PARIS — Perched on benches on the edges of a courtyard at the Palais de Tokyo awaiting the start of the Rick Owens spring 2019 runway show, the Americans in the international audience were easy to spot. Many sat hunched over cell phones, scrolling through Twitter as Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, or stared at a live feed as she accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers. With the dull roar of traffic in the background, her voice, could just barely be heard from the tinny iPhone speakers. Her face, eyes wide behind her glasses, glowed from tiny screens.
Then suddenly a model was walking down the grand stone staircase, making her way around an enormous sand pit from which a rustic tower of beams was set ablaze.
A plume of black smoke rose into the sky. A wave of heat swept across the audience. Had the first model appeared abruptly, or was there some drumroll the audience had been too distracted to notice? She marched along the walkway, and as she came into view, one had the sense that her attire spoke metaphorically to this precise moment in cultural history.
She was dressed all in black with her face partially obscured. From a distance, she looked like some sort of singed bird — her wings scorched and covered in soot but somehow still beating against the wind. She looked like a warrior in protective garb, her feet rooted to the ground in enormous hiking boots, her head crowned with miniature geometric scaffolding. She looked vaguely otherworldly. She was a dark dream. She was unbowed.
Owens titled his collection Babel, calling to mind man’s hubris, self-inflicted chaos and an inability to communicate. In his show notes, Owens remarked that the notions roiling his imagination included hope, dread, serenity and nihilism. “My needle always seems to be quivering between them.”
His mind wandered to witches and spells and the search for reason and order. He thought of sleaze and darkness. He considered Tatlin’s Tower, a never-built Russian symbol of modernity that was meant to rival the height and prestige of the Eiffel Tower. He felt confusion. He envisioned a stairway to heaven that had been set afire.
That reads like a chaotic, dream-state assessment of 2018. And so his collection felt despairing and sober, but with glimmers of optimism. There were hints of an American flag, faded and stained but still holding. A model clutching a torch and dressed in a long, deep red coat with more cut-outs than fabric called to mind a bloodied Statue of Liberty. Yet still standing. Her torch a source of light rather than a tool for destruction. For now.
His collection rose and fell on a wave of emotion, pinging from anger to calm at the speed of news alerts flashing across one’s cell phone. The women in his show looked battle-weary but dignified. They looked ready for a fight but eager for peace. They looked regal. They looked like they were seething.
Owens, an American based here, captured the mood across the Atlantic in the manner of abstract expressionism — with bold brushstrokes, spontaneity and emotion. The uniforms on the day that mesmerized America might have been news anchor sheaths and all-business tailoring, but the clothes that captured the angst and horror and anger and confusion and despair were the ones 3,000 miles away and worn by the gentlelady with the torch.
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