Julianne Escobedo Shepherd connects the dots between ballroom culture and Owens' latest collection.
When Rick Owens premiered his autumn/winter 2012 line in Paris last month, his avant-garde designs provoked the usual flurries of interest, but stoked a lot of music fires, too. Playing Zebra Katz's "Ima Read" exclusively for the 12-minute duration of his show, the loop embedded itself in the heads of fashion editors across the spectrum, and they were willing to preach about it. Style writer Derek Blasberg called it the song of Paris Fashion week (and, uh, "ethnic subversive pop," uhhh), and mentioned that Vogue Japan editor/insane fashion hoarder Anna Dello Russo wouldn't stop singing it (the Italian-born style muse apparently loved saying the word "bitch"). And while at the time those top editors seemed somewhat oblivious as regards the song's context ("ethnic subversive pop"? Really Blasby?), the New York Times was compelled to print a piece in its Style Section extrapolating upon the meaning behind the song's main hook: "Ima read that bitch..." A tribute to voguing and ball culture (and a term that implied Zebra Katz was about to body someone on the dancefloor/runway), the entire song and accompanying video spoke in code to those of us who knew: the beat was a throwback to old way vogue tracks; the concept of the masked dancers and Njena Reddd Foxxx dressed in Schoolgirl Realness (although she is a cis-woman); the allusion to Japanese horror films (ninja/harajuku culture and costuming is big at balls); the way Zebra Katz's outro echoed the live chants of the commentator (essentially, the emcee) at a vogue ball.
So it only made sense that Rick Owens' line would follow the fantasia. Beyond his smart use of a banjee fight song to soundtrack a line that evoked In the Name of the Rose monk-dom and electrifying androgyny, while showcasing masked headpieces he called "Brutalist Veils," vogue and ball culture was integral to his whole A/W 2012 show.
First off, he became yet another major designer in a slew of them to create pieces that specifically echo old looks from Hood by Air — a boutique, banjee-influenced New York City line partly run by $hayne Oliver, who is also co-proprietor of the city's legendary Ghe20 Gothik parties. Specifically, Hood by Air's A/W 2009 line is imitated all over the place, with its super-inspired, whimsical, edgy reimagining of streetwear and workwear, including a leather men's dress crafted in the image of a butcher's apron. The brand has been doing customizable comfort skirts for men for years, inspired by New York street scenes and past and present ballroom culture — this season showcased deconstructed Wall Street wear with wings, a statement on global economic collapse and the prominence of the Occupy movement. Owens' tough leather trenches and gathered, excess tailoring was an echo of shapes Hood by Air has done before.
Secondly, Rick Owens was going buck reimagining parts of Ray Petri's Buffalo style, which was inherently androgynous (leather skirts were de rigueur) and proliferated during the 1980s and '90s, heavily impacting the rise of vogue culture. (And, clearly, Hood by Air has studied Buffalo as well.) Nick Logan, former editor of legendary style magazine The Face, once said, "Ray Petri pioneered an aesthetic that brought the natural style of men of African descent to the forefront of fashion, adding sensuous androgyny with hardcore urban survival edgy-ness. Petri brought black models into the limelight, discovering Naomi Campbell at 14 and Neneh Cherry before her first recording." (Cherry wrote "Buffalo Stance" about the boys included in the phenomenon.) By highlighting Zebra Katz and letting fires burn behind his models, Rick Owens paid homage to the legacy of Petri even just in the varying lengths of the garments he chose: trenches draped down over cuffed trousers that ceased just below the knee, mimicking the oversized but never sloppy freedom Petri envisioned so precisely. And as his version of "Ima Read" expanded and intensified, Owens sent several more models down the runway at once, staggering them— typical of both couture walks and lines at vogue parties, a loop of a shout-out to Paris Is Burning, the film that will endure even as ballroom culture evolves into its highly sophisticated future. Certainly, voguing and catwalks have been inseparable since their inception, but it was a distinct and deliberate callback to their interdependence. As voguing rises once again into the mainstream, it's as though Owens thought it prudent to pay tribute to its origins.