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When Rick Owens debuted his Spring 2014 collection in Paris late last month, he was met with wildly enthusiastic reviews. Reporters hailed him as a genius for bringing onto the stage mostly black women whose bodies did not fit the typical model mold. Beyond that, rather than the steely stares usually worn down the runway, these women were performing an aggressive step dance common to black fraternities and sororities, and their faces were continuously contorted into grimaces, also known as "grit" faces.
Owens entitled his collection "Viscious," a concept he chose to illustrate with the step dancers. One of them told Buzzfeed that she and her fellow performers had "constant and consistent pressure to make weird faces." And there, says San Francisco professional dancer and instructor Amara Tabor-Smith, lies the problem. The show presented a one-dimensional view of the women: aggressive, enraged, frightening. Rather than being the cultural breakthrough of stereotypes some have hailed it as, the show, she says, actually reinforces stereotypes that exist around the "strong, black woman," which allows them little empathy from society as a whole.
Tabor-Smith is not alone. Several writers have pointed out problems they see with the performance. For her part, Tabor-Smith is working the issue into her upcoming show, Mongrels and Objects, which debuts this weekend at CounterPULSE at 1319 Mission Street at 9th. Buy tickets here, and read on for more of her compelling thoughts on why the Owens show fails at bridging a racial gap.
Can you sum up for us the problem you see with the Rick Owens Spring/Summer 2014 fashion show?
"The problem I saw with the way the show was presented was that it was obvious that it was intended to shake up or to maybe shock the audience—those who attend fashion shows. But for me it reinforced stereotypes and notions about specifically blacks' anonymity and also reinforced the notion of what is beautiful in our society.
These women were predominantly of African decent and they all had bodies that were not typical for a fashion show. They were not tall, they were not thin. They were making faces that you don't associate with being attractive and beautiful. In an industry that values women based on how 'desirable' they are based on a very limited standard of beauty (tall, thin, fair, aloof), Rick Owen's decision to use women who were neither tall, thin or fair and then make them perform with angry twisted faces the whole time they were on the runway, supports the very notion that he supposedly was challenging.
The bigger problem is entitling the show "Vicious" and using step dance, which can have a somewhat militaristic or war-dance like element, and underscoring that with the ferocious faces. There was never a moment when their faces weren't—as the New York Times reviewer said—'twisted into a fist,' and that was throughout the show. For me, I was overcome with a sadness in seeing it. There was so much hype—everyone was saying Rick Owens did this amazing thing and challenged the norm—but I felt like it was completely self-serving, that he wasn't doing it from a place of being conscious, but that it was about him. It wasn't about those women.
The audience was like wow, they're fierce and that's powerful. But there's a way humans can be less empathetic when we feel that someone's fierce. They're fierce, they're fighters. This idea of 'you're strong black woman' is void of empathy. When women's children are murdered, there's a difference between white and black children being murdered. It's treated as 'that's what happens in the hood.' Why is that acceptable? That's what comes up of for me, even though I knew what great opportunity it was for these dancers.
One of the influences of that dance is the South African boot dance. Stepping in black fraternities and sororities can be fierce, but the dancers can also be just joyful and playful. Like, 'I feel powerful in way that's celebratory.' What they were doing (in the Owen's show) was a war dance, not celebrating."
What would have been a better way to include black women in the show?
"If he's really trying to make a statement, mix it up! In the fashion world it's been the tradition that women are thin and they're tall, and I'm not saying they should be eliminated. I'm saying mix it up. Say that all of these women deserve to be here together.
I don't believe it's about exclusion. If it's a show for plus-size models, or what we call that in this country, that's different. But how can we validate the multiplicity that beauty is not just one thing. There are multiple expressions of beauty in body type, size, shape, color. Why not put everyone in there together and really make a statement? That to me would have been a bold and fierce statement as opposed to reinforcing a stereotype that big black women are something you should be afraid of."
How will your upcoming piece address the issue?
"I'm doing a piece that's a work in progress with a collaborator, Sherwood Chen. The piece wasn't originally about this but it found it's way in because both things are happening at once, and when you're making a piece that's a work in progress you can change things. One section of the work has to do with identity, the clothes we wear and the things that we put on that make us feel better about ourselves. For example, if you admire the coat your friend wears and you want a coat like that because it looks so good. But you'll actually never look like that. It's this endless search for clothes that will make us feel beautiful as we see others.
The collaborator I'm working with, we come together and we influence each other, inspire each other and struggle together in the creative process, but one thing that's really clear to me in my creative process is if what I'm doing is not a prayer for something then I don't do it. It's not like i'm actively praying on stage, but there's a choreographer who said, 'You should know where the prayer is in the dance.' And that really struck me because there are people who create movement for the sake of movement but that's no why I create. Dance is my form of activism. Dance for me is a healing thing. I feel like it has the magic and power to change things. It's one of the forms of expression that can move things. I like to do that from a conscious place. People can take a dance class and leave feeling hopeful or renewed or different—it's an example of the transformative power of dance."
· CounterPULSE [Official Site]
· Rick Owens [Official Site]
· Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to Be Diverse [Threadbared]