When fashion does "subversive," it tends to faux-subvert industry norms within a very unoriginal arena, while mostly upholding industry (very thin, mostly white) norms. "Subversive" fashion is ugly clothing and ugly makeup on very thin, mostly white models; "subversive" fashion is making some kind of bizarre gender commentary on very thin, mostly white models.
Rick Owens' spring 2014 collection — shown in Paris as part of Paris Fashion Week — actually does subvert industry norms. The result is so simple, arresting, and breathtaking that it's made everything else this month look tepid, try-hard and a bit preposterous.
For the show, models literally stormed the runway — two groups, comprised of step dancers apparently recruited from American sororities, stomped onto the stage in draped monochromatic outfits that embody the designer's "luxury goth" aesthetic. Owens' models, all of whom qualify as "plus sized" by current industry standards, forcibly dragged the traditional model scowl into the realm of mean mugging (I strongly recommend going through the Style.com slideshow).
The models didn't just stomp and scowl — they also danced (what else would a step team do on a stage?), in an aggressive, arresting display of power and beauty.
Here are two Instagram videos of the performance:
Owens' show is both deeply inspiring and a bit frustrating. It's wonderful to see a major designer finally take race and body diversity seriously, instead of merely casting a few women of color and absolutely no plus-sized models (which is what almost everyone has done this season— with the exception of Philipp Plein, who cast only black models in his spring 2014 show). But there's something unsettling about how much buzz these shows have generated and how intentionally they've done so. For instance, when asked why he only cast black women, Plein responded:
My message is about breaking down barriers and breaking the rules. Doing the unexpected and shaking people from their complacence, forcing people to face the future where old prejudices have no place. For example, the public expects to see pallid girls in high heels walking my show and I give them a fleet of black beauties in flats!
Some designers are still unabashedly casting exclusively white models. It's beyond depressing that diverse representation is so scarce that having a show composed of black women would constitute "breaking the rules."
But I have to ask: are these designers serious about promoting diversity, or are they co-opting fashion's egregious race problem to garner attention and seem edgy? Are they trying to make diverse runways the norm or merely trying to make them into a spectacle? Personally, I feel rather hopeful about Owens' show: at the very least, it's shown how remarkably simple it is to cast women of color (IT IS NOT DIFFICULT), and it comes at a crucial moment — race in fashion is becoming a more and more pressing issue. Alongside Bethann Hardison's recent mission to "name and shame" designers who cast too few women of color, it sends a powerful message. So far, the show has received seemingly universal praise, which is encouraging.
Images via AP.