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
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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.