In the subbasement of the Palais de Tokyo, against raw concrete, Rick Owens presented his ethereal spring collection. It basically consisted of airy tunics and sleeveless shifts in black or some other neutral tone, with slim coats or semi-transparent windbreakers. In the past, Owens has used step dancers from Baltimore and Brooklyn as models. One time he hired a heavy-metal band that performed while hanging upside-down on aerial cables. This time he recruited local female gymnasts and paired them off, with one woman carrying the other as she crouched on the front of her partner’s torso or, in another arrangement, against her partner’s back, head down and legs draping over the other woman’s shoulders. They looked like a Surrealist sculpture.
To big applause, Owens trotted out for his bow and then ducked behind the photographers’ stand, presumably taking another route to the backstage, where guests expected to greet him and ask what it was all about. When the designer didn’t appear — he, in fact, had gone out to the loading dock to a waiting black minivan — his PR people offered a ready-made explanation. The show was about “women supporting women.”
That certainly sounds cheery, and they were definitely supporting each other. “I hope it didn’t look like they were straining,” Owens said before his escape in the van. Hardly; some of the gymnasts wore belts that helped secure them to their partners, and also stabilized them. For in addition to being united, often in positions that could be interpreted as sexual, the women were as still as mannequins.
Owens, who is the exemplary ex-patriot designer in Paris after Karl Lagerfeld, said he didn’t feel like explaining his collection this time. “It seemed trite,” he said, when the objectives were fairly obvious. He then explained that, following his July menswear show, which took some of its form and texture from the crushed-car sculptures of John Chamberlain, that he’d wanted to work more on draping. That thought led to the gymnasts. He said, “What if I draped figures with figures?”
The feminist sound-bite is really beside the point, then — although it does speak to Owens’s talent for generating PR by tapping into social trends. (The step-dancer show in particular was much-discussed online due to its departure from the typical model-body shape.) And while it’s true that the gymnast models looked very strong, with firm calf muscles and almost heroically beautiful faces, female strength is also a secondary message.
What makes this show so exceptional in the long run of Owens’s career — from Los Angeles to Paris, from goth weeds to complex yet refined fashion — is that the idea and the resulting forms seemed so spontaneous. And he was able to retain that spontaneity during the show; the runway and all its inherent demands didn’t get in the way. What’s more, the clothes were dynamically of a piece with the concept. The slightly bunchy draping of tunic dresses, worn with the trim windbreakers, looked as if the folds near the hem had just happened that way — maybe on an updraft from a subway grate. The shapes, in turn, seemed to give the models energy. (And don’t models always look freer when they’re not stuck with a stupid handbag? Owens’s girls wore plain black boots and flat sandals.) He also worked with leather and metallic-coated fabrics that, when curled and molded, did evoke Chamberlain’s metal sculptures. But he said he was mainly thinking of the artist’s foam sculptures.
In the end, though, it’s the clothes that left the deepest impression. They might just be the most pleasing and mature that the designer has ever done.