Shayne Oliver vogues, but says he doesn’t dip. His friend, Raul Lopez, accuses him of modesty. Together, they are the proprietors of the innovative fashion design collective Hood by Air, known for their unexpected (and sometimes aerodynamic) unisex streetwear. Part of The House of Galore, they are energetic, wordly New Yorkers who strut into The Lab with the confidence you’d expect from vogue children who’ve been doing this since junior high. They were two of the first graduates of Harvey Milk High, a LGBT school, after it became accredited by the New York public school system in 2002, and they still practice voguing in its gym. Tonight, Lopez is reserved, kicking it on the sidelines in a black metal folding chair and giving sweet greetings to friends, but Oliver is all performance. Wearing tailored shorts and a blonde vest that matches his dyed bangs (which he sometimes sprays up into a platinum high-top fade), he plants his hands on his hips gracefully and walks, he plants his hands on his hips gracefully and walks, back and forth, giving hand-on-face poses at each end of his promenade.
When the vogue ball circuit emerged in New York some twenty years ago as an outgrowth of the NYC drag scene, it was a space for mostly black and Latino, gay and transvestite men. Balls were both a refuge and a place of aspiration, where its denizens could dream about living freer and more fabulously. They became a place where class, gender and culture intersected and turned fluid. Most people’s perception of vogue culture comes from director Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, an excellent historical foundation on one aspect of the culture in its nascent stages that barely speaks to what’s going on in vogue circles now.
Vogue and ball culture is still centered around the dance, but the ideals have changed, particularly in the realm of fashion. The emergence of hip-hop transformed the feathers and sequins of yore into rhinestone belts, high-end jeans and silky braids, Jim Jones style. “It’s turning into something new,” says the 21-year-old Oliver. “When Paris is Burning came out, vogue was about being Dynasty, it was about daytime TV, it was about feeling white women. And now for the kids in The Clubhouse [a Harlem vogue spot], it’s all about feeling Rihanna and Chris Brown. It’s like Dynasty comes to Marcy Projects.”