Ollie Henderson has a lot to say. In interviews, on her activism, on her own House of Riot t-shirts which feature positive messages on equality, the environment, unity and freedom and during the TEDxYouth talk she was invited to speak at on the power of fashion to bring about positive social change. Here, she speaks to Yeong Sassall on her new campaign for Westfield and why she won't be silenced.
How did you get involved with Westfield?
Yeah sure. Well this year for Westfield's Spring/summer, I think Westfield are really pushing their ambassadors as people who have things going on both on and off the runway. People that they consider to be at the front line of fashion which is their tag for spring/summer this season. So its very exciting and such a honour to be selected as one of their ambassadors.
Ollie Henderson in the new Westfield campaign.
You've got such a great project on the side which is House of Riot, that started off quite small didn't it?
Yeah it did. It started off two years ago and basically the project was only meant to last a week. I first had the idea when I was living in New York two years ago and about to come back to Australia for Fashion Week in 2014 and feeling very fed up and frustrated with the political climate back here so I had a very simple idea to paint 100 red t-shirts with slogans on them and give them to my colleagues to wear during Fashion Week and it was so successful and I had so much attention that I decided to continue on after Fashion Week and its grown in to a monster of a thing.
Did it start on Instagram? Is that how you got the word out or did you tell people through word of mouth?
My part of it was just people wearing it and with the influence and prevalence of social media and Instagram during fashion week, it really took off from there and also more conventional forms of media as well. It was also picked up by US Vogue and French ELLE which all happened during fashion week which was amazing.
Were you surprised at the attention you were getting?
Very much so. When I first did it, for me it was an extended art project and just something I felt like I needed to do at the time to express my own feelings. I never expected it to resonate so much with people but I think it really demonstrated the need for that right now.
How has House of Riot grown since then?
Yeah oh its grown in so many ways. On top of doing the t-shirts now we also make other apparel that all come from recycled garments. We also collaborate with local artists to sort of politicise their work and also for them to influence us in our designs. We also run public events. We do Q&A style panel discussions. We run under On The Floor who aim to a youth audience with the main goal to try to have our audience really interact with the panel and have them work together in discussion.
Who are some of your favourite people you've seen wearing your t-shirts?
A lot of people in music I guess. Izzy from the Preatures which is awesome and Montaigne's also got a special one which is pretty exciting.
Ollie (left) in the new Westfield campaign along with Mattia Harnacke, Emma Balfour and Yaya Deng
What would be some of the main issues that you like to draw attention to?
Me, personally, I think that our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia is appalling and its something that we should all be concerned about. The rate of refugees in crisis is only increasing and we need to come up with strategies to accommodate and help these people.
You're also involved with the LGBTQ community, is that something that you're also concerned with?
Absolutely, as a queer person. Its at the forefront of my mind.
Did this idea that you wanted to be an activist stem from any one event or is it something you've always felt strongly about?
I think it came about when I first came out in my late teens and sort of being thrust into the LGTBQ community and seeing the sort of injustice that my friends were experiencing, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and I think that was the first point - the moment when the penny dropped I guess. Until then I'd lived a pretty sheltered and privileged life so it came from LGBTQI rights and then progressed to feminism and other human rights issues and then its sort of grown from there. I think its an ever-learning and ever-growing process.
I also read that you're doing a TED talk as well, can you tell me about that?
Yes! That was such an amazing opportunity. I've been a fan of TEDTalks for so many years. I actually once snuck out of Dubai Fashion Week and snuck in to the TED conference that was happening at the same time in the conference room next door. That was a few years ago. Yeah I spoke about fashion as a catalyst for change and the way in which fashion can be used as a tool for communication and how that can drive social change.
Which other issues are close to your heart?
Outside of House of Riot, I also work with a group called Sexual Violence Won't Be Silenced. I'm a key organiser and we focus on online harassment and privacy issues. Mostly around gender and sexual harassment and a lot of the harassment is gender based unfortunately and also how that ties in to race and religion and body-shaming.
I was told that you're very in to your comic book characters, is that right?
Yesss! Particularly Tank Girl, its not a broad comic book character idolisation but just specifically Tank girl. Love that that comic book's set in Australia, I love that she is such a badass and she does what she wants, no sorrys.
Lastly, you donate some of the profits from House of Riot to charity. What charities do you work with?
Yes 20%. Each of the t-shirts donate to a different charity depending on what the t-shirt says. So people are selecting themselves where they would like the money to go. So we donate to Amnesty International, One Girl, 2010, The Global Cool Foundation.
What's the feedback been like?
I remember one time it was quite early on, I had an email from this 16yr old girl in Canada that she would really like to help out with House of Riot because it really meant something to her and I was so blown away that it had reached the other side of the world but also so incredibly flattered that House of Riot was doing what it was mean to do.
What its meant to do is empower other young people to voice their opinions, stand up and feel empowered. They can be a part of the system of change.