Portraits of the homeless in Beverly Hills

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In Beverly Hills, one block from Rodeo Drive, seeing a man in a Brooks Brothers suit might not raise an eyebrow. But what if that person was homeless? Stylist and designer Lisa Lesniak dresses homeless people in donated designer clothes, and then draws their portraits.

Lesniak volunteers every Monday afternoon at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. She’s in charge of the clothing donation program. A crowd of homeless people lines up in front of her. New visitors give her their measurements, and she notes them in a filing system that she designed. Regular visitors joke around with her and then pick up the clothes they’ve requested.

Lesniak is a wardrobe consultant for movies, TV and commercial shoots. Her job is to find clothes that might match a character. She sees her volunteer work as not that different.

“I can bear in mind these characters, so to speak. And earmark certain clothes that come in for them, so when they ask each month, I will have certain pieces that I know they’ll really like,” Lesniak said.

And some of the homeless that come to Lesniak are definitely characters. Take Francine. She plays in a church group called Heavenbound. She wears a sparkly tube-top and a leather jacket. She enjoys going to Guns N’ Roses concerts.

Francine she could never get her own artwork accepted into galleries. “But then people take my pictures, and I get in as an artist’s model,” Francine said, laughing.

The first time Lesniak painted a portrait of one of her clients, it was a man named Oscar. She describes how he was drawn to his childlike personality, his guitar, and his fashion sense. “I love the double blazer that he’ll wear,” she said.

Lesniak says her project gives homeless people a sense of recognition they might not otherwise find. “And I’m making visible who are invisible to the dominant culture,” Lesniak said.

Because the church is in Beverly Hills, some of the donated clothing is fairly high-end. Paul Smith, Dior, Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, for example. Some might dismiss the idea of dressing the homeless in designer clothes as a Band-aid solution to a much bigger problem. Lesniak doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m not trying to make any of these people look like Brad Pitt, with the Dior long-sleeve button down,” Lesniak said. “I’m trying to match what they already wear.” Plus, she added, a designer suit will last longer on the street than something purchased at a big box store.

Lesniak’s thirty portraits will be on display this Friday evening, for one night only. Debbie Gauer, outreach director at All Saint’s Church, said the event could be a study in contrasts. “West Siders going Friday night to have a glass of wine and a gallery showing. And standing side by side with Bill and Stan and Francine, and looking at art,” Gauer said. “It’s pretty cool.”