Unsanitary, dangerous, full of drug dealers and alcoholics, a synonym for homelessness and poverty... An area in Downtown Los Angeles' known as Skid Row has many stereotypes associated with it. But they tend to only represent one side of it.
Coincidently, Skid Row is also a boiling pot of art, culture and entertainment. From street musicians busking their makeshift drums on the sidewalk to a street artist sprawling graffiti on a chipping wall, to a bum sporting a cornucopia of patterns and looking like he literally just stepped down from NYFW catwalk...
The rich and diverse Skid Row community has drawn the interest of many creatives over the years, but one of them really has her mind set on changing people's perceptions about the infamous L.A. neighborhood. Introducing – Geraldine "Gigi" Freyeisen and her passion project Swagabonds.
After 10 years of working as a brand strategist for a creative agency in Paris, this Frenchie decided to drop everything and follow her boyfriend at the time to California. Initially a love emigrant, Geraldine quickly found herself falling for somebody new – the city of Angels.
"He went back to France and I stayed," she says and adds a smiley face.
Even before flying over the Atlantic, Geraldine had already sensed the allure of Los Angeles and mainly its Skid Row area. She quickly found a job as a production assistant on a documentary Game Girls that featured a few women from the neighborhood who were recovering from trauma through drama therapy. Eventually, Geraldine found herself hanging out in Skid Row more and more, simply walking the streets and talking to its residents:
"I couldn't help but notice the creativity of certain outfits depicting a sense of pride people had in spite of their circumstances. So one day, I decided to grab a camera to try to capture that creativity in photographs," Freyeisen explains.
It didn't take long for Freyeisen to gather a rich collection of portraits, but she wanted to do more. Thus, photography blog called Swagabonds was born as a means of giving back to the community and changing the stigma surrounding L.A.'s Skid Row.
In her blog, Gigi featured the creative members of Skid Row's community, be it artists, musicians or just homeless people with impeccable fashion taste. The name Swagabonds came somewhat naturally, as Geraldine noticed that all of her characters had one similar feature – "it's the swag, a way to carry yourself with elegance and pride," she tells Konbini.
When asked if she wasn't afraid to hang out alone at Skid Row, the photographer explains it was rather familiar to her thanks to her mother:
"Skid Row is known to be a hotbed of drug trafficking and prostitution, an open asylum. But thankfully, I grew up with a mom who befriended people living on the margins: prostitutes, homeless, illegal immigrants or ex-convicts.
Every week, she would boil soup and we would carry it to a homeless man named Hubert who lived like a caveman in the woods. My mom taught me to connect with everyone’s humanity. Since then I’ve never feared a human being. Only rats, roaches and, weirdly, freeways."
And say what you will, but it feels like this girl may be a living proof that everything in life depends on perspective. A young beautiful blonde traversing the streets of one of America's most dangerous neighborhoods with a camera in her hands? Easily a scene from CSI. But not in Geraldine's case who managed to make new friends and have many positive once-in-a-lifetime experiences:
"The first friend I made there was Michael. He lived in a tent with his girlfriend and their pit bull. One day, he told me how much he would love to go to the beach but couldn't take the bus because of the dog. So one morning I picked them up in my old convertible and we cruised, top down, all the way to Venice.
Once there, I got us lunch and a bottle of rose. Then we joined the drum circle that takes place every Sunday. We danced, laughed, I took photos with my film camera. I thought about my mom who passed away... The memories are usually too painful but that time, I felt joy. I felt that this day was making me connect with her and it was thanks to Michael. That’s where I realized that giving always goes both ways."
Now Geraldine calls Skid Row her family – dysfunctional, loud, but very loving at the same time. This mutual closeness encouraged her to help the community even further, namely by launching a fashion line that would provide local artists with international exposure, as well as financial support:
"The photo project allowed me to meet amazing human beings including talented artists within the Skid Row community. Taking photographs is great but it can be unilateral. With The Swagabonds fashion line, I wanted to push things further and actually collaborate hand in hand with those talents," she tells Konbini.
In short, The Swagabonds brand will be producing high-end streetwear created by artists from Skid Row. Her first collaborators are Gary Brown, a talented painter and street jazz musician, and Adrian Excel, a 30-year-old promising designer with a troubled past. Geraldine is currently running a Kickstarter campaign that will help her launch the Swagabonds brand and manufacture the first pieces of her collection. 20% of income will be donated to the each contributing artist.
You can support her initiative by backing up the project in the upcoming 15 days. Follow this link to visit The Swagabonds Kickstarter page and donate.