Commentary: Race, Black Women and Rick Owens' Paris Runway

Did his steppers/models step over the line of good taste?

Posted: 10/01/2013 03:00 PM EDT
Rick Owens Paris Runway Show

Designer Rick Owens' runway show last week in Paris will be remembered for all that it was not. It was not a high-cost excuse to parade two dozen frail women along a catwalk. It was also not a ten-minute exercise in watching models so indistinguishable from each other that they blended into the background, becoming little more than human clothes hangers.

No, instead Owens went wildly left of center, creating a show where his designs were presented by a cast of American, mostly Black, female step dancers who were not size zero or two, not dainty, not demure, and not hyper sexualized as Black women on stage all too often are. These women, a significant number of whom are members of Zeta Phi Beta sorority at Howard University, descended from the top of a staircase, performed a step dance, then broke off to have a brief solo moment to showcase the pieces (loosely fitting tunics and shorts), before finally ending in an interlocked chain of stomping bodies. 

While Owens will be the one called an innovative risk taker, it was the women and mother-daughter director/choreographer who deserved the accolades. Backstage, Owens, who had to custom fit the pieces to the non-sample size women, said it was a "f--k you to conventional beauty" that he loved. Others were less than pleased, saying the exaggerated mad faces made by some of the women played on stereotypes of the angry Black woman; as if even on a Paris runway all they can do is mean mug for the (mostly white) audience.

But in those looks, there is also another interpretation. They recalled the faces made by the Maori in their haka dances, where exaggerated expressions and bulged eyes are meant to show their fierceness. The women's attitudes also conjured up memories of Janet Jackson in the "Scream" video, with many women looking one second away from letting out a shout. After decades of intentional exclusion of Black women by the fashion community, it's not far fetched to say that some of these women's faces were saying, "What the hell took you so long to bring us up here?"

We can only hope this won't be the last season that offers up something a little more outlandish — but also, a lot more authentic — on the runway. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

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