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Making head and tail of a fad

The first models who came strolling across Rick Owens’ concrete landscape were startling. They were dressed in long, patchwork coats that formed a kind of cocoon around the body. And their faces were partially obscured by strange crowns, hoods, miters or whatever one might want to call the bits of fabric that atop their head.

That models at an Owens show should cut a striking figure has come to be expected. He’s a designer with an unconventional aesthetic, whose clothes don’t always adhere to traditional shapes or follow the exact contours of the body.

But the head coverings made this collection for fall 2017 feel particularly unsettling – and intellectually invigorating.

They were created from what appeared to be old sleeves detached from a sweatshirt and wrapped or folded around a wire form that was then fitted to the model’s head. Some of the hats recalled the ceremonial headdress of the clergy – a miter, perhaps. Others made one think of wedding veils, a fez, a mantilla, a burqa, or even the deeply disconcerting hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan.

The head coverings gave the clothes a kind of formality, mystery and importance that the down-filled wraps, sweeping coats and assemblage of loosefitting dresses and pullovers otherwise would not have.

In his show notes, Owens talked about protest and social codes and how ceremonies are an expression of our agreed upon rules of conduct.

Sometimes those rules are for the better, allowing us to coexist civilly and respectfully. Sometimes they are false hierarchies that impose a kind of order that deserves to be confronted and upended. Upon occasion, the codes are soulfully reassuring.

By constructing his crowns and veils out of the most modest sweatshirt and T-shirt materials, Owens emphasised that the codes are man-made and flimsy at best. They can be readily discarded, recycled, reworked. Ceremonies might link us all together – or separate us – but they are not immutable.

Owens isn’t offering any absolutes. Mostly, he is asking questions about how we conduct ourselves as a culture. Do our social codes help or hinder us? Just how adept are we at understanding the difference between traditions that hold societies together and those that cause them to rot from the inside out?

Owens referred to his patchwork gowns as a version of arte povera – an Italian art movement from the late 1960s that challenged the status quo of official institutions. He set his show in an expansive man-made grotto beneath two museums that focus on modern and contemporary art. The stark setting was a nod to artist Michael Heizer’s “City,” his expansive installation that sweeps across the Nevada desert – an abstract metropolis in the middle of nowhere.

As the models marched out for the finale, a Beethoven sonata played through the speakers. The senses were overwhelmed with bold juxtapositions. Subversive clothes that defy easy description or characterisation are displayed to the sounds of classical music – the music of the establishment rather than the music of today’s celebrated provocateurs. Does the music ground the clothes in tradition? Or do the clothes make the music seem more daring?

Owens crafted a show that takes every opportunity to test our codes, our ceremonies, our social order. And he started the conversation by inviting his audience to ask a simple, familiar question: “What is she wearing?”

Washington Post-Bloomberg