Stepping Beyond Fashion

On September 26, Rick Owens showed his Spring/Summer 2014 collection as a part of Paris fashion week. Besides the spectacular clothes, something else about the collection was particularly striking: traditional models were nowhere in sight.

These models were not only non-traditional, i.e. white and emaciated, they were not models at all, but rather a collective of different step dancing teams from various U.S. colleges. The group sporting the clothes was predominantly black and none of them would fit a typical runway sample size.

“We’re rejecting conventional beauty, creating our own beauty,” said Owens.

For years there has been talk about the lack of diversity represented on high fashion runways and little has been done about it. Owens’ aesthetic and mentalityhave always run counter to the norm and I believe his effort to showcase something different to be a sincere one. However, I do not believe the rest of high fashion will follow suit any time soon.

The response to the clothes and the women wearing them was overwhelmingly positive, but I believe that the presentation was something most of the fashion crowd couldn’t truly grasp. This type of step team is foreign enough to Europeans and people from other parts of the world, but equally so to the wealthy Caucasian men and women who comprise a majority of those with influence in fashion.

The inability of many who viewed the collection to perceive and understand this different kind of beauty was troubling. Many of the guests interviewed afterward described the women as “powerful.” Most people would consider this a positive use of language, but to my mind this is much like fashion’s use of the word curvy—a backhanded compliment. If you’re not thin and pretty, at least you can be powerful.

They assigned the dancers power rather than beauty. Their reactions seem to suggest that the idea of women being powerful while outside of the established codes of beauty is not possible. Their comments also bring forth their subconscious belief that women can only achieve power through predetermined beauty standards.

What Owens’ recognizes that so many do not, is that women who are powerful are beautiful. They are more than hangers with a pulse. They have agency. In this case they may be ferocious, but ferocity can be beautiful even if it doesn’t come with a smile, not that runways normally have many of those floating around anyway.

What’s more is that these women were showing their highly honed step dancing skills. They are not simply there to be viewed. They are there to express their own unique rhythms and that can only add to the potency of the clothes.

The show was not meant to be representative of all black beauty, although some took it that way. It is simply a small portion of what beauty can mean in the modern world. It is important to note that not all of the brilliant dancers performing were black or part of another minority group; some were white.

Diversity such as this is a rarity in fashion. For years there was only one shade of makeup for black models, as though everyone with brown skin possesses precisely the same complexion. Asian women have only recently come into the mainstream and many other groups of women have yet to receive any attention whatsoever.

More than anything else, fashion has a tendency to create outliers rather than changing the unspoken standards nearly everyone adheres to. It is people like Owens who make everyone a little uncomfortable. And we’re all the better for it.

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