Why are designers still using homeless people as inspiration?

Japanese brand N. Hoolywood turned the ‘uniform’ of the homeless into a banal fashion statement [Photo: Instagram/natsumiiikeda]

If you’re not heavily invested in the goings on of the fashion world, you may at least remember Zoolander‘s infamous Derelicte collection. The line, which was inspired by the homeless (and was actually a parody of John Galliano’s contentious Spring 2000 collection for Dior), reflected just how low designer inspirations can go.

Not put off by previous media storms, one Japanese brand has decided to try and turn poverty into a fashion statement. At New York Fashion Week: Men’s, N. Hoolywood sent out an entire collection inspired by “street people.”

This wasn’t a hidden reference that was worked out by the crowd. No, the designer openly labelled homeless people as his muse for the season.

“As our designer travelled the cities of America, he witnessed the various ways in which people there lived on the streets and the knowledge they have acquired while doing so,” read the show notes. “His observations of these so-called homeless or street people revealed them to be full of clever ideas for covering the necessities of life.”

These “clever ideas” translated into layers upon layers of expensive fabrics, printed bin bags, mismatched socks and the odd scarf-covered face. According to Fashionista, models walked in an unsettling manner with their heads held low and their expressions vacant.

Fetishising homelessness is unfortunately not a new thing in the fashion industry. The aforementioned Dior show saw newspaper-clad models adorned with empty bottles of whiskey take to the catwalk. Galliano was supposedly inspired by the way Paris’ homeless protected themselves from bad weather but didn’t escape criticism – especially when the show coincided with a series of shelter raids in New York.

Last month, Vetements debuted a new collection consisting entirely of stereotypes seen on a typical Parisian street. Along with a bouncer, punk and secretary, a ‘vagabond’ emerged. Carrying a sleeping bag blaring the Vetements logo, the collective’s version of a homeless person loosely fastened his coat with a tie and donned a moth-eaten jumper emblazoned with the EU flag.

Interestingly, Demna Gvasalia and co weren’t criticised for their choice. Instead, they were applauded for revolutionising couture and the homeless scandal was conveniently forgotten.

And that’s the problem. Critics are few and far between. No one likes to rock the boat but when a designer produces something that trivialises an important issue to such a point that it becomes nothing more than an ill-advised trend, shouldn’t someone speak out about it?

Vetements utilised homeless people for its ‘stereotypes’ collection [Photo: Instagram/vetements_official]

A prime example comes from a New York Times article which sat directly on the fence when it came to N. Hoolywood’s rather unwise inspiration. Labelling it under the umbrella term of ‘political statement’, the piece read: “The N. Hoolywood collection could also be judged insensitive. Yet it served as a reminder of an often invisible population.”

Yes, fashion does have a wider implication than simply showcasing pretty clothes but using those less fortunate than yourselves to make a profit isn’t the way to spread awareness of a growing problem. And homelessness is a huge issue.

Up to 1.6 million youth will experience being homeless every year. In the UK, the number of people sleeping rough on any one night has doubled since 2010 with one in ten people admitting to having been homeless at some point.

Paris – the location of more than one insensitive show – has an even bigger problem. Almost 30,000 Parisians live on the streets; a figure that is rising exponentially as migrants are forced to do the same while waiting for asylum.

At a time when the decision of one man can leave thousands of refugees stranded, it seems beyond belief that a fashion designer can have no qualms about releasing a collection that transforms a person’s misfortune into a commodity.

Being homeless is not a trend. Don’t turn it into one.

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