Exclusive backstage photos of Hood By Air's London comeback show

The brand who trampled down the boundaries between art fairs, dungeons and the LVMH Prize has returned.

by Mahoro Seward
28 September 2021, 2:15am

Given that you’ve picked up a copy of i-D, there’s a healthy chance that you’re familiar with, and have perhaps even directly followed, the era-defining story of Hood By Air. Rather than retell their extensively chronicled tale, though, we’ll simply introduce them as the label that laid the groundwork for everything you love about fashion today.

Founded in 2006 by then-18-year-old Shayne Oliver and Raul Lopez, Hood By Air irreverently trampled over the boundaries that once kept art fairs, dommes’ dungeons, prim SoHo boutiques, GHE20G0TH1K’s sweat-running-down-the-walls parties, and the LVMH Prize showroom all strictly apart. They effectively set a template for the many socially subversive fashion practices that have followed in the space they opened up.

Indeed, the extent to which Hood By Air’s cultural output throughout the late aughts and early teens shaped the fashion landscape as we know it today can’t be downplayed. The strength of its legacy – as a force that invigorated a staunchly conservative industry with a vision that was unabashedly Black, genderless and queer – is what caused the announcement of its hiatus in 2017 to be met with pained gasp; it is, however, also what caused the announcement of its return last summer to be received with the wildest of cheers.

A woman in a white durag at the Hood by Air show

The latest iteration of the brand is four-pronged. There’s Anonymous Club, the (you guessed it) anonymous global network of creatives that serves as the entire operation’s creative and logistical engine; Museum, which reissues iconic pieces from Hood By Air’s clamoured-after archive; HBA, a direct-to-consumer line; and last but by no means least, Hood By Air, a flagship luxury label launching collections in line with a yearly theme.

It was for the debut of the latter that around 60 or so audience members descended deep into the concrete bowels of London’s 180 Strand in the beginning of July, for what it wouldn’t be unfair to call one of the most hotly anticipated and most secretive events of the fashion calendar. What was perhaps most striking was the lack of stereotypical fashion commotion. With just a single row of socially distanced seats skirting a soil-strewn runway around a reed fringed pond, every guest was deemed worthy of the frow. And rather than the typical clique of bored buyers, jaded editors, and influencers straining to find the perfect angle (pictures, may we note, were very much not allowed), the select audience was by and large made up of members of Hood By Air’s London circle – people who, despite being industry folk, were invited to attend for what they meant to label, rather than solely for their job titles. It was a strictly family affair. So there were no photos allowed, no social media hype, no immediate release to the press explaining what happened and who was there and what they wore and what the clothes looked like.

Models posing backstage at the Hood By Air show

That may seem counter-intuitive from a PR perspective – why would you stage such a hotly anticipated comeback so stealthily? For a brand so anchored in a party-hard spirit, where’s the goddamn confetti? Well, there is of course the pandemic factor to take into, which naturally hampered the scale – in era-appropriate fashion, the event was filmed to then be later released. But beyond the practical exigencies of these times, though, Shayne also “wanted the experience to be shaped around a group of people that we trust,” he reflects, over Zoom from New York, a few weeks after the show. “It was us thinking about how we could make the people who have been continuing the conversation of Hood By Air feel included,” people that were part of the communities that Shayne became fixtures of while working on independent projects during his HBA hiatus. “I became very engaged with the PDA community, for example,” referring to the iconic East London QTPOC-led party that was, until its 2019 finale, as close as you’d find in London to the GHE20G0TH1K raves he was a ringleader of back in New York. “I thought it would be really great to do something that was celebratory for the crowd of people that I actually think are really cool.”

Models posing backstage at the Hood By Air show

This sentiment made itself felt on the runway, too. “There’s always been a family aspect with the casting of Hood By Air, we’ve always included friends and family in every single show,” says Walter Pearce, the co-founder of New York casting agency Midland. Starting his career as an intern under the label’s casting director in 2012, his irreverent approach to casting the Hood By Air runway – often selecting models whose features antagonistically went against industry beauty standards – has made him one of the most disruptive, defining forces in shaping what runways now look like. For Hood By Air’s return, he made a concerted effort to “include London family, like Mowalola [Ogunlesi], Maximilian [Davis] and John Glacier. Every city has its own vibe, so it’s about finding the Hood By Air vibe in London, not trying to make it look like New York.“

A perhaps trickier challenge arose, though, in trying not to replicate Hood By Air as it once was. “I didn’t want it to just look the same as it did before. Everyone else has caught up, especially when it comes to casting,” Walter says. “A lot of the stuff that we did for Hood By Air that was really shocking then but has now beyond normalised. It quite literally is the norm. Here, it’s really been a matter of thinking about where Hood By Air fits in now in 2021 compared to where it sat in 2014. And that’s a different place entirely.”

