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Homeless chic flicks a v-sign at humanity

Catherine Slessor

Selfridges’ ill-judged window display is right up there with the ‘Camden bench’ in dehumanising those who lack the will or means to consume, says Catherine Slessor

Selfridges twitter 1

Selfridges twitter 1

In London, a city where over 8,000 people are reliably recorded as sleeping rough, the coarsening of attitudes towards the disenfranchised can manifest itself in some dismayingly bizarre ways. Recently, leading high-end department store Selfridges collaborated with American artist Mark Jenkins in a window display to promote Balenciaga’s new range of athleisure-wear.

Faceless mannequins attired in Balenciaga hoodies, which will set you back over 500 quid, were artfully arranged in postures that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to homeless people in the act of begging or sleeping. Buffeted by justifiable waves of indignation, Selfridges duly backtracked, apologised and reordered the display. In its defence, Balenciaga claimed the ill-judged tableau was supposed to represent an ‘indoor theme’ with postures based on ‘people waiting in airports’. 

At best, homeless chic might seem like a grimly mirthless Zoolander moment, a by-product of the casual tone-deafness of fashion designers, marketeers and luxury retailers to the realities of the city that surrounds them. At worst, it flicks a V-sign at humanity, making people whose lives have unspooled to the point of destitution objects of derision and hostility. Haringey Council’s deputy leader Emine Ibrahim called it a ‘shallow reflection of consumerism’, adding that ‘young men and women are dying on our streets in London and the idea that this imagery of people sleeping rough can in some way be used to promote a luxury brand like Balenciaga is truly astonishing.’ 

The Camden bench’s angular, crevice-free form is calculatedly designed to repel a range of anti-social activities

One crucial detail of the Balenciaga display was laughably inexact: the streamlined benches on which its mannequins disported themselves were of sufficient uninterrupted length to lie fully prone. As any purveyor of street furniture will tell you, this is a cardinal error. These days, public seating is expressly contrived to deter that sort of thing, reaching its dire apotheosis with the Camden bench, a charmless lump of concrete originally commissioned by Camden Council in its heroic war on what it clearly regards as the uncontrollable tide of contemporary squalor. The bench’s angular, crevice-free form with a non-permeable, waterproof coating is calculatedly designed to repel a range of anti-social activities, including sleeping, skateboarding, drug dealing and graffitiing. Defined far more by what it is not than what it is, it has been described as the perfect anti-object, a far cry from the simple, accommodating park benches of old. 

The Camden bench is emblematic of a wider shift in mindset of those who control and shape the public realm. Today, the flaneur has been replaced by the consumer, and if you lack the will or means to consume, or even if your face simply does not fit, you forfeit the right to inhabit certain kinds of public space. And increasingly, as the city is contested, policed, sanitised and manipulated to resemble a soft-focus site hoarding rendering of itself, the means and props by which this social cleansing is achieved start to assume a malign significance. 

The modern kit of parts includes many variations on the Camden bench, omnipresent CCTV, and the petty nastiness of ‘defensive design’ to coax and cajole the public into behaving themselves. Impelled by the municipal and corporate impulse to sphincter clench and pearl clutch in order to purge the urban realm of ‘undesirables’, the Dantean purview of hostile architecture has become a depressing growth market.

Yet the tyranny of anti-design, which always thinks the worst about people, ends up insidiously feeding through into wider social perceptions, legitimising a culture of indifference to others or, more seriously, explicit acts of aggression and abuse. It should be resisted. Such dehumanising tactics, whether from municipal authorities or misguided window dressers ultimately diminish us all.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Curious that while everyone is so quick to make conclusions no one ever reached out to the artist, myself. I wrote a message to Emine and the Evening Standard journalist explaining how and why it is. Of course neither responded not wanting to engage in a real conversation. The hoodie is no more rightfully owned solely as an icon of homelessness than Skittles and the gay community can trademark the rainbow. If you want to speak about park benches not sure why you need to use the benches in the installation as a launchpad. I’ve never seen a homeless person sleeping like this. They curl up with their back to the wall because it offers more protection from people and the elements. The cross legged seated figures I’d first proposed to have smartphones which was cancelled only because we didnt want to have gloves visible. The focus of the campaign was a cross-trainer. Brand new not stressed, hoodies brand new, not a speck of dust on them.

    Of the 18 I believe 14 were standing. These are my characters and they sit stand and do what they wish and ironically the ones judged homeless became outcasts. Their removal happened without asking me because Selfridges didnt have the courage to defend the rights of the artist. And the one drsctibed as “shivering,” “gaunt,” and “homeless” was based on the model who fit the size small, a real person who has much a right to be a model as anyone else.

    I’ve done numerous campaigns for a range of social issues working with the Red Cross, Greenpeace and CALM in the link below which was listed by Evening Standard ad one of the 10 most unforgettable installations in London...ever,


    I care about stuff and am an actual activist. Artists we do this sort of thing by nature.

    What all of this, including this article comes down to is lazy sloppy journslism in this case precipitated by Emine who like Trump uses Twitter as a mixed martial arts arena. She brewed up a storm of false facts and everyone jumped on board. She even had a hypothesis that I intentionally tried to sabotage the project.

    Noe that were in a forum with an academic backdrop have at me. I’ve spoken at architecture conferences, guest lectured at universities and had professors publish papers on my work in respected academic journals.

    Don’t be shy Catherine.

    mark jenkins

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  • In 2002 we designed and prototyped the Park Bench House - a park bench that converts to a homeless shelter. In 2004 we designed and built the Bus Shelter House - a bus shelter that converts to a homeless shelter and includes a dispensary for space blankets + a cup of tea and where the advertising hoarding becomes a small gallery space for emerging artists. Our Picnic Table House (2009) was exhibited at the 1:1 exhibition at the V+A in 2009. Despite the 'enthusiasm' of local Councils here in Melbourne none of these projects is in actual use. Your article is spot on. Architects are regularly briefed to design out the homeless. These projects are not trying to solve homelessness - they are arguments for compassionate infrastructure that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Despite being 10,500 miles away the resistance in our communities to what amounts to a subtle shift in design and attitude to accommodate those sleeping rough is disturbingly consistent.

    Sean Godsell Melbourne

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  • Catherine Slessor is an architecture editor, writer and critic. She is a former editor of UK magazine The Architectural Review and recently completed an MA in Architectural History at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
    and also a coward. End of an era.

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