Will the fashion industry’s obsession with the homeless ever stop?

The glamorizing of homeless attire by designers has been a dinner table debate since the noughties, and in recent years has been a recurring theme on runways. Kanye Wests Yeezy Season reignited the debate among popular culture in 2015, but designers like Vivienne Westwood, Patrick Mohr and John Galliano have been doing what the industry calls “homeless chic” for nearly two decades. Galliano’s Spring 2000 couture collection for Dior is what set this controversial ball rolling among designers, and since then we’ve seen an incredible variation of ripped, oversized and threadbare ensembles being presented on runways for an extortionate amount of money. Daisuke Obana sent his FW17 models down the runway with instructions to look “dazed, with their eyes downcast” – a fitting mood for a collection inspired entirely by homeless people.

The real concern here is the blurred line between taking inspiration from a theme or social issue with recognition to the problem, or insensitively appropriating a problem for financial gain and personal recognition. It is a widely held opinion amongst critics and designers that fashion is a reflection of the social, economic and political. It mirrors issues amongst our society and turns them into something beautiful or provocative, in the same way as art. Is it possible for the issue of homelessness to be transformed as such? Manipulating the attire of a human whose clothes represent a personal struggle – perhaps with addiction, financial turmoil or most commonly mental illness, into a high end garment worth 100 times the amount of money the influencer could imagine seeing in the rest of his or her life, seems like a grand injustice. “It’s terrible to say; very often the most exciting outfits are from the poorest people.” This is a quote from Christian Lacroix, and was published in Vogue in 1994.

It would perhaps tell a different story if designers who used this narrative in their work credited their influencers – but this is far from the case, simply because of how our society views homeless people, and the “us versus them” approach adopted by all major fashion houses. The homeless are human enough to draw inspiration from, but too subhuman to acknowledge or reference. Those living on the streets are of course isolated from fashion and popular culture for such long periods of time that it’s unlikely they ever see their tragic influence in the fashion world, unless they successfully turn their life around. When asked if it was fair to appropriate homeless attire, the general consensus on social media was absolutely not. “It’s out of order, and they gain nothing from it.” Was a response from Fran Dixon, a 21 year old fashion marketing student at University of East London. Under our current Conservative government, homelessness has been steadily increasing every year – 4,751 people slept outside in 2017. This is a 15% rise from the figures in 2016, according to an article published by the Guardian in January.  Sadly, anti-homeless rhetoric is somewhat commonplace in Britain, and unbelievably councils such as the Borough of Poole in Dorset are introducing shocking measures to fine homeless people and beggars £100 if they are found to be rough sleeping or begging on the streets. When presented with the harsh reality of life for the homeless, it seems the fashion industry is indebted to their cause. 

This appropriation of “homeless chic” by mainstream designers leads us nicely into the most recent regeneration of working class clothing into garments worn by those that fit snugly into the middle to upper class social bracket. Infamous Vicki Pollard Kappa tracksuits, Burberry caps and Adidas joggers with an abundance of gold chains – all originally adopted by what society labelled “chavs” (popular acronym for council housed and violent) have gone full circle and are now integral components of middle class and celebrity fashion. Grime artist and political iconoclast Stormzy has turned the full Adidas tracksuit into a powerful statement representative of the working class struggle to the top of his game, and he’s been massively influential in its rebranding here in the UK. For many of us, it can be difficult to accept a look created and nurtured by a subculture morphing into a mainstream trend, especially when its evolution is synonymous with struggle.

Last year, model/artist Hetty Douglas caused outrage after she posted a photo on her Instagram of construction workers in McDonalds, with the caption “these guys look like they got 1 GCSE”. Her following reacted badly, and what ensued was a barrage of online abuse aimed at Hetty for her insensitive, degrading and classist comments. This could have slipped under the radar, had Hetty not been a purveyor of aestheticizing “working class chic” herself – middle class UAL graduate who is seen as “pretending to be poor” by many, whilst deciding the two men in front of her at McDonalds are stupid because they’re builders. She apologised of course, but it’s this insensitivity to the struggle of those lower down the social ladder that makes glamorizing their clothes all the more problematic. Streetwear brands absolutely love shooting looks in council estates, or what they think are “urban”, rundown areas that highlight this “poor but cool” vibe people want to throw money at. Their models are propped up against brick walls, with hooped earrings and side ponytails tied in scrunchies – the final images will probably end up on Hypebeast, inspiring another out of touch streetwear brand to do the same, and so the cycle repeats itself. James Poxton, a History graduate from the North East commented specifically on this;

“I’d say there are elements (if not the entirety) of this luxury/streetwear trend that are at best, crass, if not completely vulgar. Particularly when both national and global inequalities are increasingly stark. ‘Silhouettes’ pulled from sets of early 90’s film depicting life in the harshest of cities given new life by a young, global, ‘fashion’ conscious elite. Edgy. Poor is cool, but only if you can afford it.”

On the flip side of this debate is a simple argument for the right to express yourself however you wish, free from critique and the accusation of appropriating a subculture. In an ideal world where we were all born equal, this would work. But because of the opposite, a division exists which means we have to treat less fortunate people with more respect and caution than our fortunate counterparts. It’s why it feels so outrageous to see people with private school education and incredibly wealthy parents purposefully dress as though they’ve just exited the front door of a council flat, and during their day encounter none of the issues or dangers faced by someone who actually lives on a council estate. Is this unfair, or does everybody, irrespective of financial income, have this right? If you have compassion, the answer to that question is no.

Artist Antony Gormley exhibits “Inside” at the Southbank Centre

Renowned British sculptor Antony Gormley displays his provocative and heart rending Inside exhibition at London’s Southbank Centre, from September 21 2017 until November 15 2017.  The exhibition looks at the often ignored prison statistics, and the lasting effects of incarceration long after rehabilitation. Admission is free for this gripping and gruelling display of public art, selected from over 7,000 pieces of music, writing, paintings and poetry entered into the 2017 Koestler awards. 

Gormley’s Inside demands the attention and interaction of the viewer from entrance. There are headsets on walls and several of the sombre paintings are visual interpretations of the chaos of mental health behind bars. The voices of those reciting poetry are bleak and bona fide, an indication of why the event is recommended for over 16’s for its “distressing content”.

Speaking to an employee who wished to remain anonymous, he gave me an insight as to how different this exhibition was in comparison to Gormley’s display only a year earlier. “It’s really lacking the colour we saw with him last year, and it’s something I prefer to look at with art.” A seemingly critical response, perhaps referencing some of Gormley’s brighter work like his Angel of the North sculpture that overlooks Gateshead in the North East.