When Rick Owens held his Paris Fashion Week show featuring “angry models,” most of whom were black, he was hailed as a genius by many for his Spring 2014 runway presentation. But some saw the menacing scowls on the black women who modeled his collection as a stereotyping affront to African-Americans, and a weak attempt at fashion diversity. Now, one of the black women who danced in Owens’ industrial chic-meets-athletic garb showcase is speaking out. And she says the “angry” faces were forced on them.
“It was a struggle, certainly,” show performer Arin Lawrence explained to Buzzfeed. “We were all told, you have to make these faces. To be honest, it was one of the most frustrating things because as step teams, we just don’t make ‘grit faces,'” as they are called within the step dance community. “It’s not that we’re skipping around wide-eyed and smiling, because there’s a serious element to stepping. It’s not meant to be giddy, and not to be taken as a joke. But, again, we’re not angry and we’re not trying to scare people in the audience or anything like that, so constant and consistent pressure to make weird faces was tough.”
Enthralled by “anger”?
Many media outlets were enthralled by the “anger” they believed the models presented, and were actually mistaken about the dancers’ intent — to show power, not rage.
“I think it can be difficult to express that sentiment in a way that doesn’t look angry because it’s not supposed to be about anger,” Lawrence said.
Ultimately, Lawrence herself asserted that the faces were “ugly” in the Buzzfeed piece, confirming the belief held by many: far from being a celebratory inclusion of black beauty for the sake of positive diversity, Owens’ use of these African-American women was more complex.
The decision to send African-American women stomping down a Paris catwalk with nostril-flaring scowls likely fed the “angry black woman” stereotype for many, an image so prevalent it has even been applied to first lady Michelle Obama, widely recognized as one of the world’s more elegant women.
“When black women are portrayed as overly agitated, ferocious, unkempt, or animalistic,” wrote Amanda Williams about Owens’ show on theGrio, “it is an affront to black beauty. Like all women, black women want to feel happy, sexy, alluring, maintained, elegant and beautiful: all the ways white women are portrayed in contemporary fashion photo and runway productions.” If black women could consistently receive that portrayal, that would be truly satisfying fashion diversity.
Owens orders black women to be “vicious”
While Owens’ team allegedly insisted that the step dancers make “vicious” faces, it is clear that during the performance many of the women refused. “I think some people at a certain point were like, I’m just not doing this. And you can see that in some of the pictures,” Lawrence confirmed.
From Owens’ perspective, he told award-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan regarding the act of stepping: “I was attracted to how gritty it was, it was such a f**k-you to conventional beauty. They were saying, ‘We’re beautiful in our own way.’”
For Lawrence, the end result may have been controversial, but she is still happy that this African-American dance form was able to reach a wider audience.
“I can’t speak for all 40 of us, but for us Soul Steppers,” she said of the dance group of which she is a part, “we did the show because we believe in the power of step. We all felt that this was a huge opportunity for it to be presented on the world stage in an unconventional way, and just to widen the scope of anyone who sees and hears about it.”
Ongoing battle for diversity
Diversity in fashion is currently a hot button issue. Owens’ use of larger, African-American women dancing with straggling hair, rolling eyes, and aggressive “grit” faces at this time instead of black models certainly sparked greater interest in this context.
Fashion industry legend and activist Bethann Hardison recently sent letters to the major fashion governing bodies of the world calling for more models of color to be included in important roles in the industry. While her call to action has received widespread coverage, the response of the fashion world has been varied, with some leaders agreeing to meet with Hardison on the issue.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.