Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
It’s the Tuesday before New York Fashion Week and I’m in a position that will surely become increasingly familiar over the course of the next several days: sandwiched between a swarm of iPhone-wielding selfie-takers and a crush of photographers jockeying for positions in front of the step-and-repeat, the banner of sponsor logos that serves as the backdrop to all manner of smizing and posing for red carpet VIPs.
At this particular moment, Vanderpump Rules star Peter Madrigal is flashing his best Blue Steel toward a camera, his shirt unbuttoned well below the sternum, holding a vodka soda aloft in one hand and in the other, a cardboard sign reading “Alone and Depressed. Help Me.”
The reality star-cum-bar-manager-cum-haircare entrepreneur is one of the many headliners who signed on to raise awareness about homelessness through The Nylon Project, a multi-platform initiative that includes a social media campaign and — tonight’s main event — a runway show, featuring celebrities (Madrigal, Christina Milian, Jenni “JWoww” Farley), influencers, and activists, and a multi-act musical performance that runs the gamut from a gritty rock band to a Voice contestant to a fledgling rapper.
Founder Jordana Guimaraes is flitting around the event, a whirlwind in sunshine yellow — wrangling talent, greeting guests with air kisses, and directing press upstairs toward potential interviewees. She launched the campaign out of business school in response to the pervasiveness of New York City’s homelessness problem — in December 2016, 62,674 people slept in the city’s municipal shelters, while thousands more slept in the streets, according to the Coalition for the Homeless — and with this initial launch, her goal was to distribute 1,500 meals and give the issue a human face by sharing the stories of the homeless with a wider audience.
Historically, fashion’s relationship with the homeless has been... well, problematic would be one way of putting it. There was the time model Erin Wasson fawned over the killer style of the destitute, saying “The people with the best style for me are the people that are the poorest.” There was the infamous Reuters photo of peacocking editors teetering on stilettos a few feet away from a shoeless, grizzled-looking man on the street during New York Fashion Week. And just last week, a menswear designer cited the homeless’ knack for “unconventional layering” and “experimental sizing” as the inspiration for his fall collection.
So my initial reaction to The Nylon Project’s tagline — “Aiding the homeless in NYC via fashion, beauty & entertainment,” accompanied variously by the praise hands and heart emojis — was somewhere between mild concern and full-on Chrissy Teigen cringe face.
But Guimaraes is earnest when discussing what drew her to the cause — she grew up in Brazil, where poverty is rampant, and recalls nagging her father to give to every needy person they saw on the street in Rio de Janeiro. (“He was like, ‘You’re going to be so poor when you’re older, even if you make all the money in the world,’” she laughs.) For the past several months, she’s been drumming up support for the initiative, creating a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000, tracking down sponsors, and cold-contacting bloggers and influencers to ask for their support. She and four others have been distributing meals by hand across the city, collecting stories and photos of those who are willing and sharing them on social media.
A key part of the campaign, the hashtag #ItCanBeYou, is supposed to convey the idea that under different circumstances, anyone could be homeless. “I think a lot of people that are fortunate — that have support, have friends, have family — they don’t understand that a lot of times, homelessness isn’t an option, it’s a life circumstance that takes them that way,” says Guimaraes. “When you get really far down and you have no one to pick you back up, it’s hard to get back up on your own. It’s really to get people to be more compassionate.”
Homeless. When "appearing female" or even "trans" people often ask me for sexual work. When "appearing male" people will just give me money or offer me cheap paying handyman work if they trust me or are brave. Two VERY different offerings for someone with the same plight. I'm excited to be working with @thenylonproject1 for their #itcouldbeyou project. It's a runway show dedicated to raising awareness about homelessness. Something I've spent a fair share of time as both in lonely California and wintry NYC. It felt isolating. Hungry. And seemingly hopeless. Check them out- they are trying to feed 1500 people by the end of the month! #gendercapitalism #lovewins #changemustbwmorethanchange #genderreveal #lgbt #qpia #h #moneyshot #willworkforfood
The influencers involved have taken a variety of tacks with the prompt: Some have posed with homeless people, captioning the photos with their respective stories — a wheelchair-bound veteran on the street 11 years since being hospitalized for depression, a recovered addict in need of a prepaid phone to seek work — while others shared the initiative’s handle, info, and hashtag in the caption of a more standard selfie. The androgynous model Rain Dove posted side-by-side photographs of herself posing on a curb with the sign “Will Work For Food,” one in which she presents as “female” in a form-fitting T-shirt, the other in which she presents as “male” in a boxy jacket, a social experiment she says garnered offers of sex work in the former instance and handyman work in the latter.
