If you watch MTV or read fashion magazines, you’ve probably seen Stevie Boi’s work. Remember the jewel-encrusted sunglasses Lady Gaga wore on her Monster Ball tour? Boi made those. In fact, the 22-year-old Baltimore-based designer is largely responsible for the extravagant, impractical turn that high-fashion eyewear has taken in the last couple of years. Big-name designers had already created dazzling sunglasses that you couldn’t find at the mall, but Boi upped the ante considerably.
Stevie Boi was the first to make glasses whose lenses—not just the frames—sparkled with rhinestones, sport spikes, studs, or fabric. (As a result, Boi’s web site lists the visibility level each pair of glasses provides—some dip as low as 20 percent, another indication that these glasses are made to be seen rather than for seeing.) Some of Boi’s more adventurous designs are fabricated from syringes, or shaped like guns or brass knuckles. They range in price from $50 to $500 , but one pair made of real gold and recently featured in Japanese Vogue is going for $55,000.
Boi calls himself a “celebrity designer,” and as his career advances the phrase has taken on a double meaning: He creates designs for celebrities, but he is also becoming something of a celebrity in his own right. At last year’s Fashion Week in New York, Boi began shooting a show with MTV that features him talking with his famous friends—“I don’t know what they’re going to do with it,” Boi says—and photos of him now show up in fashion magazines like Vogue.
So, it’s surprising—and, for the skeptical observer of the whole celebrity phenomenon, refreshing—to find Boi at a Denny’s restaurant in Bel Air on Christmas Eve afternoon, the day we’d agreed to talk over the phone. He’s with his sister and what sounds like a group of children. We can’t hear each other at all over the racket of clanging silverware and inquiring waitresses. “It’s too loud in here,” he says. “Let me go into the bathroom, maybe we can talk there.” (We end up postponing the conversation.)
Though Boi hangs with superstars, he doesn’t look to them for inspiration. He hasn’t fled to New York City. Instead, he continues to work in and draw inspiration from what he calls the “pandemonium of Baltimore,” where he is largely unknown.
Stevie Boi was born Steven Strawder. His mother was in the military and the family moved a lot. “I’ve been in every state, lived in so many different countries,” he says. “I have a unique cultural background.” When he was 16, his mother moved the family to Bel Air. A couple of years later, Boi got his own loft apartment in Baltimore, near Lexington Market, and painted all the walls black. “It’s very dark, kind of like a fairyland,” he says. “It’s where all the magic happens. I’m so inspired by all the crazy sounds of the city.”
Boi is sensitive to sound. He began his career making grime music, an amalgamation of punk, garage, and hip-hop. “I was pretty big on Myspace back when that was popular and so I got to know people from MTV and that’s how I met a lot of the people that I work with now,” he says. He had always been interested in fashion—he is an innovative dresser and has always worked up elaborate wardrobes for himself, including hats made out of vinyl LPs—and eventually realized he could make a greater impact in fashion.
In 2007, Boi started a clothing line, but he was almost immediately drawn to accessories and ultimately focused on sunglasses. In 2009, he ordered protective goggles and went to work on them, selling 15,000 pairs his first year alone. “I used to be a little crazy with the spikes and the studs,” he admits. At first, he made them all by hand, but eventually began having some of his products fabricated, first in Japan and then in New York.
“Now everybody does fabricated glasses,” Boi says. “But we know who started it.”
Now that what he says are his signature looks are popping up under other labels, Boi is creating a commercial line that will be sold in major retail outlets. “When I got that call, they asked how quickly I could come up with a collection,” he says. “It was a great day, but I only had a month to create a whole line.” Since then, Stevie Boi has been “busting ass to finish the collection,” while also making commercials, appearing in magazines, and traveling around the world.
For such a young man, Boi has an uncanny business sense, but he still seems a bit baffled by his artistic process. “It’s random as hell,” he says. “I’m usually intoxicated and I just start messing around with things. I make a lot of stuff I don’t like. I get really upset and throw them against the wall like a little kid. But then I cool down and pick them up and redo them. A lot of times those are the ones people like. I make something especially for them and they say, ‘What about those broken ones over in the corner?’”
Though Boi admits he is planning on acquiring an apartment in New York City this year, he says he’ll always keep his apartment in Baltimore and laughs when asked if it’s necessary to move to New York to make it in fashion. “It’s only a couple hours away from Baltimore,” he says. “Baltimore may not be that big, but it’s still a city and I can have my car here. I have to have my car. I hate public transportation.”
There are, however, things Boi can’t get away with in Baltimore. “I can’t wear my platform heels here,” he says, laughing. “Those are for New York.”