Catwalk & Backstage
[images via Style.com]
I recently wrote an article for the fashion section (where else?) of my university newspaper, and, given its currently limited circulation, thought it might be nice to post it here for people to read.
Rick Owens: A step in the right direction?
by Syed Ahsan Abbas
“Finally, accessible fashion.” So wrote Christina Binkley for The Wall Street Journal in her review of the Spring/Summer 2014 collection, Vicious, by Rick Owens. Setting aside the absurd inherent implication of considering £200 sheer t-shirts “accessible”, it quickly becomes apparent that she, like most other commentators on the show, was not actually referring to the clothing at all. Instead what grabbed headlines, and was almost universally praised by commentators across the Internet and print media, was the fact that Owens decided not to use fashion models for his show.
The collection was instead modeled by a team of forty, predominantly African-American, sorority step dancers, who took to the catwalk to perform a highly energetic, choreographed routine. Step in this instance refers to a type of percussive dance historically practiced by African-American fraternities and sororities. It is generally considered to have its roots in South African gumboot dancing. Owens had seen videos of stepping several months before the show and thought that the powerful movements and scowling faces, donned most famously by the members of Omega Psi Phi, perfectly embodied the attitude and ethos behind his brand, and the theme of the collection – Vicious.
Owens invited four American sorority step groups from New York and Washington DC, the Soul Steppers, Momentum, Zeta Phi Betas, and the Washington Divas, to perform for the show. The idea was to bring a specifically American cultural practice to Paris, what with Owens still being considered the American-in-Paris (although refusing to learn French, he does rather revel in the status). It is a theme one often finds Owens working with, indeed in the past, having realized that he had criticized the dress sense of American tourists in an interview, he chose to dedicate a collection to them.
A multitude of body types, the likes of which were immediately noticeable for their absolute lack on the contemporary catwalk, were here presented proudly and unapologetically. The clothes were designed and cut for maximum movement and comfort for the steppers (all of whom also wore the running shoes Owens designed in collaboration with Adidas), albeit remaining still very much true to the Rick Owens aesthetic. But of course the clothes were overshadowed by the theatrics of the show. It is interesting to consider the fact that the two designers whose fans have, arguably, the most recognizable uniforms, Rick Owens and Thom Browne, presented some of the most theatrical and dramatic shows of the season. We know what we are getting with both designers in the showroom afterwards, so the show becomes exactly that, a show.
But how the tides turn. Now hailed as a champion for “real” women (I have yet to meet a fake one, but maybe that is just me), following his Autumn/Winter 2012 collection Owens was widely accused of misogyny by the press. The reason? For the soundtrack of the show Owens opted for the song Ima Read by self-identifying “queer Black” rap artist Zebra Katz. The song featured consciously provocative lyrics, with repeated use of the word “bitch”. Decontextualised the song appears rife with misogyny, until one comes to understand that the language has been consciously subverted, arising from the LGBT New York ball subculture of voguing. A more natural affinity to the world of Rick Owens would be hard to find.
Of course the designer always runs the risk of being wholly misinterpreted, for fashion, even with the incredible artifice of the show, is at its core semantically unstable. Thus what was meant to be a show about empowering women (as Owens’ collections almost always are), was instead misconstrued as the very opposite. So what is a designer to do? As is usually the case with fashion, spoon-feeding works wonders. Subtlety and nuance, however artistically managed, do not get one very far - just ask Nicolas Ghesquière [addition: it will be interesting to see how he adapts to life at Louis Vuitton!] or Stefano Pilati.
Rick Owens has never been one to shy away from bold statements. This is the designer who commissioned the artisans at the Madame Tussauds workshop to craft a life-size wax sculpture of himself, penis in hand, urinating (a pump can be used to transform it into a working fountain). It is now located inside his Paris store, greeting visitors as they enter, because he got bored with having it on display at home and decided that the store was a touch too “beautiful” without “a turd” being placed into the mix.
So for this show Owens decided to take things a step further. Rather than allow his choice of inspiration to be misinterpreted, Owens decided to display it openly on the catwalk. Instead of appropriating and performing, or aping, different cultures (and ethnicities) as other designers are prone to do, Owens chose to present and celebrate stepping culture and its beauty in full force. A commentary on ethnicity and body shape undeniably result, but where contentious gender representation issues may require lengthy sociological analysis to address, the issue of representing specific cultural influences in a thoughtful and celebratory way, is perhaps a more realistic dialogue to be able to open to the fashion world.
Will this show change standards in the industry? I highly doubt it, but to be honest, that was hardly the point. It was a celebration - for the steppers, for the fans, for the audience, for the consumers. Owens found something he loved and wanted to share, and everyone from the steppers to the audience loved every minute of it. It is a move more designers should have the freedom, understanding and courage to take. After all, to quote the man himself, “not caring who you impress is one of the biggest luxuries of all…”