Rick Owens literally set Paris Fashion Week ablaze with his rousing, soul stirring Spring 2014 show, performed by a step team of 40 mostly African-American women from four different step teams: Step Momentum, Washington Divas, Soul Steppers, and the Zetas. While most who witnessed the production were copious with their praise–Shiona Turini of Cosmopolitan wrote, “Step teams at #RickOwens locked up, mean muggin’ and REPRESENTING a culture so often overlooked in this industry. This meant SO much to me It’s UNREAL. Thank you Rick.“–there were still those, including many of you, who took issue with the energetic display.
Callie Busman of Jezebel.com wrote, “Are these designers serious about promoting diversity, or are they co-opting fashion’s egregious race problem to garner attention and seem edgy? Are they trying to make diverse runways the norm or merely trying to make them into a spectacle?” More of you were concerned with the apparent co-opting of Greek’s step culture. @Shakeira1908 wrote on Instagram, “This is foolery and an utter fail. How is the fashion spectator supposed to appreciate the cornerstone art this is the clothing when you’re too busy trying to shock value them into loving your line by ‘watering down’ the art of one of our (divine 9) fraternity and sorority’s most honored and respected crafts that denotes the history, purpose, and pride of our organizations? #sitdown.”
I wanted an insider perspective, so tapped Fashion Bomb Reader and designer Shantell Richardson aka Stepper #12, who performed in the show. She gave us the scoop on everything that went into the performance, and offered her feelings on the experience.
She said, “Everyone who saw it and everyone who was there, [felt] some kind of strong emotional attachment to it. People were crying at the end. It was beyond. People in the audience were crying. Rick Owens was crying. It was amazing. It was a genuine performance. It was genuine, it was honest, and Rick wanted to honor the art of step.”
She continues, “Jezebel questioned if it was a gimmick. Most people who know Rick Owens knows that it’s not a gimmick. It wasn’t a gimmick when he had [a performance] with his menswear collection.” (Rick Owens had members of Estonian band Winny Puhh suspended from the ceiling while playing musical instruments for his Spring 2014 menswear show. See the video recap below):
She added, “It’s not a gimmick when he’s done it many times before, but because he’s doing it with a group of black women, they’re really questioning [his intentions]. And because…there’s so much talk about diversity right now with Bethann, Iman, and Cynthia Bailey calling designer’s out (which is appreciated). But at the same time they have to realize that this wasn’t a performance we just threw together. We’ve been working on this for 5 months. We’ve had to keep it a secret for 5 months. We knew about it 5 months ago and started rehearsing 4 months ago.”
In response to the uproar from fraternities and sororities, Richardson, who has been stepping for 7 years said, “Step is a Greek thing, but there are tons of people who step outside of the Greek. I started stepping in high school, at Boarding School no less. I remember doing chants in the schoolyard before I even knew about step. Yes, we looked to the fraternities. Some of us were Greek, some us were non Greek. And some people were affiliated with sororities who didn’t step under their affiliation. [But in the end], the Greek community should be happy that we at least brought it to the forefront, so people are curious about it and [interested in] learning more about it.”
She added, “People were saying our steps were whack. But then, they don’t realize that we were also showcasing clothing. There was a lot of choreography that got changed the day before. And the fact that we were all able to still come together and do it flawlessly, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I was really excited.”
But what about the mean mugging and yelling? She answered, “The grit face was part of the fierceness. He said, ‘I want you guys to be strong and fierce.’ He did his research, and he said, ‘I really like that, it’s got a real intense energy to it.’ It was about this intense energy, not about us being angry black women. And I had that concern, too, and I brought it up to them, and I said, ‘I really don’t want to be perceived as an angry black women.’ And they explained their position on it, and I understand the inspiration.”
So in the end, I had to ask: why do you think Rick Owens chose to display his clothes in this way? She said, “He’s always trying to bring American sensibility to European fashion. He saw us as an American phenomenon. I think he likes to play around with mixing combinations that shouldn’t go together, but do work. Step teams aren’t really done anywhere else. He wanted to see movement in his clothing. ”
She also offered, “It was rendered accessible. We all had different body types. It [wasn’t] just about us being black–we had 3 non black performers, and we went from skinny to larger sized women. Noone ever made us feel anything but beautiful.He could’ve gotten slim Broadway dancers to do the show, but we’re professional steppers. We’ve done performances before, we’ve done performances on Broadway.”
“… But he said it was a great example of American teamwork. He didn’t say it was a great example of African American teamwork–because we’re American. I appreciate people recognizing that he did something so impactful for the black community and for blacks and diversity in fashion, but I also appreciate the fact that we’re American. We just want to feel accepted. Your home is your home, your country is your country. When people say post racial, I think that’s what we’re getting closer to.”
Well, there you have it.
What do you think?
See the full video of the performance here: