We clapped. We cheered. We whooped. But did we fully understand the subtext of ' S/S 14 showformance? There was mild anticipation beforehand that Owens would come up trumps with a performance like his mens S/S 14 show where Estonian hardcore band Winny Puhh thrashed about Owens described that at the time as "cheerful viscousness". There was certainly much to cheer about at yesterday's womenswear S/S 14 show but cheerful would be the wrong word to describe what for me, was one of the most provocative and pertinent statements I've seen in a fashion show.
Four troops of women, thumping their chests, grouped up by their attire into (white, sand, brown and black – well they are classic Owens' colours but read into that what you will) came out in perfect unison. They were the Soul Steppers of New York, Washington Divas, Momentum and Zetas of Washington D.C. This was stepping, rooted in African-American college sororities – described by Tim Blanks as a combo of "step dancing, cheerleading, and military drill". They scowled, they growled and they looked like you would not want to fuck with them. This was their "grit" face intended to scare competition. They be stepping like mad in Owens' layered garb that allowed them to move – vaguely Grecian and draped – as a nod to sorority origins.
Many just cheered it on as thought it a pure aesthetic and cultural showcase and celebration of what stepping is about. And somehow, most that have written about it has skirted around the issue of what a performance like this means in the context of fashion at large. These steppers were mostly black, not of the "ideal" body size that fashion puts on its runways, in its advertising, editorials and generally consider to be attractive and they looked vicious – they're not conventional "beauties". A plaintive statement of diversity, that is sorely lacking in fashion across all areas – media, models and designers. I was incredibly grateful that the steppers were the stars of the show as opposed to the bit part intro to the "real" models – that would have been a mooted statement. Instead, most of us who weren't just thinking "Oh, isn't this FIERCE and exotic?" were invited to examine the state of fashion as it stands in its undeniably warped attitudes towards size, race and beauty. If Owens' "outsiders" and "fringe figures" have always found solace in his clothes, then that feeling of inclusion could only multiple after this show.
A quick search on Twitter immediately after the show already yielded comments such as "Elegance in Paris is dead #rickowens" and "WTF is this? Ugly as fuck". That saddens me, not because they didn't get it, but that they have been so numbed into a certain ideal of what a fashion show should look like that they felt they had to pass judgement immediately when they were confronted by something vaguely unfamiliar to them.
There have also been accusations of it being a gimmick floating around on the Twittersphere that it was all a gimmick-y ploy. Owens has garnered the sort of following that is second to none. He could show shapeless hessian sacks on the runway and still get away with hordes of cheers. He is one of the few purist designers around that doesn't really need a gimmick. Instead, he chose to celebrate, and in turn to make a point. One that needs making. Where exactly have all the salient points gone in fashion?
For a louder, less polished view of the stepping, these are some of the clips I took…