Hood By Air’s Existential Crisis

As a part of the latest issue of their newish print magazine, Style.com profiled Hood By Air and its designer Shayne Oliver. In the piece, writer Maya Singers attempts to explain the brand's recent success and the cultural movement surrounding it. From stories of the labels humble beginnings to its current standing as one of hip-hop's most popular brands, the article focuses on answering the question: "What is Hood By Air?" Not surprisingly, the answer to which is largely: "Hood By Air." You see, HBA does not strive to be fashion or streetwear or anything really. It merely wants to exist in the vacuum of its own principles and aesthetics. And I'm not so sure such a thing is possible.

This is not to discredit Oliver's achievements. I like many of Hood By Air's tamer, more accessible designs, namely the graphic print streetwear-leaning offerings now known as "Hood By Air Classics", but I'm skeptical of a brand that refuses to acknowledge certain descriptors exist, or, more accurately, to be selective with the ones they invite. This skepticism is only made worse when you consider the title of their first major profile reads, "Hood By Air Storms The Fashion Establishment". After all, it would be pretty awkward to kick in the doors of the major houses, only to not have and an answer when asked to explain yourself. Simply doing things differently (i.e. using non-traditional models) doesn't make you nothing. As a brand in 2013, you need to be something. Knowing where you fit, even if it means creating your own category, helps consumers stay organized in a world where they are constantly being bombarded. Trademarks and branding are no longer enough. Customers deserve to know what they're getting into. I don't think that's too much to ask.

It's easy to see how Oliver, a homosexual African American man, easily rejects name-calling. But there are certain words that he seems to accept when describing his brand, such as "beauty" and "power". It's only when these words are localized to "punk" or "urban" or "hip-hop" that he shies away from them. For my money, the latter terms are much better at describing what exactly HBA is, while rejecting them seems petty and, at worst, like a transparent attempt to be cool. As Singer puts it: "The 'whatever' is important: One of the original tenets of the Hood by Air credo is that what you are...is totally unimportant. It's not about tolerance; it's about voiding difference with a big shrug. You're a boy who wants to dress like a girl? Whatever." Okay, so the "whatever" of it all is crucial, but it's also a quite a bit tiresome, no? Isn't the idea of the aloof designer who refuses to even classify his work as menswear just as passé as the genres or "categories" that Oliver thinks have been "done to death"?

Listen, Hood By Air is an urban-based brand inspired by streetwear and hip-hop culture. And that's totally OK. I'm not encouraging negative stereotypes, but people will make their own assumptions about a brand once they see it, regardless of how it's labeled. Broader descriptions, like "hip-hop", that already have powerful emotions attached to them only serve to help get more customers involved, and maybe even "change people" as Leilah Weinraub, HBA's director of art and commerce, seems to point to as the ultimate goal. Regardless of how they define success, defining themselves, even loosely, can enable Hood By Air to achieve whatever it is they think they deserve. And that's something I think both Shayne Oliver and I can agree on.