Initially, the plan for the event was to have homeless people walk the runway alongside each influencer; then, it was to have each model carry a sign with a homeless person’s story. On the night of, I look around at the crowd that’s squeezing ever more tightly into the bar deep in the Lower East Side that’s hosting the show: women in sparkly jumpsuits with made-for-Instagram contouring, men in colorful jackets and bow ties, their hair gelled into very specific swoops. Space constraints will not deter them from getting their full-body outfit photos. Everywhere, I hear the question “Are you on Instagram?” They are. The cardboard sign idea, too, seems to have been largely scrapped — only Dove carries one on the runway — until a pile starts making the rounds near the step-and-repeat, carrying phrases like “Share Some Love” and “Homeless. Can You Help? God Bless.”
Upstairs, on the covered roof deck, those with enough clout to have their names on the invitation are fielding interviews beneath palm fronds. The bar on the floor, advertising $15 frozen margaritas, is closed for the event, but there’s a photo booth set up in the corner with a box of props — plastic crowns, construction helmets, a pair of comically-oversized glasses with dollar signs for lenses — that goes ignored by the girls blowing kisses at the camera.
JWoww — as I’ll call her here since, yes, I watched every episode of Jersey Shore — is posted up in a corner, her hair plaited with platinum extensions, wearing glasses and a deceptively modest-looking T-shirt dress. She explains that she shares a manager with Milian, who knows she’s “a big sucker for charity” and so turned her onto the event. “I've always said, if I could win the lottery, I would do something big to help, like buy an apartment building,” says JWoww, recalling moving from upstate New York to Queens and seeing people in the city walk by the homeless without acknowledging them. “I remember just crying that day — I was, like, 20 years old, and I'm 31 now. I always said to myself, 'If there's something I can do to help them, I will.'”
While they may not be walking the runway, a handful of people in attendance do have some personal experience with homelessness, including two of the night’s performers: Lucas Asher, the lead singer of the band Faulkner, and a Brooklyn rapper named Young MG.
Asher, who spent time on the streets of New York in his youth, doesn’t dwell on the negatives of his past. “I think it could happen to anybody, that's true,” he says. “But if you look at everybody here celebrating, it's not about how bad it is, it's about what's possible, so I tend to look at it in an aspirational way.” Today, he splits his time between his hometown and Venice, California, and last year his band released an EP produced by Wu Tang Clan’s RZA.
Young MG’s struggles aren’t quite behind him yet; I talk to him at the end of the night, after the last performer has packed up and the DJ is entreating the dwindling crowd to dance to a steady stream of Chris Brown and Bruno Mars. He wears a yellow hoodie and sweatpants and a backwards Yankees fitted. “I pulled up to show some love for the homeless people, because I too went through the homelessness and I'm still facing it,” he says.
“I have felonies, I'm a project kid, I've lived a hard life,” he explains, about three inches from my ear so I can hear over the music. “It's not my fault, it's the cards that I was dealt. But if you don't have a job, then it's hard to take care of yourself, to provide, to live your dreams. Everything costs money, and nobody's going to give it to you. You have to pay to get your way up, and then people will help you up.” At some point, I realize it’s the first story of homelessness I’ve heard all night. A minute later, though, he’s moved on. “Look me up on Facebook,” he says, and when I do, I see a few dozen photos and videos from the night — selfies, videos, shot after shot of Milian, and the requisite red carpet photos, though this time, without a cardboard sign in sight.