Designer Rick Owens gets it. After much talk about the lack of diversity on the runways, he presented his Paris fashion show on Thursday with women from American college step teams wearing the clothes, instead of models. He brought America to Paris, and the result is being lauded (by most) as a huge success.
Forty dancers from the Washington Divas, Soul Steppers, The Momentums, The Zetas danced down the runway, screwing their faces up in what steppers call "grit face," which is meant to intimidate the competition. Longtime fashion critic Robin Givhan described the (mostly black) women for The Cut:
They modeled his spring collection, though none of them had the towering height or the reedlike physiques of the typical runway strutter. Despite athletic thighs and dancers’ legs, round middles and curvaceous torsos, they did more than justice to Owens’s free-flowing silhouettes — his bloomerlike shorts, tunics that curved around the bosom like a conch shell, leather vests, and dresses reminiscent of togas.
Prominent fashion blogger Susie Bubble called it "the most powerful and provocative statement this season, nay in the last decade (?) yet from Rick Owens." Shiona Turini at Cosmopolitan tweeted, “Step teams at #RickOwens locked up, mean muggin’ and REPRESENTING a culture so often overlooked in this industry. This meant SO much to me It’s UNREAL. Thank you Rick."
Owens may have offended some crusty fashion sensibilities, but a designer who works for another Parisian fashion house told The Atlantic Wire, "If they're mad, they just don't get it."
For his part, Owens explains to Givhan why he wanted to use the steppers in his show:
It’s such an American phenomenon. I was attracted to how gritty it was, it was such a fuck-you to conventional beauty. They were saying, "We’re beautiful in our own way."
The steppers, who hail from New York, D.C., and Maryland, started practicing five months before the show, and their routine was choreographed by the mother-daughter team Lauretta and Leeanet Noble. Each woman had to be individually fitted for the clothes, which Owens said was "good exercise" for him. Some designers argue that having standardized, tall, thin models is just the easiest way to show (and sell) the clothes.
Owens' show perhaps meant the most to the women in it. Stepper Adrianna Cornish, a student at the University of Maryland, told Givhan with tears in her eyes, “We’re here and I still can’t believe . . . It’s something I never would have dreamed of, and I really don’t have the words to describe it." According to fellow stepper Shantell Richardson, everyone was crying by the end of the show. She told Fashion Bomb Daily,
Owens "said [the show] was a great example of American teamwork. He didn’t say it was a great example of African-American teamwork — because we’re American. I appreciate people recognizing that he did something so impactful for the black community and for blacks and diversity in fashion, but I also appreciate the fact that we’re American. We just want to feel accepted.
It should be noted that this isn't the first time Owens has staged an elaborate performance during one of his fashion shows. At his men's show in June, Estonian punk/metal band Winny Puhh played a very loud set in the middle of the runway while the models skirted around the side.
Here's a video of the show (you can catch Bill Cunningham getting into it at various points):