The lack of racial diversity in the fashion industry has been a hot topic of late. So too, fashion’s celebration of bodies that few women–even models–can realistically obtain. So, Rick Owens’ spring 2014 presentation in Paris (see a slideshow of images at the link), which featured snarling, mostly-black members of a step team (Howard University’s Zeta Phi Beta sorority), with thick thighs and curvy middles, should have been a breath of fresh air–a blow against homogeneity.
Kinitra Brooks, pop culture professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, helped me put my feelings in perspective when she said, “I had a mixed reaction. I found the theme of Vicious and the hyperbolic mean-mugging highly problematic. Particularly in regards to the stigma types of strong and angry black women. And then, I was hypnotized by their beautiful shades of skin against those earth tones and their legs, my God their legs! They were so muscular and full of purpose and supported their bodies as they performed all types of physical feats. I read an article that spoke of the women as blessing the audience with their awesomeness and then exiting in such a way that said, ‘Bye now! We are way too cool for this place.’”
As happy as I am to see fresh faces on the runway, unfortunately, I can’t fully appreciate these women, as my friend did, because of how the Owens show was steeped in racial and gendered stereotype. The models’ aggressive expressions and movements seem designed to play into old myths of black women as bestial and hard. I would have appreciated it if Owens had presented those models sans theatrics. As it is, the show seems not a celebration of diverse beauty, but as if the designer thought, “Hey, what’s the opposite of the ethereal and beautiful white women who typically line catwalks? Thick, angry black chicks. Edgy!”
Indeed, Owens called the show his “fuck-you to conventional beauty.” And there we have it. The Owens show is less an expression that women of diverse races and body types can be beautiful, than a designer using brown bodies to present what he believes is anti-beauty to flip the fashion script. I think, this is not so much progress as business as usual.