When Geraldine Freyeisen was working on a documentary about the homeless women living on L.A.’s infamous Skid Row, she was struck by the community; namely, the support system and activities the residents had organized for themselves in spite of their obvious hardships. “I was attending events, jam sessions, open mics, barbecues, and even the first Skid Row wedding. I started to hang out in Skid Row by myself — residents would occasionally wave at me when I passed by their tents; we would chat and share a cigarette.” As a photographer with a love of fashion, Freyeisen was struck by the creativity of the outfits she encountered. “Amid the chaos, the streets had become some people’s runway and an opportunity to express oneself, depicting a sense of pride in spite of their circumstances. That’s when I decided to grab a camera.”
The photos ended up on her street style blog The Swagabonds. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, a person who’s dressed up with flair is flattered that someone else appreciates their outfit and wants to capture that swag on camera,” says Freyeisen. After the shoots, Freyeisen exchanges numbers so she can share the photos afterward (some Skid Row residents have received free Obama Phones with cell-phone service). This way, Freyeisen has been able to stay in touch with some people, and has used these connections when she started renting a space in Skid Row, providing sewing and art supplies for free use. “I started by simply inviting artists to customize second-hand clothes,” she says. “The first young man I worked with was someone I took photos of, as he was customizing clothes with pieces of fabric he found on the street. It reminded me of Comme des Garçons’ deconstructed shirts.” After seeing the work these artists were producing, Freyeisen decided to start a Swagabonds clothing line, featuring the members of the community.
One of the artists, Gary Brown, is a painter whose work Freyeisen stumbled across when visiting the Skid Row-based LAMP Community Arts Program. Another, Adrian Excel, knew Freyeisen from the blog: “He approached me one day with a concept design of a sheep and a wolf, a symbol of the duality between his troubled past affiliated with street gangs and his reformed side.” Both designs are featured on Freyeisen’s Kickstarter. Even the models have Skid Row connections. One of them is Robert, who models the collection in her official campaign photos. “He was sleeping on the streets when I met him a year-and-a-half ago, but now lives in an apartment in South L.A. But, he comes back to Skid Row to clean the streets almost every week.”
To continue funding this project, and foster the talents of more artists, Freyeisen is raising money on her Kickstarter. Each artist receives 20% of the sales, which they use to carve out better lives for themselves. Excel is planning to use the money to start his own fashion project. Freyeisen has ambitions for herself, too: “The long-term goal is to open a free fashion school in Skid Row.” To contribute, click over to her Kickstarter — there are 12 days to go and more than $57,700 left to raise. Click through to see some photos from The Swagabonds, and check out the photos of the collection at the end of the slideshow.