Yves Saint Laurent once said that the use of Black models on his Parisian runways some forty years ago–when such an anomalous practice flummoxed the stoic and pallid couturier audiences–was a thing of “modernity.”
That word makes my eyebrow furrow a bit, seeing as Blackness is hardly a novel invention but an unyielding constant…but I’ll simply reason that it’s perhaps a fuzzy French translation for what Saint Laurent saw as progression within a racially homogeneous and hostile industry.
It was 1971, after all; just years shy of the Civil Rights legislation of 1968 and the advent of the Black Power Movement, and the designer had cast Detroit’s Pat Cleveland and Martinique’s Mounia as muses to an European luxury design house. Racial inclusion within society was only eking its way to fruition. Saint Laurent’s casting most certainly signaled the times.
Perhaps it is why then not a month ago, with snarls, “mean mugs”, and laser-tailored leather, Rick Owens made a similar proclamation of the times with his Spring Summer 2014 collection. Set upon a similar Parisian backdrop as Laurent’s, Owens solely featured four groups of competitive step teams as his models: they almost entirely made up of women of color; they almost entirely made up of women of ample bodies and might. This, on the tails of fashion vet, Bethann Hardison’s, fight for more diversity inclusion in an industry swathed in sameness.
With the measured precision of battalions, these women treaded across an industrial-like set of iron steps and concrete floors to the tick and tock of a relentless beat. Gesticulating in unison while bedecked in Owens’s signature conceptual designs (think: directional glamour-meets-grunge) these talented performers brought to life a Black Greek tradition that is largely unknown outside the historically Black college fraternities and sororities that spawned the practice. It was an unlikely presence here in Paris, as just a handful of people of color could be counted in the show’s attendance (although growing in number, Black editors and fashion executives are few and far between), let alone storming the catwalk.
After viewing the footage of the fashion show, I was overwhelmed by not only the inclusion of Black participants in this largely exclusionary industry, but at the recognition that these women were not only commercially viable brand ambassadors but plausible luxury consumers. The social capital of these young women, which often eludes people (and especially women) of color, was underscored in an entirely enlightening way. I hate to suggest that social power derives from market value solely, but it is rather powerful to gauge the implications of the commingling of a Black performance tradition and the luxury fashion market (a $226.6 billion dollar enterprise); how such a show could potentially alter both body and financial economies for the better.
In that same breath, of course, I would be remiss not to consider the faddish nature of such a show. While revolutionary a stance on Owens’s part, it begs the question of whether this was a one-off display for the designer? A display devised to shock, rather than problematize the fashion industry’s myopic standards of beauty.
To be sure, the use of the Black female body to titillate and shock White audiences has a long-twisted history within Western culture. From the exhibition of Saartije Bartman’s (a.k.a. “The Hottentot Venus”) curvaceous form in early 1800 European circles, to Josephine Baker’s celebrated but arguably controversial “La Danse Sauvage” of the 1920’s, the Black female has continuously been positioned as a source of spectacle and pleasure, primarily existing outside the canonized idea of femininity. Owens’s use of these steppers as models tows this precarious line, with the designer certainly underscoring these young women’s strength, skill, and passion, but equally using their unexpected presence (racially, physically, spatially) to stir. As Owens was quoted of saying after the show, “I was attracted to how gritty [stepping] was, it was such a ‘fuck-you’ to conventional beauty. [The steppers] were saying, ‘We’re beautiful in our own way.'”
Just as he used the hardcore Estonian metal band, Winny Puhh, at his Spring Summer 2014 menswear presentation to blow little more but dissonance at the unsuspecting fashion crowd, Owens’s love for the provocative often confronts the status quo, but yields little active conversation on how fashion can definitively challenge norms. In this instance, one can only hope that Owens will continue to nourish the careers of Black talent within the fashion industry, just as Yves Saint Laurent did most famously for Naomi Campbell in 1988 when he championed her trailblazing French Vogue cover.
Of course, the Black hipster in me believes Rick Owens’s relationship with Harlem rapper, A$AP Rocky, could prove influential to this suggestion. After all, the mutual affinity that the stylish hip-hop artist and designer maintain for one another is well-known, with Rocky constantly modeling Owens’s designs in fashion spreads, and rapping long of his love for the brand (“I get the freshest/Raf Simons and Rick Owens, usually…”). But even more, Rocky spares no opportunity to speak on the dichotomy to which his personal style works under: the street stylings of his native Uptown versus his penchant for downtown high fashions. With aspirations of fashion icon status, Rocky and Owens could easily work together to manifest a collaborative relationship with advertisements, ambassador roles, and capsule collections: all of which could directly tap a ripe but largely ignored Black luxury shopper.
For diversity within fashion is much more than mining subcultures for inspiration or making shocking casting decisions, but instead, it is a concerted effort to speak to a new consumer and privilege their business. But even more importantly, it is a substantiation of otherwise cursory statements of defiance towards fashion’s racial status quo.
That, for me at least, would be the most shocking thing out of luxury fashion in the last forty years.