These days, it’s almost impossible to create a moment in fashion that continues reverberating through our cultural consciousness after it’s disappeared into the depths of our Instagram feeds. And yet we’re still talking about Rick Owens’ SS14 show six months later. It was a moment like no other: over the course of 11 heartstopping minutes, 40 fearless women gave a radically expressive performance of the art of stepping – in which the body is used as an instrument to create complex sounds and rhythms – before a stunned Parisian audience. Owens has a reputation for creating such unconventional shows as his SS14 menswear, which saw obscure Estonian metal band Winny Puhh spinning from vertical drums wearing fox suits, but this was groundbreaking even by his standards.
The full-throttled, hair-whipping, teeth-gritting performance took place in an industrial sports hall to an aggro-electronic soundtrack that rattled both the show space and institutional Paris, highlighting and momentarily obliterating fashion’s unconscious obsession with a homogenous beauty standard. Team Vicious, the name the performers went under for this show, were part of something that felt revolutionary. And when it was all over, audience members kicked off a virtual storm as they scrambled to discover exactly who these women were.
Today, some members of Team Vicious – an amalgam of four step groups, Soul Steps and Momentum from New York, the Washington Divas and the Zetas from Washington DC – have gathered at the Westway in NYC, a former strip club that’s home to riotous nights where Mykki Blanco’s nipples make a regular appearance. They’re getting back into their Owens looks and preparing to be shot by photographer Danielle Levitt. She’s no stranger to the steppers, who describe her as their “crazy aunt”. She’s been following their own wild journey over the last few months while filming her documentary A Little Bit Eternal about Rick Owens and his wife, Michèle Lamy. “I love Danielle’s history with subcultures and youth groups and finding tribes of kids and the way they cling together,” Owens says by phone from Paris. “She was the perfect person to do this. It doesn’t come from looking for freaks, it comes from celebrating groups that find each other.”
Stepping is for many a way to keep friendships going strong after the structure of college has passed. Many of the performers present today are former or current members of college sororities, including soon-to-be PhDs, pre-med students, a social worker, teachers, an actor and a young fashion designer – as well as mother-daughter duo Lauretta and LeeAnet Noble, choreographer and director of the SS14 show. The vibe is enviably sisterly until the camera is turned on, when suddenly you see the intense focus that was so gripping onstage.
Over the afternoon, the women explain that most of them first experienced step in church, and describe hearing the sounds echoing off the walls, filling the room like body prayers. Stepping was also a game neighbourhood kids played outside. “I grew up in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, so it was always something that you would do with your siblings if you had a limited amount of toys,” says Debralee Johnson. “You make use of what you have, making different rhythms with your hands and your feet.” Step has a deep tradition in historically black fraternities and sororities in America, and the Nobles cherish the artform as a family legacy. Both were on the step team at DC’s Howard University, as was Lauretta’s father.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what have we signed up for? I’m going to vomit!’ I knew from that moment it was going to be crazy” – Lindsey Corcoran
To orchestrate the performance took a gruelling six months. Back in April 2013, Rick Owens was a name only a handful of the steppers had heard of, and then mainly via A$AP Rocky namedropping his brand in “Peso”. “When I Googled him, the first thing that came up was his show with the spinning drummers,” recalls Momentum stepper Lindsey Corcoran as she prepares to have her photo taken by Levitt. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what have we signed up for? I’m going to vomit!’ I knew from that moment it was going to be crazy.” It’s fair to say there was disbelief among most of them when they first heard about the show. “Let me see a plane ticket and I’ll believe it,” Corcoran joked when she received a cryptic text about a free trip to Paris. But a few months later it became reality.
It was when Owens sent the women a video welcoming them and thanking them for being a part of his idea that the reality of what it all meant began to set in. “I was like, ‘This is going to be different,’” Akia Shenise Fleming from Soul Steps remembers. “He’s an innovator and I knew this was gonna change the face of fashion.” Details remained top secret, and some of the younger steppers even hid the truth from their parents. “It was hard because some of them were really young and some of the parents were like, ‘What is this?’” choreographer LeeAnet says. “Their moms were like, ‘My baby told me she’s going to Paris and it’s all paid for and not to worry about anything!’ One girl even told her parents she was travelling for a school project.”
