House of Riot Gets Your Message Across, Without Saying a Word
Erin Stewart — Social AdVentures
Model, artist, and activist Ollie Henderson came up with a simple but memorable scheme for Australian Fashion Week, 2014. She gave a collection of hand-painted t-shirts with slogans like “Sexism Sucks” and “People Have the Power” to her fellow model friends to wear between runway shows. The idea was to start a conversation about social change in Australia. And that’s how House of Riot was born.
Each person was given a different shirt that reflected their beliefs. “I really wanted this to be about the individual having the confidence to share what they thought was important, and to speak up about it with their own voice,” says Henderson.
“It was far more successful than I ever could have dreamed,” she says. The project was featured in fashion magazines globally, including U.S. Vogue and French Elle. But the hand-painted t-shirts—which can be purchased online with 20 percent of the proceeds going to charities like Amnesty International or Global Cool Foundation—were just the beginning. House of Riot has since grown into a social enterprise that makes politics accessible for young people through artist collaborations and events, as well as its fashion label.
One collaboration showcased the talents of artist Jodee Knowles, who created a three-story mural to draw awareness to homelessness in 2015. The issue was close to Knowles because her father had experienced homelessness. House of Riot subsequently commissioned her to create images for their Start the Riot art zine. The idea behind artist collaborations, according to Henderson, is to show that you can feel strongly about an issue and respond to it using the means and skills you have. Politics doesn’t have to be about bureaucratic processes—there are a multitude of ways young people can express their opinions on issues that matter to them.
But Henderson endeavors to help those interested in more direct action as well. In 2015, House of Riot organized a panel discussion about an issue near and dear to many of Sydney’s young people: new lock-out laws that restrict when bars, pubs, and clubs in the city are allowed to open and serve alcoholic drinks. The event featured panelists with a range of viewpoints on the laws discussing the future of Sydney’s nightlife. Those audience members against the lock-out laws learned how to voice their concerns.
In the last year, House of Riot has hosted other panels, such as a discussion on how Australia could better cultivate creative industries such as video games, and whether feminism and fashion can go hand-in-hand. The label created quite a stir with T-shirts designed for Sexual Violence Won’t Be Silenced, an advocacy group that condemns incidents of online harassment and abuse of women—an issue that gained public attention due to a recent high-profile court case in Sydney.
The projects that run under House of Riot’s umbrella are diverse, but all united by the goal of combating political disengagement among young people. In the U.S., people aged 18 to 29 tend to vote at lower rates than other age groups. The situation is similar in Australia, where according to political scientist Aaron Martin, fewer young people identify with the major political parties than older people.
But Martin’s research also shows that as youth engagement with politicians has decreased, there’s also a thirst to engage in politics in other ways. Young people are willing to engage in politics on their own terms; they are more likely to sign petitions, participate in boycotts, or attend a protest than older people. And this is where the strength of House of Riot lies.
Henderson’s own road to political and social consciousness began when she became involved in the LGBT community after coming out at age 17. “I know I didn’t really think about social justice when I was a teenager,” she says. “I guess my eyes were opened when I came out, and saw social injustice within the queer community.”
Through reading and talking more openly with her peers, she realized that injustice also manifested itself in subtle ways which she had experienced but didn’t notice at the time, such as through heteronormative sexual education classes. “And then seeing that, I was sort of like, ‘Oh my god, and it’s here too! And it’s there!’” Henderson says.
House of Riot is there for other young people who are beginning to take notice of the problems they see with the world around them. “I think it’s really intimidating for a lot of people, particularly young people, to speak to others about issues of social justice or political issues,” says Henderson, now 27. “Because they feel like they don’t know enough and they get scared that someone’s going to shut them down. … [But] we learn so much through discussion, and I think it’s really important to keep the dialogue alive.”
Though it is not a nonprofit organization, nobody takes a salary from their work at House of Riot. It’s designed and will continue to run as a labor of love. There are a handful of regulars, and dozens of people who are willing to help out now and then. Everyone involved, including Henderson, who still works as a model, is a volunteer. “I get a lot of help from friends,” she says.
The ad hoc operations of House of Riot attest to the dedication of the people involved, but it also means that projects can take a long time to get off the ground. Another problem Henderson faces is the difficulty of measuring her impact. How do you know what effect you’re having when your focus is the nebulous goal of “raising consciousness?” For Henderson, success is measured in the energizing feeling of collaborating with passionate people, and evidence that her work is touching the lives of individuals.
“You doubt yourself so much, especially as a creative or if you’re doing something new,” she says. “It makes you keep questioning if you’re doing the right thing.”
But when Henderson hears that her work is inspiring teens and young adults in Sydney, in Australia, and beyond, the doubts melt away.
“Just after I started House of Riot, a 17-year-old girl who lived two hours outside of Toronto, in Canada, emailed me and said that she saw what I was doing and really liked it and wanted to help out in some way. … Something like that means you’re on the right path. I’m still beaming about it today.”