Fashion Takes a Political Turn at Rick Owens, Off-White and Kenzo

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Rick Owens Fall 2017

Protest and personal expression take center stage.

Rick Owens, the American designer in Paris beloved by sneakerheads, rappers and free spirits alike for his darkly glamorous style, got me thinking with his runway show on Thursday at Paris Fashion Week —thinking about politics and freedom and identity and ritual.

His fall 2017 collection was chaotic, the work of a restless mind spent watching too much TV footage of rallies, marches and protests, perhaps.

The first few models to come out in the bare bones basement of the Palais du Tokyo wore tall mitres almost entirely concealing their faces, bringing to mind religious garb. They looked foreboding in their long capes, until the models turned and it became apparent that the coverings were made of sleeves and other remnants of T-shirts and sweatshirts.

What if a headcovering were just like any other garment, no more or no less? It was something to consider in a country that banned the burqa in 2011, and in the wake of strict new immigration policies already in place in Trump’s America — which could soon be coming to France if frontrunner and far right candidate Marine Le Pen wins the presidential election on April 23. Other head coverings were shaped like ears (a reference to Pussy hats?), horns, cubes and cylinders, each one conveying a different identity.

There was a dystopian look to the humble clothes. Coats and jackets were made from twisted quilted duvets, or patched-together wool and canvas, with extended knit sleeves or sculptural buttresses exaggerating the shoulders and hips. Painted silk gowns were draped like ceremonial robes and worn with sock sneakers pulled up to the knees. But there was also a certain nobility to the collection that spoke to the basic freedom of getting dressed. They may take away our rights, but we can still revel in the little things, like choosing what we put on in the morning (at least up to a point in France). Exhibit A was Nicki Minaj, sitting front row in a get-up that involved chain mail and mirrored goggles.

“After protest, one’s attention might turn to personal behavior, and maybe embracing what makes us civilized can be our most positive act,” Owens explained in the show notes. “Ceremonies are about groups agreeing on codes of behavior and collectively committing to them. Under the most civilized circumstances, community, responsibility and kindness usually top the list." Amen.

The ceremony of the runway continued at Off-White, Virgil Abloh’s collection that has garnered so much attention and accolades that he is rumored to be in the running for the top job at Givenchy after Riccardo Tisci vacates it. Abloh has such cred, indeed, that Vogue editor Anna Wintour trekked to a 9 p.m. show to sit next to Kendall Jenner in the front row.

The runway was transformed into an autumn dreamscape, with trees hanging from the ceiling and dead leaves strewn on the runway. The collection was less a narrow definition of streetwear and more a full-fledged wardrobe for women, with striped tailoring, cropped denim jackets and wrap skirts, and high slit silk dresses that cast a romantic spell.

A couple of sheer shirts were embroidered with sequined peace doves, and for a finale, the models used flashlights to find their way in the darkness.

Designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon also have a knack for bringing context to fashion through music, art, even food, and their shows are often multisensory experiences.

Such was the case on Wednesday night when they held a fashion show and dinner to launch a new collection, La Memento No. 1, celebrating the archives of the fashion house started by Kenzo Takada, one of the first Japanese designers to make it in Paris, and open the door for so many others, including Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo.

Leon and Lim hosted guests at the Kenzo headquarters for an informal show featuring the brand’s iconic ruffled smock dresses in wild animal and floral prints, eagle jacquard sweatshirts, jumpsuits, denim backpacks and platform shoes from the 1970s and '80s, remade for a new generation, with a few Pussy Riot balaclavas thrown in for good measure to reference, among other things, Kenzo’s use of masks. “We’re never ones to shy away from politics,” Leon said.

To further underscore the message, diners enjoyed a menu prepared by Mohammad Elkhady, a Syrian chef who appeared on culinary TV shows from Cairo to Dubai before he and his family fled war-ravaged Damascus for Paris.

And if fattoush and baklava za'atar weren’t enough, there was dessert — a performance by Lauryn Hill, who got the whole house, Travis Scott and Alexandra Richards included, singing.