Riot Now! Talking feminism and fashion with Ollie Henderson

By Zoe Walker

Ollie Henderson (pictured in Start the Riot tee) with model friends, wearing T-shirts from her House of Riot project. Picture / Romain Duquesne
Ollie Henderson (pictured in Start the Riot tee) with model friends, wearing T-shirts from her House of Riot project. Picture / Romain Duquesne

In the spirit of Katharine Hamnett, Australian activist and model Ollie Henderson (pictured second from left), is using fashion as a way to encourage political debate and awareness of issues such as climate change, the environment, racism, welfare, immigration, feminism and more.

Her project Start the Riot launched at Australian Fashion Week earlier this year, with model friends wearing Henderson's T-shirts handpainted with political slogans.

Feminism is at the root of the project, which aims to raise political engagement and conversation among young people. Being catcalled on the street and subsequent debate on Facebook sparked the initial concept of using her position to encourage her peers and generation to stand up for what they believe in and use their voice.

What is your vision for The House of Riot?
House of Riot's aim is to empower young people to speak up and use their voice, by using mediums that they connect with - focusing on fashion now, but not limited to it.

We want to foster empathy over apathy.

Do you think the world of fashion can sit comfortably with the ideas of feminism?
Yes, feminism is fighting a social and political issue and fashion is a visual form of communication and expression. There is the argument that the fashion industry uses people's insecurity for financial gain, but I don't really see it like that. I don't know one fashion designer who wants women to feel bad wearing their clothing, they want their women to feel powerful and strong. I see fashion as a really positive thing that gives people - designers, photographers, stylists and the individual - a platform for expression, with which you can express your views on feminism.

"Feminism is fashionable" - what is your response when you read that?
It makes me feel uncomfortable. Suggesting something is fashionable implies that it is a trend and it will come and go. On the other hand, I do feel that feminism is trending; I hear a lot more people talking about it then ever before. More discussion on the matter can't be a bad thing.

Model and activist Ollie Henderson, behind the House of Riot. Picture / Romain Duquesne
Model and activist Ollie Henderson, behind the House of Riot. Picture / Romain Duquesne

What about the attitude that feminism needs to be "rebranded", for those who may feel intimidated by outdated stereotypes - do you agree?
Yes, but I think what's more important is that people really understand what feminism is. It's the social, political and economical equality for all genders. Pretty simple, and not a war on men. If people understood this more people would be comfortable to stand up and say that they are feminists and the image would naturally change.

Who do you see as being genuine feminist champion within the fashion industry?
There are many. I heard a story about Diana Vreeland recently that made me really admire her. During her time at Harper's Bazaar she would shoot women in a way that would accentuate their unique physical qualities - shooting Barbra Streisand on profile to show off her gorgeous nose, if a woman had a long neck, showing it off and making it look longer. I think this is a really empowering way of thinking for women when relating to their physicality. It's not exactly fighting for gender equality but the empowerment of women through the fashion industry is a wonderful thing.

What is next for the House of Riot?
We have been working with UK based activist group The Future for the next phase of the Start the Riot project. The Future's main focus is climate change and we have just last week bought out a new range of climate change tees. We are currently planning global events for later in the year to raise awareness on the issue and to put pressure on governments to take more action. We have also started collaborating with local and international designers, musicians and film makers to continue our fight against apathy.

• Find out more about the Start the Riot project, or buy a T-shirt here.

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