Japanese brand N.Hoolywood debuted its New York Fashion Week collection with controversy and heated debate.
Its intentionally off-kilter Fall 2017 Collection took heavy reference from homeless people, and its street-cast models put on distinctively vacant and sullen expressions as they trudged down the runway.
Designer Daisuke Obana and stylist Tsuyoshi Nimora described these as “gutter punk” and “inventive”. They drew inspiration from their cross-country travels through America, impressed by how a plastic bag can be transformed into something as functional and multipurpose as a waterproof shoe.
This kitschiness is not unprecedented. In 2000, John Galliano unveiled his spring summer collection in Paris for House of Dior, in which emaciated models were swaddled in newspapers and frayed rags, embellished with empty liquor bottles. This all highlighted the way society typecasts the homeless.
It’s not difficult to see why this drew voracious wrangling amongst homeless advocates, editorial writers and fashion gurus. (Let’s not forget that at the moment that Galliano revealed his collection, Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York, implemented wide-scale raids and arrests on the homeless people of New York. The juxtaposition of luxury and poverty is crucial, it stretches the chasm between the eliteness of haute couture and the familiar reality of homelessness.)
The glamorisation of homeless aesthetic doesn’t sit quite right: it feels too much like mockery and insensitivity to be normalising (or elevating, whichever you please) and putting a price to homeless attire. Are we disregarding the context and circumstance of this population who stand to benefit almost nothing from this collection? Are we misrepresenting or trivialising their plight? Steve Dool from Fashionista calls it “a fetishized version of homelessness” where “The N. Hoolywood homeless man is a sanitized, polished type of homeless”. He also stated that Obana’s vision was “either condescending, ignorant, almost inconceivably out of touch or some hellish combination of all three.”
The alternative perspective is this: why condemn this particular collection, when other fashion trends that have taken the world by storm fall into the same category as “appropriation”? What of trends like bohemian chic, which stem from gypsy culture, though we all know of the social stigma attached to gypsies? What of combat boots and military/bomber jackets? Torn jeans, baggy tees? And how about Indian-inspired jewellery? Aztec prints derived from African tribes? The great difference is not in the nature of what is made manifest (glamorization and cultural appropriation), but the extent of the manifestation. And perhaps Obana is sending a message through homeless street ‘fashion’ – that the modern era has placed excessive value on the ownership and possession of things, that real needs are obscured and wastefulness is acceptable.
In a similar vein, consider this: fashion, like everything else we consume today, is a medium of expression. When used right, it’s a powerful vehicle for change. Whether deliberate or not, Obana has brought our attention to an unpleasant problem that’s plaguing developed and developing countries alike: homelessness. If seeing homeless people on the streets has become commonplace and ineffective for change, then using Fashion Week as a platform to galvanize support and catalyse change could be the next best option.
Of Galliano, The New York Times comments, “So which is worse? A Paris fashion designer who wants to look at the homeless as aesthetic objects, or a New York mayor who does not want to look at them at all?” Before we take to bashing an unconventional fashion collection, let us take a moment’s pause to reflect on hypocrisy we’re subconsciously engaged in.