A high-end fashion designer is raising awareness of homelessness with his latest campaign

Steve Topple

A high-end fashion designer is using his influence to raise awareness of the shocking increase in homelessness in the UK. And he’s directly helping those who are rough sleeping this autumn and winter. But his fight against homelessness is also about direct solidarity with those affected.

Masato Jones, who is the founder of Masato fashion house, has launched a campaign to give direct assistance to homeless people. Working in conjunction with homelessness organisations, a campaign is being run whereby designer beanie hats and duffel bags are sold. And for every one bought, Jones will donate one to someone who really needs it. And with nearly 100,000 children homeless last Christmas, it’s a dire situation that isn’t going away.

Playing ‘dress up’

Jones, originally from Tokyo in Japan, set up Masato in 2011 after working for London-based designer Giles Deacon. His time with Deacon was very hands-on, and Jones learnt every aspect of the craft. But fashion design was never something he intended to get into, as he told The Canary:

I had an interest in fashion from an early age. My Mum used to dress me and my younger brother in exactly the same outfits. So I blame my Mum. I was originally a hair stylist in Yokohama, Tokyo and then when I moved to England, for a little time in Brighton – although I knew very little English. But I changed careers as I had aspirations. My intention originally was to study fine art at Central St Martins art school but in the end I changed my mind and applied for Womenswear. It was during my gap year that I met Giles [Deacon].

Jones still works with Deacon, assisting him with his collections. But it’s his own, now successful fashion house, which is his priority. Operating directly out of his studio in Paddington, and also with a pop-up, “off-the-peg” range in Limitless Scotland, Edinburgh, he not only releases seasonal collections, but offers a bespoke design service for both men and women. And Jones also runs a range of casual wear, including t-shirts, sweatshirts, and accessories.

His style is infused with a real ‘East meets West’ dynamism. The cuts are very classic, often 1940s/50s inspired and one of Jones’ signatures is his attention to necklines. When you examine his work your eye is immediately drawn to that area, be it a decollete on a knitted drape top, a bateau with black lace mounted on white, or a deep scoop crafted into a horn shape on a rose flower threaded pattern dress. Jones is also passionate about the misconceptions about size: “I am often confused as to why people think a size 10 woman modelling clothes means it would not look good on them in a 16”, he says; “many designers rarely make bespoke size 10, the average is 14. And with men, it’s invariably a medium”.

Throwaway fashion?

Jones appears to like big, bold prints, as the latest Masato collection for Autumn/Winter 2016 shows. Striking images of charging bison, cowboy hats, floor-length cotton dresses, patch-pocketed waistcoats and horn-collared dresses all scream American West – with some hybrid US camouflage thrown in for good measure. Jones had a very specific inspiration for this:

Initially, I drew from the National Museum of the American Indian in New York; the menswear developed from photography books of the late 1880s to 1910s. It was a very expensive collection to put together, so without an investor, it was a very brave move for the label which is just me and my partner Mike. It’s a collection I experimented a great deal with. But I’ve been disappointed also as it has not been picked up as my collections have. This as a designer scares you the most as you are as only good as your last collection.

Natural fabrics feature heavily in Jones’ work. The lack of man-made fibres are noticeable. He says:

I don’t like working with synthetic material. But it’s costly working with natural fibres in a throw away fashion world. I source as much as I can where the fabric is originated which varies from the US to India to Portugal. The decision is wholeheartedly conscious. I know I could have taken decisions to use man-made fibres, been unethical but in a better financial position. But that would have made me unhappy. Life is too short to have regrets.

There’s something vulnerable about Jones, like someone who feels that the rug could be pulled out from under them at any minute. Whether it’s the precarity of his business or his drive for ethical practices in everything he does, he seems unsure of himself, at times. He has no need to be; he’s designed dresses for the English National Ballet, singer Beverley Knight and featured on catwalks up and down the country. And all this in just five years.

Homelessness: it can happen to anyone

When asked which area of design he prefers, Jones is quick to answer:

Definitely my own collections. But bespoke projects often in someone else’s name pays the bills. This segment of Masato London has grown in 2016, which in turn will hopefully fund a new collection in 2017. I also have a casual line which I design, which feeds income to the mainline collections – which are often a gamble, as so many hours’ work goes into the clothes.

