Late Monday morning, TikTok fashion creative Olive Eng-Canty plays with her cat, then makes a cup of coffee in her Manhattan apartment. The cameras, which is to say her phone, are off. She likes to keep her day-to-day life private: what she wants to show the world is not her life or her personality, but her style.
At the core of her outfit videos is her out-of-the-box perspective on fashion as an artform, independent from society, trends, and rules. She doesn’t want people to dress like her. She wants her viewers to find their individual style, a style that will both sustain them, and be sustainable. Her own style, shaped by her sexuality and neurodivergence, took time to develop. At 20, she’s now influenced by punk ideals; her style now involves a lot of re-appropriated schoolwear garb, like blazers and plaid.
Today, she wears an oversized short-sleeve button-down under a red plaid vest, paired with plaid knee-length shorts, and a red tie. She describes the fit as “a little punk schoolboy.” Her rebellious ideas brought to life through garb associated with conservative settings, is, if unintentionally, provocative. She loves breaking fashion rules (I notice a lot of plaid paired with gingham). But she also invents new guidelines for herself, making fashion seem as much like play as it is her career.
Her taste has changed subtly over time, but it’s centered around Olive, always. She’d rather stay outside the box and lead others out of the box, too. But she’s not leading them back to the land of Olive’s style— she’s taking them home.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
How did you get started on TikTok?
I started during quarantine, which I feel like is everyone’s origin story. I was just bored. And I really have always loved dressing up, So I would always dress up for school and like put on a cool outfit. And when I didn’t have school to go to anymore because of quarantine, I was like, I need to show someone my outfits. So I started posting on TikTok, and one of the first fashion videos I posted blew up, and I was just like, okay, this is cool. Like, I don’t have anything better to do. So I’ll just keep posting and now here I am.
What part of social media are you most drawn to?
I like doing social media and being a fashion influencer, because I feel like I have something to say, something to contribute in the world in terms of fashion, like a unique perspective on fashion. I wanted to open people’s minds to what fashion can look like, people who aren’t in fashion. So social media is a really good platform for that.
What do you mean by your “unique perspective?” What does that entail?
My perspective differs in the way I look at fashion in comparison to other people. Like, I would define mainstream fashion as being dictated by trends. I feel like a lot of people follow a kind of formula and rules of what’s socially acceptable and what goes together. And these kinds of fashion rules are what dictate mainstream fashion now. But I’ve never been someone that really understood social norms and fashion rules like that. So I feel like I’ve always had an outside-of-the-box perspective, because I don’t feel as confined by social norms.
What’s an example of a fashion rule you break?
I love mixing patterns. That’s something I’ve always loved to do, I always think that different patterns go together, But I’ll always get comments on all of my videos that mix patterns, that are like, mixing patterns don’t match, these things don’t match. And I feel that just reflects how mainstream fashion is presented as a set of rules that you have to follow, to make yourself look fashionable. The way I like to look at it, it’s an art form, a form of self expression, not having to follow any rules or guidelines.
How did you develop such a strong sense of style? Are you inspired by anyone?
I feel the reason I was able to develop a pretty strong sense of personal style is because I stopped using other influencers and the internet as influences for myself. Whenever someone asks me, who’s your biggest style influencer inspiration, I always say myself. It’s very rare I’ll look at an outfit someone else is wearing and be like, that is an outfit I would wear, that I would think of or understand. Sometimes I get inspiration from hearing people explain the thought process behind their outfits, because I think it’s interesting to hear how other people look at fashion and think about it. That can give me some inspiration sometimes, but in terms of the physical outfits and garments, I don’t really look at other influencers for inspiration.
What about designers? Are you influenced by any?
I do, I love Vivienne Westwood, like a huge Vivienne Westwood fan. I’m very inspired by her archive fashion, but I feel like the reason that I’m so inspired by Vivienne Westwood is less about the actual garments she constructed and sold, but the way that she transformed fashion with her unique perspective. That’s why I love her so much. Most of the time, most of the things I find inspiration from are random other things, like art and photography and stuff that might not be fashion. I just don’t love getting direct fashion inspiration from someone else. I want it to come from my own brain.
Can we go back to the unique perspective you were talking about? Where does that come from, that out-of-the-box viewpoint?
It’s really hard for me to put a finger on it. I have some neurodivergences that make me think about things differently, especially in terms of creative things. Like, throughout my entire life, I’ve always viewed creative endeavors through a different lens than other people because of my neurodivergences. I feel like I have a different sense of balance, and I have my own rules and ideas for fashion, but they have nothing to do with the rules that are set by society. It’s rules that I set for myself to follow.
What are the rules you set for yourself?
I really like when my outfits tell a story, have some sort of narrative. Even if it’s not obvious to someone else, when I’m putting together an outfit, I always think of a story behind it. I don’t really know why I do this, but I feel like I’ve always done it. And that’s something I feel like not a lot of people do when they’re picking out an outfit.
Is it to portray a character, or be a costume?
Kind of, it is like a character. But it’s less than a costume and more of the vibe of a character. Like one thing I really love to do is juxtapose two different ideas and feelings, or connotations within fashion. So something really masculine with something really feminine. Or something really preppy with something really edgy. And I use that contrast to create a story in my head of whatever character I’m playing. So today, my vibe is schoolboy has to wear a school uniform, but is a little bit punk. So he DIYs the school uniform to look cooler. And like, that’s what goes through my head every morning when I pick out an outfit.