Models posing backstage at the Hood By Air show

“That’s what makes it so exciting,” added Carlos Nazario, the fashion director of both Hood By Air and this very magazine, backstage after the show. “A lot of the ideas and the aesthetic that HBA was originally based on have become quite normalised in culture, so it’s been interesting trying to reimagine what the future looks like.”

For Shayne, that future is rooted in a more concrete idea of who the Hood By Air person is. He’s less focussed on making a thematic statement or staging an idea and more interested in considering what the people who embody those ideas really want to wear. “Instead of putting the aggression into the presentation, it was more about the aggression of the pieces themselves,” he says. “A lot of what we were trying to get at back then had to do with identity, and all of these things that were just being ignored in fashion at the time. But now that these themes are so present in the conversation, it’s more about that person’s wardrobe – about thinking, ‘If this person wants to wear a bra as a top, how do we construct it so that it goes from an undergarment to a real piece?’”

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Models posing backstage at the Hood By Air show

What old-timer Hood By Air fans will be grateful for, though, is that Shayne’s shift in perspective doesn’t result in a dramatic leap from the aesthetic territory they mapped out during their 2010s heyday. “What you see here is a reminder of what you know, but with an updated twist,” Ian Isiah, the RnB artist and Hood By Air creative director, reassures. “Although we’re preaching that it is new, if you’re a fan or customer of the brand, you still see the same silhouettes that were there years before.” The linebacker-shouldered leather coats, armour-busted bras, double waist-banded tailored trousers and braided caps by Eugene Souleiman as cases in point. Familiar as they may be, though, what sets them apart here is a poised, luxury sensibility which, while present in Hood By Air’s earlier work, perhaps hasn’t made itself quite as adamantly felt until now.

“Touch and feel just became so important to me,” Shayne says, “it really made me consider why people respect ideas. I want to have that jacket that I love last. And then there was the idea of wearing a durag every day, and becoming so attached to it that you then want to see it in taffetas and silks, and even transform it into a dress that can be worn in a number of different ways. Before, it was often about clashing high and low, but now I want to create pieces that can move between different realms, depending on whether you style it up or down – pieces that can transcend that division in their own right.”

It’s a subtle distinction to underscore, but it’s one that draws due attention to what makes this second coming of Hood By Air so, well, Hood By Air — its propensity for self-reinvention, for constantly evolving beyond externally-imposed expectations of what it is. As the choirboy who opened the show sang, wading through the murky waters of the pond installed at the heart of the space, the only thing that will ever be a given with Hood By Air is that it will always be “submerged in the new” — always expanding beyond the horizons of what you understand it to be and where you think it could go. “That was the whole idea of this show,” Ian concurs, “It’s a rebirth for us. A renewal. A revival.”

Models posing backstage at the Hood By Air show
Models posing backstage at the Hood By Air show


Photography Carlos Nazario and Beth Morrison

Fashion Director Carlos Nazario

Hair Eugene Souleiman at Streeters.
Make-up Thomas de Kluyver at Art Partner.
Nail technician Lauren Michelle Pires.
Set design Jabez Bartlett.
Styling assistance Raymond Gee and Peter Aluuan.
Casting Rachel Chandler and Walter Pierce at Midland Casting.
Models Binta Diop and Mayor Dutie at Elite, Georgia Palmer and Kitan Sogo at IMG, Jordan Whittingham at Next, Iggy at Premier, Ingrid Fernandes at Viva, Khalifa at Chapter, Hakima at M+P, Hannah Thatcher at Select, Tyrell at Present, Kaia Isaiah Jamal, Mowalola, Onyedi, Slawn and Leo.
All clothing HOOD BY AIR.

Hood By Air