In conversation with Ian Isiah - Big Shugga

“Big and street but also big and sweet.”

By Akram Shah

Ian is a New York-based creative known for his ongoing fashion collaboration with Shayne Oliver; either with Hood By Air, Helmut Lang or any other kind of endeavors Shaye has or will come up with, and a prominent musician. The latter plays a pivotal role in his body of work, and therefore this year started off big on the musical spectrum. Ian frequently works with Telfar, so it came as no surprise when he took the lead in Telfar’s Fall 2018 musical performance. Eleven-part ensemble including Kelela, Alton Mason, Oyinda, Walter Pearce and Telfar himself, was accompanied by Dev Hynes on piano, with all belting out a special rendition of Grateful by Hezekiah Walker. Ian and Dev also hold a special musical relationship with Ian being part of Dev’s band Blood Orange, and with Dev producing Ian’s upcoming solo album. Besides being known as Ian, there is also a strong presence of Big Shugga – a character, an alter ego, a motherly side to everything Ian. Either in a role of one or the other, everything Ian/Shugga touches is special and leaves a long-lasting impression.


How do I call you? Ian or Big Shugga?

I am both. I am, govermently Ian Isiah, however, I grew into Big Shugga last year. I kind of took upon maternity role in culture, and somehow that role ended up with the title of Big Shugga; which means big and street but also big and sweet.

When I meet Shayne (Oliver) in the summer; over the course of a dinner, he dropped ‘mother’ million times. And then when I meet Walter (Pearce) in Paris, he was also talking about mother – Mother Shayne, specifically.

The term ‘mother,’ is kind of taken from our kiki – gay culture, voguing, NYC, etc. The mother is the mentor, she is basically an OG, and being a mother means being an example and an influence for up-and-coming kids.

A lot of people tried to call me Mother, but I was not having it, so consequently Big Shugga happened.

I know how much you love Whitney Houston – is she your mother?

She is THE mother to me but I also have a bunch of stepmoms like Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Michelle Obama, etc.

Musical moms for a musician. You started off that way, right; fashion came into the picture later?

True! There is a lot of gospel singers in my family, and I got my start when I was three years old in a church. All my building and music muscle comes from the church. I did not grow up rich, so I got church music lessons every Wednesday, every Sunday, and by the time I was 12, I was completely musically developed, playing instruments, etc. One thing I really strived for through my whole career is also developing an absolute pitch, which a lot of artists do not have, but I’ve been focusing on it for so long, and its been finally paying off.

By Akram Shah

You and Dev Hynes often performing together, is there any music coming from you guys?

Dev changed my life in so many ways. I’ve been singing for super long, and everything was going great, but once I joined Blood Orange, everything changed for the better. We’ve now been collaborating for a while and will continue to do so. New Blood orange album is coming out, which I am a part of, and I will be putting out my own album, which he is a part of. My album will be a big ballad situation; Celine Dionish Shugga.

A new album under Ian or Big Shugga?

Under Big Shugga. I think I will put Ian Isiah to a slight rest, I mean, a rest enough where I can somehow bring back Ian Isiah for a possible fashion excursion, and be Shugga for all my music endeavors.

What kind of fashion excursion?

Right now, I’ve been quite quiet because I don’t know what the hell is going on with fashion, in general. The last thing I did was Helmut Lang with Shayne. As for right now, we are in the process of possibly reviving HBA, and rebranding Shayne’s name. Anything he does/will do, will be amazing, and I will stand by him 100%. For me personally, though, I ‚ve been offered a lot, I also said no a lot. I simply do not want to be the key that helps to revive an already existing fashion house – I don’t think that concept really works well.

It is kind of fucked up to get someone in to revive it, get the attention, and then switch it/him.

Yes, it’s beyond fucked up. If you have a designer with such talent, you have to work on that talent and produce that talent. Anyhow, right now, I guess, I am worlds counselor, I am a global counselor (laughs). I am putting more focus into music, personally, but always ready to come back into fashion.

By Akram Shah

Let us now talk about the parties! Tell me about your favourite ones…

Ok, this is a good one… Around two years ago we did a HBA show at Sun City, Paris. Models were creeping out of sex rooms, it was so much fun, but we got so much shit from it – from grannies of fashion, you know, just shit from old(er) ladies we all need to respect, I guess. But regardless al the shit talking we had the best experience there, and by the end of the night, people were jumping in jacuzzi’s having the best time after work, etc.

Another good one… Three years ago, me and my friends decided to do a party called Pillowqueen. It was me, Shayne, Ashley (Total Freedom) and Arca; who was in town at the time. For the party, I order 500 hundred dollars worth of trippy treats, and everyone got super high. What made this special, was being completely out of it trying to cope with Arca’s insane beats and his trippy music.

If you could pick one infamous party era to be a part of, which would it be? Studio 54, Taboo Club, The Roxy, etc?

It would definitely have to be the early Soul Train Party era. I know it was mostly TV tapings, but to me, it looks way more in the look than any of those old school legendary parties.

Ian, if you could pick one song to serve as a soundtrack to your life, which would it be?

I have nothing by Whitney!

If you two could’ve hang, where would you take her?

First at the Red Lobster, then rehab, and then we would go shopping – all in one week!

By Akram Shah

Interview: Katja Horvat

Photos: Akram Shah

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