The former CEO of Hood by Air on how the brand ended fashion
Leilah Weinraub – artist, filmmaker and former CEO of the groundbreaking label – speaks on the relationship between fashion and exploitation.
Photography Arthur Jafa
This story originally appeared in i-D’s The Darker Issue, no. 365, Winter 2021. Order your copy here.
Leilah Weinraub is an artist, filmmaker, and former CEO of the groundbreaking NYC fashion label Hood By Air. Leilah’s work contends with questions of labour, money, performance, cultural capital and agency while centering women’s lives in imagining what a future of liberation could look like.
Hey, how are you?
I’m kind of in a bad mood today. It’s not because of this, I watched something and I don’t know if I have anything positive to say.
What did you watch?
I watched the Britney Spears documentary. Have you seen it?
No, but I’ve heard a lot about it.
I actually don’t know how to put it into language. But let me try. Her dad’s cultural legacy is slavery. That’s his cultural heritage. You have to see it. She’s surrounded by men and they are all taking advantage of her. They’re all exploiting her. I know I sound so emphatic about Britney, but it makes me see my own relationship to men, and think about it a lot… so that’s what I’m processing right now.
It’s total exploitation. I’m done with it. It’s everywhere. I guess I’m open to feeling it unfiltered right now, as part of the development of my projects. I’m not in a place of deflecting or minimising it. I’m in a place of being like: this is a state of insanity and dangerousness. I’m taking that rage seriously.
“Is couture possible right now? What even is that? Is a hoodie couture? Does it even matter? Is it relevant? Is fashion from Paris relevant? Can there be an American fashion company? I think the answer is no! I think people should stop trying.”
We live in a world where commerce and exploitation is definitively our means of collaboration. I'm not talking about exploitation just in the social or the sexual sense. I'm talking about it in terms of goods and resources and products. Like in IP terms, ‘I have the right to exploit this IP in these territories for this amount of time and space’, you know? That's a collaborative document that outlines our terms of engagement. So when I’m using the word exploitation, I’m trying to use it as a technical word. When Britney is writing songs like I'm a Slave 4 U, she's both participating in her own freedom – to be sexual and provocative and evocative – and she’s also experimenting with her own exploitation.
I think that you’re really good at understanding how something is operating at a structural level, and to imagine what the disruption is that’s needed to overturn the whole way a system is even running. That’s definitely a superpower of yours. In some ways that’s what Hood By Air was …
Without carrying too much, I think HBA successfully ended fashion in a way. The reality of fashion is that it's a European luxury object and concept, it's about imperialism and colonialism. The way fashion works is pretty mappable; it’s not a mystery or a secret. You take the ideas and the energy and the aesthetic of whoever it is you’re colonising, and you sexualise it, embody it, and eat it. You turn it into a rarified garment that’s made in such a way that the material tries to separate it from its original source of inspiration. And then the whole conversation around it, and around its rarified nature, takes it to a whole other level. It becomes a commodity and goes right back to the beginning to become an object of desire – even for the people that the original reference came from.
There are a few things you can do to be like – this cycle is done. One thing you could do is say: “I’ve usually been the reference, so now I'm going to be the maker and the voice,” and make it clear that I am the authentic origin of the look or the sexuality or the attraction, or even like the shock or whatever it is. In the case of Hood By Air, it literally reframed the European designers as secondary, old, irrelevant. So then they try to have this conversation back where they’re like “you’re called ‘streetwear’ and we’re called ‘ready-to-wear’.” And then the whole fashion industry gets rerouted into ‘streetwear’ which then cumulatively ends ready- to-wear fashion. It doesn’t really exist right now. Balenciaga has a hoodie as part of their couture line. So it reframes the whole conversation. Is couture possible right now? What even is that? Is a hoodie couture? Does it even matter if it is? Is it relevant? Is fashion from Paris relevant anymore? Can there be an American fashion company? I think the answer is no to everything! I think people should stop trying. I think the whole thing about America is that it’s just different.
What I really want is to see women at houses, actually leading the house. I don't want to get style advice from a man. I just think it's really passé at this point. Just like the whole enterprise of a man at the helm of a big house feels really lame to me. Sending models down the runway like “go girls!” I'm just like, stop it. Stop. Stop telling women what to do. Stop it. Literally stop.
Photography Arthur Jafa
Fashion director Carlos Nazario
Hair Fesa Nu the Hair Poet
Make-up Alana Wright using Shiseido at The Canvas Agency
Photography assistance Gary Axness and Cris Ian Garcia
Digital imaging technician Chris Nowling
Fashion assistance Raymond Gee
Production Mason Marchand and Judah Lawson
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING