For Benefit Entrepreneurs: Meet Ollie Henderson

Photo taken by Romain Duquesne

Entrepreneurs have been increasingly seeking more than just financial success in the last couple of years and a new trend has only just emerged. On a mission to change the world and stand up for others who’s voices aren’t heard, these entrepreneurs (not necessarily social entrepreneurs) offer consumers an option to make a difference while shopping or making a purchase. The new way to do good is to shop for a product or a service that eventually help women, children and people in general by either economically empowering them or contributing a percentage of their purchase (the entrepreneur’s profit) to those in need. Sharing is caring indeed.

We are taking the initiative in finding inspiring entrepreneurs to feature, monthly, that plan to change the way we live, the way we shop and consume; entrepreneurs that nourish our eco-system of co-existence and to gently remind us on a daily basis that we CAN make a difference through a single purchase… from our toothpaste and body wash all the way down to our wooly hats that keep us warm and sunglasses that keep us looking cool.

Our debut feature is Olivia Henderson from House of Riot, a multidisciplinary activist movement, which aims to empower the younger generation by giving them a voice through which they can express their opinions on current political and social justice issues, whether they be local or global. Selling trendy T-shirts, designed by fashion model and icon Ollie Henderson herself, they are personally hand-painted with strong political statements that relate to issues that the company is passionate about regarding feminism, climate change, social welfare, human rights and refugee/immigration issues.

 The House Of Riot aims to get people involved in social activism by increasing political awareness. Specifically, they believe that artistic creativity is a powerful way of spreading social awareness across a multitude of people and communities. The company collaborates with various NGOs, activist groups and charities including One Girl and The Future.

Meet the beautiful (in and out) Australian entrepreneur with a mission, Ollie Henderson:

What is House of Riot
House of Riot is a social enterprise, which aims to empower the younger generation by giving them a voice through which they can express their opinions on current political and social justice issues.

House of Riot often gets put in to the category of fashion label. Our main front of house work is currently in Fashion, we make hand-painted t-shirts with strong political statements that relate to issues we are passionate about regarding feminism, climate change, social welfare, human rights and refugee/immigration issues. Beyond our iconic slogan t-shirts we also make other hand made apparel with the idea of using fashion to talk about political issues, currently we are working on the Freedom collection, speaking about social, economical and racial imprisonment. I try to avoid calling House of Riot a fashion brand because it’s so much more than that, it’s a building a generation of young people who feel empowered to speak their minds and make change in the world.

We are also currently working on organizing events aimed at young people; music festivals, art exhibitions, wearhouse raves, performance art, all based on different political issues. Using these events as tools to connect with young people and talk to them about political issues. We want to make political engagement look cool (because it is) and to spread the message that you don’t have to follow the conventional format to express your ideas.

House of Riot also works closely with local and international NGO’s, donating 20% of our profits to several different charities and working together to build awareness campaigns and other fundraising events.

Who is Ollie Henderson
Okay, personal history in a few sentences. I grew up in a small town two hours from Melbourne with my two siblings and parents, life was pretty normal until I was scouted to be a model at 16. This changed my life dramatically, from my hometown of 1 traffic light then flown to Milan in a few months. I have been very lucky in my career as a Model and have had the opportunity to live throughout Asia, Europe and The States in my time since then. In my spare time, I was in bands and made visual art.

This year has been another big game changer, I was living in New York and made my annual trip back to Australia to model in Australian Fashion Week this past April. This is when House of Riot began for me. Being frustrated with the political climate in Australia I came up with the idea to make 100 t-shirts with positive political slogans on them and give them to my friends and colleges to wear during Fashion week, taking advantage of the global media that Fashion Week attracts. The project was successful far beyond belief and out of this House of Riot was born. I have now moved back to Australia, still Modeling, but also working on my new endeavors.

Photo by Cara O'Dowd
Ollie Henderson – Photo by Cara O’Dowd

Have you always known that one day you will stand up for all the things that you find wrong in this world?
Not at all, this was a slow grow for me. I didn’t grow up in a particularly political family, I wasn’t even very confrontational as a child or teen. Modeling gave me confidence, which has really helped. Voicing your opinion publicly can be daunting, (starting your own business is also very daunting). My interested in social justice was sparked when I ‘came out’, seeing the injustice in the LGBTI community really made me think about how myself and others are mistreated. Not only within the gay community, this is just where it started.

I guess the tipping point for me voicing my opinions was the realization that I have the right so speak up. I always thought that it should be someone older, or more formally educated, but not realizing that as a member of society I have just as much right as everyone else. The idea that if I don’t try to make a difference in our world, who will? It was scary and still is.

How did you start your project?
I mentioned most of the story above. To elaborate a little I guess I should mention that I never planned to start House of Riot out of the Fashion Week project, originally called Start the Riot. It was just a little thing that I did that got a lot of attention. Out of this I was suddenly receiving calls from US vogue and French Elle wanting to run stories, and stores locally and internationally wanting to stock the shirts. It was the latter that really made me continue this further. I remember receiving these emails from shops and thinking, should I tell them that I don’t have any shirts to sell because I gave them all away and was never planing to make more, or do I not tell them and just make a bunch really quickly. I went with the second option and just worked my ass off for the next month figuring out how to start a business. I have been lucky to have many great friends already in the business of fashion to advise me on what I was doing, because I really didn’t know, but I’ve learnt quickly and worked hard. Another consideration that was really important to me when establishing House of Riot as a business were to keep true to the original concept and ideals. Each of the original slogans were developed with the person wearing the tee, this was to encourage the idea that it was the individuals voice, not just a person jumping on someone else’s idea. We have a custom option with our shirts, so people can come up with their own ideas. The DIY philosophy, to support the idea that anyone could do this, expressing your thoughts is for everyone; all our shirts and apparel are still hand painted by myself and a small team (3 others). It was also essential to maintain intelligence and integrity, making sure we truly believe in the causes we support, researching the NGO we associate with and being up to date on the issue we discuss. Fashion related business can easily be seen as flippant and lacking depth but this is so much more than fashion to us and we want to make sure people know.

