In the latest episode of “Black Fascination”, fashion designer Rick Owens brought a thick-boned crew of black (mostly) steppers from the US to Paris Fashion Week to stomp down the runway wearing his latest collection. Fashion critics raved, calling it amongst many accolades, “powerful”, “provocative”, and “transformative”. I called it a ‘hot mess’ and immediately got charged with the crime of being a typical never satisfied black woman, because of course, I have to catch any bone thrown my way, even if that bone comes in ill-fitted clothing, disastrous hair, and “grit face.” To be honest, what I’m really being told is that I don’t have the power to demarcate where fascination becomes mistaken for revolution. And to be discomfortingly honest, the real message is that black women have no say in what is pretty considering it is the job of non-white women to dispel the standards of beauty, and white women to reinvent it.
If anything, Owens’ fashion show allows for some great practice in mastering the art of decoding the language of the purveyors of pretty. The designer explained how the idea blossomed from step shows he found surfing YouTube. He stated, “I was attracted to how gritty it was, It was such a fuck-you to conventional beauty. They were saying, ‘We’re beautiful in our own way.’” Pause. Rewind. Decode. In other words, black women don’t care about beauty the way that normal-or rather, white- people do. Not at all Owens, we just dominate the hair weave market because we’re really concerned with configuring our own brand of pretty. While I wish there was some truth to this, the real truth is that black women are as concerned with beauty as much as any woman across this globe. By removing us from this demographic we become exceptional. We become unlike most women, making us more susceptible to the patronization of well-meaning, but uninformed, do-gooders.
Speaking of uninformed; Owens is dreadfully off when it comes to step culture. Most telling is his focus on having his performers “mean-mug”, or “grit face”. He explains it as a standard aesthetic of stepping. False! For sororities especially, this screwing of the face is rare, for it is considered not pretty. Actually, we (I was initiated into a Black sorority years ago and was on our step team) often stepped in heels, because we thought of ourselves as ladies. This still holds true. So I would like to know why when I surf YouTube videos of women stepping I mostly encounter a concern with daintiness and the performance of sexiness but Owens seemed to only find growling women? This focus on ugly perplexed even some of Owens’ performers, who were forcefully instructed by him to make the grit-face though it made them uncomfortable.
This idea that the show was a tour-de-force in the battle to bring more diversity to the fashion industry is naïve. The women were not models, they were performers. More than likely they will not grace another runway and there are no modeling agents ringing their phones to book them for Fashion Week 2014. They will not challenge the lack of diversity in the fashion industry any more than white models shot against African landscapes. Perhaps most informing is the curious silence of black supermodels Naomi Campbell and Iman who are part of “Diversity Coalition” an advocacy group that penned a letter shortly before Paris Fashion Week calling for more color on the runway. Perhaps, like me, the never satisfied Black woman, they had something else in mind.