Promo sample from Ben Westwood's Clint Eastwood-inspired collection. Photo: Rodney Westwood
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Ben Westwood recruits Julian Assange to model his latest fashion collection

Dame Vivienne's son will give the Wikileaks founder his modelling debut.

For the past two years Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy, avoiding his extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning regarding alleged sexual offences. Yet it seems his confinement has diversified the scope of his extracurricular activities.

Fashion designer Ben Westwood, eldest son of Dame Vivienne, has recently announced plans to enlist the Wikileaks founder to model his latest collection at London Fashion Week in September 2014. The show will take place as a fringe event, located in the Ecuadorian Embassy itself.

Claiming Assange as inspiration for his Clint Eastwood/Spaghetti Western-themed collection, Westwood has stood by his decision: "I can't think of anyone better to model my clothes. He is a good looking man."

Despite his reclusion, Assange has maintained an enigmatic presence in the media. Last year saw him as the subject of a Disney-funded Hollywood flop The Fifth Estate, being portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. In an interview with the Telegraph Assange detailed his domestic life in the embassy, and frequent contact with celebrity visitors including Yoko Ono, Maggie Gyllenhaal and the rapper M.I.A.

This latest revelation from Westwood confirms the Wikileaks founder as an object of fascination in the public imagination. Westwood describes him as a “hero” who has “done a great deal to change public opinion”.

By identifying the Wikileaks founder as his muse, Westwood suggests the catwalk could aid Assange's campaign: "I want to highlight Julian Assange's plight. What happened to him is totally unfair." With regard to the allegations from 2010, Westwood states: "They're just allegations and no proof has been presented... He's innocent until proven guilty.”

According to the designer it is “a citizen's duty to stand up for justice and freedom of speech." A duty which, evidently, can manifest in the form of fashion.

Previews from the collection involve camouflage prints and combat gear modelled stylishly against rocky mountain terrains. The unisex garments create a militaristic chic: the connotations of warfare and violence surgically amputated by their status as fashion.

Joined by six other models, Assange will take to the embassy-based catwalk in September, accompanied by music from the film The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. The show has already garnered much attention and will host a diverse range of guests. George Clooney and his fiancée Amal Alamuddin, part of Assange’s defense team, are amongst those invited. 

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt