be there – it’s not just a track concept.
But sometimes New York fashion changes every season. I think that’s why Helmut Lang, for example, found more love [upon coming] in New York – he repeated designs or fell in love with specific things. I think the designers who are drawn to the catwalks in New York have this tendency to repeat things because they’re not in this fashion cycle, which tends to be very [snaps fingers] going through trends and all that. I wanted to create a space where I could enjoy the idea of design, and its formality, through the formality of fashion, and this industry, as well as business, as an American designer. [who is] lover of the lifestyle, lover of the mindset and lover of the process of how am I going to wear this, why am I going to wear this. That’s what Anonymous Club is trying to do: break out those parts of the creative process, [let them] having their own respectable moments, and/or having that time to really reflect.
What can we expect from Anonymous Club in the near future?
Right now, I’m just building so many things around collection concepts, and/or musical projects, and/or archetypes and artifacts. There are a few different aspects to that: growing into the music part, and having it live; grow in the fashion part thanks to collaborations. Anonymous Club wasn’t necessarily meant to be a fashion brand. Naturally, due to the practice it has, it will have a lot of fashion elements and have its own brand identity. But it goes in and out of that context.
How important is highlighting these physical spaces – the set of a performance or the hall of an exhibition – in relation to both Anonymous Club and your own creative trajectory?
I think it’s become more important over time as things have become more digital. Human incarnation and things that reflect that, it’s so rare. Now we don’t tend to move apart from trying to record [a performance]. Focusing specifically on the live aspect where everyone has their bearings. You can’t really refer to a…reactive reaction! [Laughs.] Because it’s a jerk in this system. It’s a shock within the algorithm. I’m not saying we’re in a matrix—
They are like glitches. These are glitches that cannot be put in a box. When those moments happen – based on those live performances or those performance art practices that I’ve created for myself – those glitches are the moments that need to be highlighted for the conversation to move forward. I don’t think it will stay like this. It will evolve.