“People who have been homeless or who are homeless, they don’t want to be the ‘homeless artist’ they want to be an artist.”
This is Charlie Wright, founder of what we think is an amazing organization called Hopeful Traders. It’s a social arts project and ethical clothing brand based in London that collaborates with artists affected by homelessness and mental illness to raise money for charities chosen by those artists. We recently spent time with Charlie at his offices in London and here is some of that conversation.
Charlie: So, initially I was just disillusioned in the job that I was doing which was working in sound for TV ads and stuff. I wasn’t really having a good time and I had this money that I had inherited and had always been really aware of how lucky I’d been, and the family I’d been born into, both financially and supportively. I always liked the idea of sharing the opportunities that I had. The more I looked into it, the people who need help (or however you want to say it) they’re not so interested in getting a hand-out. People really want opportunity, especially when it comes to artists and creatives. They want an opportunity to show their work.
So I formulated this idea, and I really wanted to engage the public with it. I was, and still am, interested in brands and fashion and I saw this opportunity for the public to do something that links in directly with people being affected by this massive social issue: homelessness. Then I had this idea where the people being helped, rather than just being ‘helped’ would be part of the actual process and what we create. At first, I was kind of reluctant to do it because the idea of having to go and find these people and work with them seemed very intimidating.
But there’s this organization called Cafe Art that has been really, really supportive. They already had this ready-made community of people who had been affected by homelessness and who were interested in doing creative projects. They straight away linked me up with David Tovey, which was a dream collaboration really. David was at a point where he was already turning his life around after some really tough times. Eventually we made it happen and it turned into our first collection and I took that to Camden Market. It kind of went from there.
We made a lot of money for the charity he wanted to support. That ended up being this thing that became quite important–that the artist gets to choose the charity. I realized that it’s central to what we do because the artists we work with are all at varying degrees of formerly homeless, currently homeless, and understand first-hand how it has affected them. It’s not just about helping them, it’s about them creating a conversation around their experience, and a lot of them are super keen to support organizations that have supported them.
Me and David are now really close friends, and we’ve worked on a lot of collaborations together. He’s really become a pretty inspiring advocate for creativity in homelessness. David is very active in creating that conversation and working with museums to encourage socioeconomic diversity. A lot of people think Hopeful is a sympathy-based project, but it’s really not. It’s about the artwork and the debate around it.
“A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK HOPEFUL IS A SYMPATHY-BASED PROJECT, BUT IT’S REALLY NOT. IT’S ABOUT THE ARTWORK AND THE DEBATE AROUND IT.”
In the time that I’ve been running the company, I’ve had a lot of issues with my own mental health. When I started it, I didn’t know that I had those issues, but I knew that homelessness was tightly tied together with mental health issues. At the very start I wanted to start to build-in talking about mental health and working with artists who’ve had mental health issues, rather than it just being about homelessness. Then I actually had a nervous breakdown myself, and everything took on a whole new meaning. At that time I really didn’t want to do Hopeful Traders anymore. I realized that rather than having started the project because I wanted to give something back, there were actually a lot of feelings of guilt there. I was basically born into a wealthy family and I went to an expensive private school and all of this stuff. To be honest, being a white man born into a middle class family – I mean, the amount of opportunity that has come my way – I know a lot of people that would have had to work a lot harder to get to the same place.
Once I realized that it was partly out of guilt, and once I could let go of that, it actually did a lot of good for the brand and I enjoy doing it a lot more. And it probably has a lot more longevity now.
One of the things I’ve been so lucky with is family and friends. Especially, having gone through a really bad battle with depression and stress. I look at people that I’ve met who’ve been homeless, and if I didn’t have a lot of that support – it’s not a nice thing to admit – but if I didn’t have the money that I had from family essentially, I can really see how easily someone goes from having a job and a family and a home to being quite destitute, and ending up in a really bad place. Sure, there are economic things and people talk a lot about addiction being a cause, but all of those things are just symptoms of bad relationships with either yourself or other people, or lack of support from other people. I can really see, not to sound melodramatic, but that could have been me if I didn’t have that support. I really didn’t feel like doing any work or seeing any people for quite a few months. Luckily for me, that just means that I stayed at home and played with my brother’s cat.
he way we choose the artists we work with varies a lot. The idea is that if people are interested in working with us and have got the means to do so, then we’re keen to do it. That might be someone who is currently living on the streets, or it’s someone like James Lewis who is a young graphic designer with a global reputation, who just wants to donate a design because he wants to support what we’re doing.
What I want to do more of is putting all of these people at the same level. People who have been homeless or who are homeless, they don’t want to be the ‘homeless artist’ they want to be an artist. It’s difficult, but really what we want to say is that we’re being inclusive. I want to start bringing in artists who may be a bigger name and haven’t necessarily experienced homelessness but who are interested in working on the brand. Because then, you’ve got people that we have worked with or are working with who are homeless, and we’re bringing them up to the same level. That’s David’s whole thing–the reason why he really loves the idea of more inclusive art shows is because you go and you see a piece of work and there is obviously a personal touch there but it won’t say that the artist was from any kind of background. You just put a load of stuff in a gallery and it’s on an even playing field.
If I could change one thing about the world? I would wipe the slate clean. Basically, if we could just remove all pre-conception, any negative pre-conception that people have, it would be a million times easier to have positive conversations about things that need to be talked about. The problem is that a lot of people don’t realize what informs their prejudice. I wish people could let go of ideas they have about homelessness or mental illness or anything. If you could just wipe the slate clean, I’d do it. It’s not the whole journey, but at least it’s a start.