Rick Owens sends a bevy of thick, black women down the runway. Progress?

Image from Rick Owens spring 2014 presentation, courtesy of New York magazine.
Image from Rick Owens spring 2014 presentation, courtesy of New York magazine.


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.

Or not.

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.

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  • Samantha McClush

    Okay. So, maybe Rick Owen was not being stereotypical when he had black women be the way they were on the runway, and he was simply just expressing his weird-sense of style through fashion. Fine. Whatever. But, considering how racist the modeling industry and esp. runway shows are this does NOTHING good for black women. It just reinforces those shitty stereotypes they already have like “the angry black woman” and whatnot, EVEN if it isn’t Owen’s intention. I’m sorry, but it’s just the truth.

  • guest

    I LOVED it!! I’m more than familiar with Rick Owens and his clothing has
    never been anything but tough and confrontational. I think his use of
    step “models” was spot on and really reflected the vibe of his line. As
    an African American woman, yes, I can be angry, and kind, loving,
    supportive, happy, etc. and I’m not afraid to show it. Why should any
    woman feel that the only way to BE a woman is to be smiling, graceful
    and silent. Fuck that. These women are my neighbors, my family, my
    friends and are often marginalized and “hidden”. I think any woman can
    tap into the power of that show, especially women of color who have
    little to NO representation here in the Western world or least of all in
    other countries. I am not a wallflower and I embrace the “angry” aspect
    as well as others and anyone who can’t accept can just, well, step.

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  • Jessica Burde

    I’m delighted to see anyone bring racial (and body!) diversity to fashion, but my first thought seeing that picture was “This guys idea of diversity was playing the “Angry Black Woman stereotype? For real?” I don’t think (as someone asked) that black women should have to imitate white models, but there are so many other ways I have seen black women express themselves and their culture without being depicted as this stereotype.

    That said, it is definitely not my place to judge. A couple of commenters who know more about this than I do mentioned the expressions being traditional for ‘step’. I’m adding that to my ‘must further my education’ list.

  • Eddie Brannan

    “Mean-mugging” is a part of stepping, not something done for this show alone. Secondly, I think that article just seeks a negative POV almost for its own sake. It was a quintessentially Rick Owens gesture, and to assert that his deciding to say “fuck you” to the narrow strictures of Parisian fashion and its worldview simply reasserted that viewpoint is just entirely self-defeating. Instead of this damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t attitude towards showing mostly black, mostly curvy women, why can’t we celebrate the sincerity and powerful beauty of that show and the intentions behind it. Watch the video of the show and tell me it isn’t thrilling!

  • Cathleen Bailey

    Or perhaps the understanding of beauty is adjusting. If these so called “snarling” women make people nervous, it is because “ethereal and beautiful” have more complex definitions, less surface.

  • April Lamba

    WOAH, whoever thinks this runway is empowering needs to take off their rose colour glasses. THIS is actually the stereotype black women face in America. So thin black women (around the world) can’t get on the runways but only black women who is thick, angry looking and big can? This runway, even if it had good intentions, support racist stereotypes that black women are not nice, delicate and feminine enough. I have YET to see black men as portrayed as fat, pot-belly and lazy on runways. They are all shown as professional, muscular, stoic, and handsome.

    This IS AN EXAMPLE of “conventional beauty”

  • http://flyswattershow.com/ Laura Ross

    They are the definition of fierce!

  • Tina Farris

    Thank you again.

  • Tina Farris

    Right on!

  • Natan Ezra Lefkowits

    It’s unfortunate that the author of this piece appears to know little about Rick Owens. Owens, a queer designer of hispanic lineage who lives in Paris, isn’t exactly “white culture”

    I think it’s definitely worth having a dialogue about this and perhaps thats part of the value of the show. I think if people were more familiar with Owens’s ouevre they’d be less troubled. I agree that if he was sending these women down the aisle in wedding gowns it would be problematic, a novelty or “tokenism” but his body of work has always been about theater, movement and aggression.

    Remember he didnt just use women of color or larger women – he used step dancers specifically as models – which makes perfect sense given the kind of clothing he makes: upscale sneakers, flowing loose garments and armor-like leather outerwear, Rick Owens shows have always been theatrical and he has a history of working with models and people unusual to mainstream fashion – like when he brought queer cabaret to his Paris nightclub or worked with the young rapper Zebra Katz.

    • minh-ha

      How are you defining “queer”? He’s been married to Michele Lamy (a woman) for over 20 years. He’s half-Mexican but is phenotypically white and in a society (France or the US) that bases race on physical appearance, he benefits from his white privilege. But even if he “read” as Mexican, the issues Tami raises about cultural exploitation and appropriation are still relevant.

      • Natan Ezra Lefkowits

        Owens is clearly queer in both the cultural sense (his body of work draws on the queer Los Angeles cabaret scene that he came up in explicitly) and the literal sense (he is open about having sexual relationships with men)

        I would also imagine that his androgynous, gender-bending clothing that he sells and wears are a very public display of this idenitifcation.

      • Turbulentbeauty

        If he likes both men and women, being with a woman doesn’t magically make him straight.

