Recently, an article has made the rounds hailing a stylish 55-year-old Ukranian man named Slavik. He was "discovered" by photographer Yurkov Dyachyshyn, who dubbed him "the most fashionable homeless man in the world" and snapped him over 100 times. It almost has the makings of a feel-good story. After all, when we celebrate thrifting or bargain shopping, we're celebrating a similar thing: the creativity and élan it takes to make a memorable look with humble means. Of course, "almost" is the operative word here. Fashion has long been fascinated with homeless people's style. A few years back, Jezebel's Jenna Sauers gave a brief history of the phenomenon so pervasive it was parodied by Zoolander (Derelicte collection, anyone?), which apparently didn't convince any designers that it was absurd and they should stop. There was Galliano's homeless-inspired collection of 2000, featuring tattered dresses and swaths of fabric resembling newspapers. Because, using a really expensive dress to reference a way people struggle to keep warm is definitely something a caring human would do. There's also the frequent appearance of homeless people on street style blogs like The Sartorialist, and the time model Erin Wasson told Nylon that the folks with the best style are "the people that are the poorest... Like, when I go down to Venice beach and I see the homeless." (Wasson later clarified her statement by stating that these homeless people "have made a choice" and "don't want to have a job.") Shown above is a look from Vivienne Westwood's fall '10 runway show, in which men in elaborately layered clothes sported matted hair, faux-frostbite makeup (another super-sensitive reference to freezing to death, which really does happen), and pushing shopping carts or carrying bedrolls. Westwood stated that she "[wanted] to involve the privileged people of the fashion world in the homeless scene,” but it's unclear how aestheticizing the "homeless look" for profit and edgy points accomplishes awareness or change.
It's difficult to explain my problem with this in a way that doesn't take away from the humanity and creativity of people like Slavik, who may well enjoy putting together his outfits and certainly comes up with interesting combinations. But, I think part of it is the football-field sized disconnect it takes to see a human who's living without basic necessities through the lens of "stylishness" or "inspiration." It makes me think of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Homeless people, totally without a safety net, are living at the very bottom of that pyramid. People who live at the very top, in the heady realm of "self-actualization," can only see the homeless through their own extremely privileged lens. It's a phenomenon akin to cultural appropriation, in that it glibly looks at the world with a purely visual eye, and refuses to consider meaning. It implies that we have the right to cherry-pick inspiration from people, regardless of whether it whitewashes their experience. Fashion would do well to remember that there's a world beyond the aesthetic, and people behind the "inspiration" worthy of its consideration.