Liz Ham (Zine making) 1

Liz Ham (Zine making) 3

Your friends and colleges seemed to have supported you throughout. How did you manage to convince people to do something so brave?
I have been overwhelmed with the response I have had from my colleges in the fashion industry. People have generally immediately wanted to get on board. Australia is in a very interesting time politically, austerity measures are coming down hard and people are unhappy. I really think most people do really care they just don’t know what to do about it. Also the Fashion industry in Australia is relatively small and I find it to be generally a very supportive group.

I was very surprised at the international response from the project. I felt that this was a very Australian centric discussion when I have been coming up with concepts as Australian politics is where my focus lies currently. Though it doesn’t really take much thought to realise that issues like racism, sexism and climate change are global.

What are the main topics that you advocate or feel especially strongly about?
I have always felt very passionately about human rights and equality, although these days I am absolutely petrified about climate change. Through House of Riot I have had the opportunity to connect with a global network of activist called The Future, the are a youth based group who fight for climate justice, so we have been doing lots of work together to fight for this cause. Australia is the first country to go back on climate change action and also has a massive mining industry. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see how closely tied the coal mining industry and our government are. This scares me because there’s no point denying it anymore it’s happening now; Australia just isn’t pulling it’s weight. The proposed Carmichael mine will be Australia’s biggest and produce 4 times the carbon emissions of New Zealand annually, not to mention the damage it will do to our Great Barrier Reef. The effects of climate change are already being witnessed around the globe with mega storms and droughts. This could be very serious in our lifetime.

How has the govt/public reacted towards your campaign and project?
I haven’t had any word form the government thus far which is both comforting and a little disappointing. The public have been super supportive and keen to get involved. A few weeks after I started this I had an email form a 17yr old girl in Canada saying that she wanted to help out in anyway she could. I was so blown away, that this could reach the other side of the world and that this girl wanted to make a change in her world too with House of Riot. There has been some negative feed back, initially I was hearing that the project lacked integrity and that it was just a fad, given that I am a model and that it is a fashion based venture I’m not that surprised by this. I think sticking it out has solved that. Now the negative feedback I hear is mostly in relation to the cost of our garments. They are more expensive than I would have like but also the cheapest we could make them whilst maintaing appropriate ethical standards in manufacturing, still having the shirts hand painted and donate 20% to charity.

Having garment made ethically is not something that I am willing to compromise on, even if it does make the price point a little higher. I just try and push this as a selling point so people will see the worth of responsibly made garments.

Photo by Rene Carey
Photo by Rene Carey
Photo by Romain Duquensne
Photo by Romain Duquensne

You seem to have managed to make the campaign fun and fashionable- what was your goal with this strategy?
This was absolutely the plan. The idea is to make it look cool and something that people want to be apart of. Many NGOs don’t look exciting and it really turns people off. There is no reason why you can’t be both. We don’t want to take people out of there world to care about social justice we want to go into it and see how we can use what they have to make changes in the world.

Where you looking to create more of a movement or a fashion statement out of this project?
As mentioned above, definitely a movement. Fashion is just the tool that I know.

What are your next steps?
I feel that I have touched on many of our future plans already, the one I am most excited about is the Music Festival. I’m working in collaboration with Oxfam’s youth outreach program 3 Things. Together we hope to build an annual free music festival where, on top of the music, we can also create an environment for young people to learn about political issues and to express their personal views. We hope to achieve this by getting local artist to create installations expressing their thoughts on the world in order to create a space that inspires people’s thoughts, rather than pushing it down their throats. House of Riot will be building 12ft tall wooden greeting card for Tony Abbott (our Prime Minister) saying “To Tony Abbott – Love Form the Youth of Australia” that people can come and write on, followed by us physically sending it to him. Giving people smalls ways in which they can feel empowered by their actions in an environment that isn’t unfamiliar, a music festival. All whilst maintaing a lighthearted and fun feel. Political discussion can be fun and told through many mediums, this is what we aim to show in this project.

Liz Ham 1
Photo by Liz Ham

Was it easy to start your project? Any tips for aspiring social entrepreneurs?

I have two things:

1. It’s really not as hard as you think. I remember feeling so daunted at the prospect of starting a business banking account or reregistering my business name. Neither of these tasks are difficult having the word business next to them just makes it feel like a big deal. Being overwhelmed can be really paralyzing, but you have to just go for it, you can learn along the way. Some action is better than no action.

2. The other thing is that everything takes waaaaaaay more time than you would think. Make sure you really care about what you are doing, if it’s a social business, you probably already do, but seriously, it’s 10:42pm and I’m still in front of my computer. I love it, but having your own business is a lifestyle choice. I definitely don’t think I could put this much time and effort into something that wasn’t a social business, it’s so motivating to have a goal bigger than just turing profit, numbers are boring, smiles make it worth it.

Photographs by Liz Ham, Rene Carey, Cara O’Dowd & Romain Duquensne 

Shop style and cause: House of Riot Here

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