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Diverse diversions, from Hood by Air and DKNY

Susie Lau

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The video-screen backdrop to the DKNY autumn/winter 2014 show

Lack of diversity and unrealistic portrayals of women (and men) in fashion are the go-to criticisms levied on the industry. The highest echelons of fashion, sadly, don’t care to respond and when they do, it’s often mere tokenism or poor taste (the “Vogue Black” section of the Vogue Italia website, whilst doubtless well-meaning, is one high-profile example).

New York, with its rich history of welcoming immigrants from the world over, might seem like the perfect setting to bring diversity in fashion to the forefront. Trouble is, the industry here is ruled by status quo – going too far off-piste might jeopardise the all-important bottom line. And we don’t need Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street to tell us that this is a city that is almost defined by its bottom line.

That’s why everybody has been applauding Hood by Air, a label injecting New York with a visceral energy that has quickly gained momentum over the last few seasons.

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A look from the Hood By Air show

Designer Shayne Oliver was brought up in Brooklyn (via Trinidad) and there’s no getting away from it; that layered background gives credence to the streetwear-inflected clothes he creates. Sunday’s show was Oliver’s biggest show to date with a raucous audience that was dotted with HBA tees (Oliver started Hood by Air with these tees way back in 2007). Moments of repetition (the show was over twenty minutes long) didn’t detract too far from the core message. An eclectic street cast group of men and women, sometimes indistinguishable from one another stomped their way down the runway in a frenzy of fake extensions, punk strapped trousers, graphic tees and laced-up jackets.

These aren’t clothes that appropriate needlessly from the street wear genre for pure cool factor. Oliver designs with an authenticity that doesn’t just mine surface. His clothes get under your skin because there’s a complexity present, which makes you question and probe into all of those inequalities that pervades the industry. The finale of frenetic Voguing dancers, who Oliver also knew personally, was the pièce de résistance. They danced not with arch elegance as is the Voguing norm, but flung about the catwalk with violent urgency.

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Printed layers from Hood By Air for autumn/winter 2014

Some might draw similarities with Rick Owens sending his group of step dancers out at his womenswear show last season, but this felt even more personal as for Oliver, it was a real expression of his identity. Hood by Air’s mere existence is stirring up thoughts that are propelling the dialogue about diversity forward. Thankfully, Oliver isn’t just here to hone a message in with concept and theatrics. His clothes do the talking too. And it’s likely that Oliver will continue to have something significant to say in the long run.

DKNY’s 25th anniversary show almost felt like a strange echo to the Hood by Air show that preceded it, albeit with vastly different results. The show began with a gushy video montage of sound bites from a group of diverse New Yorkers. They’re not native to New York but consider the city their own. They’re make-up artists, night club hostesses, students and photographers. They’re the “real people”. They walked the show, interspersed amongst the normal models in D for Donna (or Diversity perhaps?) varsity jackets and jumpers, street-bound creepers and flashes of neon pink. The audience whopped at this United Colours of Benetton-esque parade.

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D for Donna, at DKNY

It’s no surprise that Donna Karan paid homage to the characters of her city for her younger line. Especially when they looked so convincing in their DKNY ensembles. Yes, thoughts of tokenism tugged away at you. Choosing a cast of good looking people, who work in mostly creative industries – is that really more “real” than working models, with good genes? Let’s not get too deep into the semantics behind the way we carelessly throw about that word “real”. What these New Yorkers did bring was a positive energy to an upbeat show that appropriately celebrated DKNY’s roots and connection to the city. And they looked just as good as the models. Real good.

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