Problematic might be one of the most overused and under-understood words in the world, but I don’t know how else to describe Rick Owens’ Spring 2014 runway show at Paris Fashion Week. It’s a cryptic and lazy criticism, but that’s because the show’s problems are murky and difficult to parse.
On the one hand, Owens delivered the very things that critics of the luxury fashion industry have long been asking for: women of color and women who aren’t sample size. He invited members of four U.S. step teams—The Zetas, Momentum, The Washington Divas and Soul Steps—to choreograph and perform a routine at his show. They were his models, outfitted in head-to-toe next-season Rick. On paper (or rather, on Twitter, where I first read about it) the idea was exciting and promising. The Internet was positively giddy, and so was I.
Then the first problem (as in “problematic”) presented itself: the runway stills showed Owens’ women lurching mid-step and grimacing. I wondered if he had directed them to take on this expression, because if so, he had spoiled a potentially radical assault on market beauty standards and effectively reiterated the trope of the angry, strong black woman—a departure from the standard white runway that would more or less reinforce its allure.
But the scowl wasn’t all the designer’s idea. It was the steppers’ own “grit face,” which they usually take on to intimidate the competition. And with that information, the ugliness of it went from Othering to empowering: this show was an angry and unapologetic attack by bigger, black women on an industry that excludes and devalues them. Owens had at least been challenged to rework his cultishly hard-to-wear clothes for their bodies and the demands of their performance.
Looking at ambience shots offered a different perspective and, with it, a different problem. They caught editors, critics, and buyers in a thoroughly entertained frenzy, at least half of them taking in the spectacle through the lenses of their iPhones (although there were, as always, the especially obnoxious few who held up their iPads to get a good shot). It raised the question: What were these women to their audience? How well could their wealthy, white onlookers understand them and their intent—and how many of those onlookers would simply consume and share the sight of them as some exotic titillation, the same way they might squeal “Werk it, gurl!” at their pretty black friend or venture into Harlem to gawk at “vibrant culture.”
And yet, isn’t there still some value in visibility? In seeing women of color in the context of luxury and beauty? Naomi Campbell, Bethann Hardison, and Iman were pushing that agenda this season in New York, where they explicitly called out Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, among others, for their conspicuously all-white (or almost all-white) casts.
I could go back and forth indefinitely. After an hour of online and internal debate, and a week of energized but indecisive conversations (which I’ve been springing on anyone who will listen), I’m starting to think that the issues at play overpower any casting or styling decisions that Owens, his team, or his performers could have made. Evidence enough is that, even when models of color are included in the presentation of luxury fashion, they’re still systemically excluded from the press corps reviewing it and the rarefied class of people with enough capital to purchase it. Without real political groundwork outside of aesthetic criticism, no fashion statement will change that fact.
In the meantime, designers will keep toying with the idea of diversity. Raf Simons’ Dior Haute Couture show this summer was lauded for its diverse cast (especially in contrast with the glaringly white runways that he usually sends out), but women of color were only present then because Simons had decided that his theme for the season was “global fashion”—as if to implicitly acknowledge that every other season he is designing with only white women in mind. At Dior’s ready-to-wear show last week, sure enough, Simons was back to his Eurocentric antics. I’d be surprised if Owens’ runway didn't revert to normal next season as well.