July 26th, 2009


The homeless are ahead of us

"My style is a homeless look. Homeless people inspire me," Kaffella (35) tells the photographer from Hel-Looks. "Homeless people with their ragged and oversize clothes inspire my style," agrees Joona (17). "I'm into dark clothes and homeless looks," Giuliano (17) tells the Helsinki style website.

The homeless are "the other in our midst". In terms of how they're living they might as well be on the other side of the world, yet they're living right beside us. They fascinate us. To admire them too vociferously is to court accusations of glorifying poverty and suffering, of course: for every style rebel who sees glamour in the homeless, there are three self-righteous conformists touting the right and duty of the homeless to drag themselves up by their bootstraps and become exactly like the rest of us. The difference that some celebrate, others seek to stamp out.

There's something appealing in the artlessness with which photographer Hideaki Takamatsu -- who's been photographing homeless people in Japan for fifteen years -- frames the question. Of his new photo book Street People -- coffee-table portraits of the homeless posing like fashion models -- he says: "I wanted to make a photo book that can attract young women". According to the Mainichi News, the book "opens the door on the beauty and style of the homeless" and "portrays the homeless just as they are -- in their regular outfits and settlements. Readers of the volume will not see the homeless as pathetic, but as rather fashionable."

The current recession and the environmental crisis are international, and so is the accompanying fascination with the homeless; suddenly they're "ahead of us" rather than "behind us"; suddenly their difference from us is a "good difference" rather than a "bad difference", one inspiring fascination rather than horror. American style magazine Details recently ran an article in their Men Style section about Daniel Suelo, who's been living without money, in a cave in the hills outside Moab, Utah, since the turn of the century. Suelo -- an anthropology graduate who dropped out to become a monk in Thailand and India -- keeps a blog, which he updates from the Moab public library. It's called Zero Currency.

"I clamber along a set of red-rock cliffs to the mouth of his cave," reports Details style journalist Christopher Ketcham, "where I find a note signed with a smiley face: CHRIS, FEEL FREE TO USE ANYTHING, EAT ANYTHING (NOTHING HERE IS MINE). From the outside, the place looks like a hollowed teardrop, about the size of an Amtrak bathroom, with enough space for a few pots that hang from the ceiling, a stove under a stone eave, big buckets full of beans and rice, a bed of blankets in the dirt, and not much else. Suelo's been here for three years, and it smells like it."

But soon the article hits a lyrical sweet spot that evokes envy more than disgust: "The morning ritual is simple and slow: a cup of sharp tea brewed from the needles of piñon and juniper trees, a swim in the cold emerald water where the creek pools in the red rock. Then, two naked cavemen lounging under the Utah sun. Around noon, we forage along the banks and under the cliffs, looking for the stuff of a stir-fry dinner. We find mustard plants among the rocks, the raw leaves as satisfying as cauliflower, and down in the cool of the creek—where Suelo gets his water and takes his baths (no soap for him) —we cull watercress in heads as big as supermarket lettuce, and on the bank we spot a lode of wild onions, with bulbs that pop clean from the soil."

If anchorites become style icons and asceticism becomes aspirational, what can we expect? Well, perhaps a wave of cave gentrification of the kind seen recently in the New York Daily News, which threw a spotlight on the desirable three-story home of Curt and Deborah Sleeper in Festus Missouri -- built inside a cave. But hobo pioneers would have to scoff at the Sleepers, who've brought a slew of mod cons to their cave life. Living in a cave inside a modern, fully-equipped house... well, it's the slippery slope to homelesslessness, isn't it?