While walking through Eveleigh during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week last year, a statuesque off-duty model strode past. It was her T-shirt that stood out first. The statement, “Reject Racism”, blared from the front of it in black, hand-painted letters. As the day wore on there were more. The slogans “Abort Abbott”, “Welfare over Wealth”, and “Keep Tassie’s Bush, I Keep Mine” sashayed around the complex and through the streets, impossible to miss.
It was intriguing, and Sydney rippled with discussion and opinion. Feeling helpless in the face of Australia’s political climate at the time, the Start The Riot T-shirt collection was the work of Ollie Henderson; model and activist. Since that first run of 100 shirts was made for her friends and colleagues, she’s been making more and more.
“The aim was to encourage young people to become politically aware and involved. Obviously it’s sharing the message that’s on the shirt, but it was more about encouraging other people to do these kinds of things – wearing a T-shirt that says a message you care about,” says Henderson. “You may not be the one to change the world, but someone might see that T-shirt and feel inspired.”
Standing in her Chippendale studio, with American hip-hop duo Run the Jewels’ record 2 contributing to the scene, Henderson shows us her new collection: Freedom. It’s a mixture of denim, leather and safety pins that screams punk and rebellion. Jackets, shorts and more are a change from her original T-shirt range, but the idea of clothing delivering a message is still clear.
“In this collection we wanted to talk about ideas of imprisonment beyond incarceration, like economic imprisonment, and we’re using the apparel to express our ideas through fashion,” she says.
Fashion’s role in the history of protest – such as women wearing trousers before it was socially acceptable to do so – is well documented. They are moments that have shocked others into action. This has been Henderson’s aim; giving those who wouldn’t normally follow traditional activist routes access to an easier, but still blaring, form of protest and expression.
“We want to give this group of people the opportunity to express themselves, because for some, protests are really unappealing,” she says.
It’s in this vein that Henderson has extended beyond political fashion and is combining art, design and music to spread a message. House of Riot, the broad moniker for Henderson’s movement, is currently building a music and arts festival in collaboration with Oxfam. It’s scheduled to hit Sydney at the end of the year. The festival will address eight issues – from sexism and refugees, to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef – in atypical ways. House of Riot wants to engage the youth through what interests them most: art, music and festival culture.
“The idea for the festival is to build this space that is really exciting and engaging for young people, but also allows them to discover more about issues in their community and globally,” says Henderson.
From protest-based performance art this April for the Save the Reef cause, to helping to curate readings of The Hunger Games in public spaces, the House of Riot is bringing progressive and imaginative protest to Sydney.
At the heart of Henderson’s work, however, is a punk ethos. “The thing I really love about the punk movement is that it involves anyone and everyone; it’s not exclusive. You could be some kid on the street and still have your voice and shout it,” says Henderson. It is clear that for her, this is only the start of the riot.