So you’re currently a junior at Parsons School of Design. What’s the goal when you graduate? Would you want to be a stylist?
I would love to run my own brand. I don’t think I would be able to style for someone else, because I feel I am really focused on my own personal style and telling my story and showing who I am as a person through my style. I’m not so interested in trying to capture other people’s vibes in fashion. So styling, I don’t think I would have that much fun with. But designing, I can create things that I actually love and would wear and sell them, and make that my business.
Your TikTok is all about your style and very little about your personal life. Is that a conscious choice?
Yeah, that’s on purpose. I feel like for a really long time, I felt like social media had too much of a chokehold on my life, where I felt like I was living my life for social media, because I would be doing things and while I was doing them, thinking about making content, or posting there. Or I would do things specifically to post that I did it. And I just thought that was so stupid, because thinking about how before social media, no one knew anything about anyone’s life unless you were close to them. And I was like, it’s so unnatural for everyone to know everything about my life and what I’m doing. And also, why does anyone care?
I had this realization that I don’t really care about seeing other people’s random pictures and videos about their life, like I’m entertained, but I don’t really care that much. So why would anyone care about mine? And the only thing I feel I actually want to share with the public, because I feel like I have something to say, is fashion. So that’s the only thing I want to put out. Because I’m tired of feeling like social media controls my life, and I want social media and my life to be separate.
Do you make effort to express your personality in your style videos?
I went through a little period where I was like, I feel so insecure about my personality, because I’m getting validation for my style, but I’m not getting validation for my personality. And then I was like, that’s literally so stupid. I should be trying to find validation on my own. So maybe people do care about me and the person that I am when they follow me, but I don’t care if they don’t. I want people to care about my style. And I don’t really care if you care about me as a person.
What is it like being a queer influencer?
I just did a pride shoot this last pride month, which was really fun. And I met some people through it. I’m not as in queer TikTok, and a lot of people are surprised when I say I’m lesbian because I don’t talk about it that much. But it’s not something that I have ever kept private. I also feel my sexuality plays a pretty big part in my style. So in a way, everything that I post is queer content.
Tell me more about how your sexuality plays into your style.
I have always felt, because I’m queer, that I have a mix of masculinity and femininity within me that fluctuates day to day. So I like to represent how I’m feeling that day, in terms of masculinity and femininity, with my style. I also feel like my style fully developed once I fully came to terms with my sexuality, just because when I thought I was still interested in men, what I wore was very dictated by what I thought men would find attractive because, obviously, I wanted male validation. But once I fully came to terms of the fact that I’m a lesbian, and I had literally no need for male validation, I was able to fully explore my style without feeling I needed to please men.
You made a “Don’t Talk to Me, I’m Gay” dress recently.
Yeah. Our project was to design something that solved a problem that had to do with a marginalized community. So I wanted to do something for lesbians and at the time, I had been going out to clubs a lot, but always going to straight clubs, and I was consistently getting hit on by men that would not leave me alone, even when I told them I was gay. Or would be even creepier when I told them, like fetishize me. I wanted to create something that would solve that, that also had a bit of humor involved. So I made that dress. Funny story, when I first presented the idea to my teacher, she absolutely shit on me, and told me that it was a bad idea, like I wasn’t doing enough, and ripped into me for like thirty minutes about how I was a bad student, I was focusing too much on social media, even though I had an A plus in her class. But I ended up getting a really good grade on it, because I worked really hard.
Have you worn it out yet?
I haven’t yet!
Back to social media, how do you handle the pressure to post and staying inspired?
For a while, I was putting pressure on myself to post every day even when I was feeling uninspired. But that led to burnout and growing resentment towards my job, which obviously I don’t want to have when I have, like, my dream best job in the world.
I think something that I’ve done for myself now is like, when I’m getting dressed and I’m feeling inspired, I’ll film a video of my outfit of the day, like the process of me picking out the outfit. But if I’m not feeling inspired and I don’t know what to wear, then I don’t put that pressure on myself to post, just because I don’t want to get really burnt out and tired of social media.
How would you like to affect the world of fashion? What do you hope your viewers take away?
Social media in general has a pretty rapidly growing influence on fashion. I have no idea about me specifically.
The influence I want to have on people is to open their minds to different forms of fashion, and not influencing what specific things people wear. Like I don’t want my influence to be that someone else also wears plaid all the time. Obviously, if they like that, then yes, but not just because they see me wearing it. My goal as an influencer is to show people that fashion doesn’t look like this one specific thing. It’s an art form, and I want to inspire people hopefully to wear whatever they wanna wear.
So spreading your ideas of fashion more than the traits of your own style.
Yes, I don’t want to be the person that’s starting the next trend. I want to be the person that’s helping other people discover their own personal style separate from trends. Punk fashion has always been one of my biggest influences, in terms of what punk represents, like wanting to break away from mainstream society and fashion as a form of social commentary. I think the anti-trend thing is something I adopted from punk fashion.
Have you ever been tempted by the idea of starting the next big trend, or being the next it-girl?
I know there’s a lot of people out there that want to be the person that starts the next trend, like their style comes it, or they become the next it girl or whatever. There’s a lot of people wearing the same things.
I feel like it kind of depends on what you got into influencing for, whether you wanted to be an influencer because you wanted to be famous, or because you feel like you have something to say.
CONNECT WITH OLIVE ENG-CANTY:
Story | Joann Zhang
Photos | Courtesy of Olive Eng-Canty