  • Shauntele

    As a stepper with inside knowledge of this project. There was a Latina
    sorority initially cast but they were then later recast for reasons
    wholly unrelated to their race. Rick Owens’ admiration initially stemmed from the appreciation of the art of step not the race of those who perform it. A great deal of the comments on this post provide me comfort knowing that the message was clear enough to be understood by many and that we as people of color have begun to release ourselves from the heavy self criticism that stunts on own self expression just for the sake of combating imagined stereotypes that may not truly exist within the minds of others. We must give our fellow humans the chance to understand us before we begin underestimating their ability to relate and appreciate our cultural uniqueness.

  • Estyle

    What exactly makes you uneasy about a “Latino designer being in the Paris fashion world in the first place”?

  • luna

    You are projecting your own ideas of black women onto the designer. Black women are powerful and beautiful. Many women are frustrated and angry at the fashion industry and it’s skewed perspective on beauty. It is an elitist perspective that caters to elitists. You shouldn’t call this business as usual. This is power making itself known. He has done what was needed, what should have been done long ago. It was a revolutionary move “by any means necessary”….they’re saying “We will tell you what beauty is. We will define beauty for ourselves. You don’t tell us. You don’t have that power, we’re taking it back”. Good for him. Sorry you missed it.

  • Magally Miranda

    think it’s all about context. In the context of a The Fashion World,
    which is a historically racist, sexist, classist, industry and
    institution by nature, a stunt like Rick Owens’ is absolutely business
    as usual, token diversity being paraded around as something unusual for
    white masses to consume. It’s not much different from Miley Cyrus’
    recent horrendous performance at the VMA’s for a primarily white
    consumer audience. And precisely because of this context of Paris
    Fashion week, which, let’s keep it real, has long ago determined that
    expensively-dressed, white, anorexic, women ARE the standard of beauty
    (we can also have a separate conversation about the problems with that
    for white women), these black full-figured women with “ugly” expressions
    on their faces are portrayed as the anti-thesis of beauty. At the same
    time, in any other context devoid of these power dynamics any number of
    us might find this performance and these women beautiful. Why? Because
    they would have agency and autonomy. Because in another situation such
    as a step competition or a neighborhood bbq or block party, they would
    be free from this context in which they are objects to be evaluated
    through the lens of the Fashion World.

  • Cpt_Justice

    Am I the only one to have seen the video who saw that not all the women
    were black?
    I cannot see how this was ever a bad thing, even if it *was* all black
    women, because how many usual catwalks are all white women? I think his
    statement was definitely meant to be positive & he struck a blow
    *against* the status quo.

  • Nadia

    As a step performance, lovely. As a fashion show, with African-American performers doing very African-American things for the amusement of a mostly white, mostly European audience – yeah, I’m not comfortable with that at all.

  • Adam Nowek

    But people still would have complained if they had a runway-standard blank look on their face. Any other suggestions?

    • Juan Miller

      This was my thought too. It begins to seem like Black women simply cannot do anything right. If they participate in white norms, they are assimilating and they are wrong. If they express their own culture, they are merely performing for a white audience and are still wrong. Is there anything they can do that will not immediately be judged as somehow problematic?

  • http://wikeslongtrail.blogspot.com/ latenac

    I am of two minds of this as well. I think it’s great that he used models that aren’t the typical. But really the reactions I’ve read about him being so brave, etc. make it almost sound like he used wild animals instead of domesticated ones for his show rather than just human beings. I recently watched 3=1 The Films of Jan Sharp, one of which features Rick Owens and Michele Lamy, his wife. The film definitely colors my feeling that although this was well intentioned it’s also rather tone deaf somehow, much like Michele’s cafe in Los Angeles.

  • shayna121

    It’s worth doing a bit of research before making assumptions. From one of the RO dancer’s:

    “The intense expressions you saw are known as “grit,” and, yes, it is very common to step for black sororities and fraternities. It is used to symbolize two things: 1) To hide the pain of past atrocities suffered and 2) To intimidate the competition during performances. Had we been strolling down the catwalk with Vaseline-d beauty pageant smiles, we wouldn’t have been true to the tradition of step and the effect would have been lost.

    via http://bit.ly/16F4C5i

  • Denise Alden

    Tamara, your last paragraph (sadly) says it all: business as usual. Sort of reminds me of JP Gaultier’s use of Beth Ditto a few years ago.

  • Antonina Clarke

    Would the black women have had to imitate the white supermodel’s presence on the catwalk in order for it to not be racially dubious? I thought he let the women stay in their element. Step team’s have attitude. He asked step teams to be his models, not just THICK BLACK WOMEN.

    • Medusa

      Somehow I doubt that these women are always snarling. They could just have walked down the runway with their own neutral expressions. He definitely went out of his way to, as Tami said to show “the opposite of the ethereal and beautiful white women who typically line catwalks. Thick, angry black chicks.”

      • Marlys

        I really understand what you’ve said, but somehow I really liked to see other body types and more women of color, latinas in a designer clothing. I’m really happy that for the first time I felt that we could change the “traditional ways” that fashion was working on.

    • Tina Farris

      Thank you. Why are we mad at Thick Black Women though? Why was it a bad thing. Oh colorism when we let down our own guard. Black folks got problems ….sigh.