Rick Owens at Paris Fashion Week: Use of black women's step team instead of models sets back diversity

OPINION - His Paris Fashion Week show is an example of cultural appropriation on par with the recent acts of Miley Cyrus, who many in the mainstream accused of using black women as props at the 2013 Video Music Awards...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Rick Owens’ Spring 2014 runway show at Paris Fashion Week, registers like one of those shirts you buy your mom from Cancun: “I campaigned for diversity, and all I got was this lousy step team,” such a shirt might read, by all those disappointed at this latest stab at fashion diversity.

I can’t confirm that Owens’ show was an attempted response to accusations that fashion faces a diversity drought, but media reactions seemed to support that interpretation. I’m compelled to set the record straight.

Rick Owens’ show did nothing to help black models, nor did it aid the fashion industry in reversing its de facto exclusion of black women from beauty culture. Popular reportage suggests a lack of experience with decent step teams and a lack of perspective on what women of color want in terms of creating inclusion.

Black not portrayed as beautiful

Beauty, whether we believe it is socially salient, was not portrayed by the models in Owens’ show.  Globally, a smile is perceived as friendly, attractive, and consequently, more beautiful than a frown. The models in Owens’ show had obviously been directed not to smile and furrow their brows to look especially tough. The wild hairstyles worn by the models — many with hair straggling down their faces — did not resemble designs that any black women, as far as I know, would choose for themselves. The grooming and directed countenance in Owens’ Spring 2014 show masked the models’ beauty in favor of a physically intimidating appearance. This seems strange, when usually Paris Fashion Week and its models are known for exquisite beauty.

Simultaneously, I think many of the models looked beautiful and shapely compared to everyday, stick thin models (a judgment that of course is tinted by my own culturally-influenced understanding of beauty as a black woman). And yes, the collection is called “Vicious.” Owens could get points for trying to break the boundaries of beauty with his show, yet for him to use black women in this way, rather than break new ground, it re-inscribes an age-old stereotype.

My interpretation may be sensitive as a black woman, but for many, scowling black women stir up the stereotype of the “angry black woman,” and Owens’ step team likely did the same for his audience.

Hiding the beauty of these models and directing them towards more harsh expression, the Owens show only underscored the portrayal of black women as “angry,” when the potential was there to glorify the black woman as curvy and, as these dancers were, powerful. The step performance did little to complicate the seemingly furious nature of these women, when real step shows portray black womanhood in all its various aspects.

Stepping taken out of context

Typically performed by college groups for on-campus exhibitions, women’s stepping often features a juxtaposition of fierce, exacted motions, with sassy interjections of hip rolls, or traditional black sorority lingo and pride. (Here’s what a black sorority step show usually looks like.) Black women in this context are fierce, not furious, and can also be coy, playful — and yes, beautiful.

Owens’ models seemed more aggressive, raucous, and macho. Compare his dancers to an example of a fraternity stepping at the same university his female, step dancing models came from. When decontextualized from the all-important fraternity/sorority context, where the dancer’s pro-social and intellectual capacities are taken for granted, the performance becomes less affirming and less authentic. These women undoubtedly reaped economic and experiential benefits from stomping the runway, but considering the social and actual capital Owens stands to reap, it leans towards the exploitative.

As for the angry faces, which I recognize as “thizz-face” (and I can only speak to my own execution thereof), there is a tradition of contorting the face in black dance. It’s a dramatic expression of the idea that the dancer is so good, they’re “bad”; their moves are so clean, they’re dirty; they’re so precise and athletic that it’s disgusting — to the competition.