It’s this paying of the bills, and the gamble Jones takes, that underpins his campaigning and support for the homeless. As he says, “I have become very close to not being able to pay the rent” and he points to the recent situation with Brexit as contributing to a very worrying downturn in business. “It’s a myth that designers are rich,” he says, “I’m far from it … we struggle at times as your main income will be from September to January. And getting by through the rest of the months of the year can be really, really hard”. It’s the very real fact that homelessness can strike anyone down, at any time.

But what drives Jones to be such a staunch campaigner for the homeless runs deeper than just his own situation:

I have also seen in Tokyo, London and New York a visible increase in homelessness on the streets, with little been done. Many see it as a UK issue, but it simply isn’t. Now we have social media, it’s time for us all to open our eyes; we are the media now.

Solidarity not charity

Rough sleeping has increased by a staggering 102% since 2010; a fact which compounds Jones’ view. The idea for the Masato beanies and duffel bags campaign was dreamt up in 2014. Jones wanted to design some beanies for Christmas, as a stocking filler for £10. It was then he had the idea to start a campaign, whereby he would match every beanie bought with one donated directly to homeless people. It was a success in 2014, so last Christmas, Masato London launched a Twitter campaign to promote the beanies, which volunteers now run.

And this year, they are going one better with the duffel bags. Jones spoke to many rough sleepers while out with homelessness organisations, and would always ask them what they most desperately needed. the responses were invariably socks, gloves, shoes, scarfs – and something to keep them safe in. Hence the idea of giving out the bags. Once again, for every Masato customer that buys one, one will be donated. Furthermore, Jones has set up a dedicated homelessness support shop, where 15% of sales go direct to affiliated organisations. But he seems determined to operate with a “solidarity not charity” mantra:

Many businesses get worried that any corporate social responsibility drives they do may cause a backlash for their organisation. It’s easy to be labelled ‘poverty pimps’. But we’re not. I have involved as many former rough sleepers as possible to run the campaign. I work with grassroots groups and small homelessness charities so we know where the beanies are going. This year we are working with One Big Family in London and Chatham, and we will be handing out the duffel bags and beanies directly on the streets, as well as to charities across the UK.

Homelessness is not just for Christmas

The idea of solidarity also extends to Jones’ business ethics. He is highly critical of what he calls “throwaway fashion”, the kind of product that can be made for 80p in a Bangladeshi sweatshop. Masato works with the Fair Wear Foundation and their t-shirts, for example, will cost them between £5 and £6. But with this, they are ensuring the cotton pickers, the machinists, the factory workers and the distributors are receiving a liveable wage with sensible working hours, breaks and holiday pay. Unethical practices will only change “when consumerism buys less and invests in quality clothing”, Jones says, “it will take a long time for consumerism to be ethical”.

It is the fight against homelessness that’s Jones’ biggest passion, outside of fashion design. And it’s one which is sorely needed in the UK. Over 275,000 households were homeless last year, a 34% rise since 2009/10. The rise is attributed to the out-of-control rental market, benefit sanctions, and the housing benefit cap. Or, in other words, years of Tory austerity politics. This situation will not change overnight, and what Jones, via Masato fashion house, is doing is giving support at the point of need.

But Jones makes a telling point:

What upsets [me] the most is that in the seven weeks leading up to Christmas, homelessness becomes just another symbol. Mike, my partner, contacted a newspaper in Norfolk about the rising homelessness in Norwich for our first campaign in 2014. He was told by a reporter “it’s January so it’s not in the public interest”. It, of course, would have been if it was before Christmas.

The disgraceful scourge of homelessness that blights 21st-century Britain is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year problem. But the more that prominent voices like Jones’ speak out, the more people will be aware of this very real and very shameful crisis in the UK.

This article was updated on 10 September, to reflect a request from a homelessness organisation.

Get Involved!

– Support Masato’s homelessness campaign.

– Volunteer with One Big Family.

– Write to your MP asking them to take action on homelessness.

Featured image via Dave Doe/Flickr

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