“When I thought of bringing them over, for a second I was like, do I really want to expose them to strident opinion on the internet?” Owens says, reflecting on that pivotal moment. “I’ve seen that kind of energy levelled at me and I’m fine with it, I can take it, but why would I do that to these nice people? But then I was like, wait, they’re performers already. It’s not like I’m putting my mother onstage! We’re gonna do it with respect. If we’re irritating people who are too uptight, then that’s part of the reason we’re going to do it.”
“When I thought of bringing Team Vicious over, I was like, do I really want to expose these nice people to strident opinion on the internet? But if we’re irritating people who are too uptight, that’s part of the reason to do it” – Rick Owens
Once the step teams arrived in Paris, Owens’ down-to-earth demeanour surprised the women. Then again, as a Californian in Paris, he’s a strange intersection of low stress and high taste. One of the steppers even started calling him “Ricky”, a nickname previously only used by his mother, although he happily embraced it. But Owens also had a very specific request for the steppers. The teams he’d seen had all performed in “grit face”, an exaggerated Kabuki-style stare that draws the audience in and heightens the intensity of the performance. “Although I’d never done a grit face, I’m intense when I step,” Lekisha Limage says. “I felt like, ‘Okay, if that’s the character you want me to embody, I’m gonna embody this character! And I’m gonna make people believe whatever it is they need to believe.’” During rehearsals, Lamy stuck out her tongue at Limage to see if she could get her to smile and break character. Limage didn’t return the joke until she was backstage after the show, when she beamed and gave her a massive hug. “I told her, ‘I can smile at you now!’”
But even though grit face was optional for the steppers and they were commissioned performers, some critics expressed disdain that, in a show in which the majority of models were black, they were instructed to look angry. At that time, major models like Jourdan Dunn and Joan Smalls were giving voice to discussions of racial representation on the runway and in magazines, so it was natural that Owens’ show would be pulled into the mix, despite his good intentions.
“I know the race thing was kind of provocative. I wasn’t oblivious to that,” Owens says. “It was supposed to about unity and bonding together. I suppose it was a little bit about race, but it was mainly supposed to be about sizes. I was looking around my studio in Italy and all of the women I work with every day, and they’re closer to the figures I put on the runway than to the runway models I usually use. I was thinking, ‘I’m asking all of these nice ladies to work on all these skinny clothes and there’s something gross about that.’ We can take a break from these skinny models for once.”
Most of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Friends at home changed their Facebook profile pictures to shots from the show, pictures flooded the step team’s Instagrams, magazines called and the performance went viral. The responses even changed the way the steppers thought about representation of subcultures. “A lot of the Paris periodicals weren’t reporting on us as an African-American step team,” says Brooklynite Shantell Richardson. “They just wrote ‘an American step team’, which I love. We have a hard time saying that we’re just American. You’re in America and you’re black, you sometimes hyphenate it and say ‘I’m African-American’, you know, Asian-American, Russian-American. We’re compartmentalised, so that was refreshing.”
“This was about strength. We didn’t want to be seen as angry black women. This was about staying true to who we are. We represent the love of the dance as art” – Heather Deleon
It took real guts for the steppers to come into the fashion world, but they weren’t without concerns, as Boston-raised Heather Deleon reveals: “We wanted to be careful about how we were going to be portrayed – we didn’t want to be seen as angry black women. Rick was very sensitive to that and wanted to make sure we weren’t misrepresented. It’s interesting because there was a very different response from people inside the room compared to those looking into the situation. No one at the show felt like we were angry – they were moved and felt something tangible – but outsiders did. This was about strength. This wasn’t about being an angry black woman. This was about staying true to who we are. We represent the love of the dance as art.”
As the New York shoot starts wrapping up and the steppers prepare to get back to their day-to-day lives, we’re left with one burning question – how do you celebrate after a show like that? After all, Owens is notorious for his parties. It turns out that the night after the show he took the steppers for a cruise on the Seine, where they danced to Beyoncé and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle, many seeing it for the first time. It was the perfect post-show reward, but when the designer boarded to greet the women, he barely recognised them. After months of seeing them in athletic practice clothes – leggings and t-shirts – and then in tunics and pom-pom skorts from the SS14 collection, he saw them for the first time as themselves, dressed up in cocktail attire with their own hair and make-up done. They looked beautiful. Owens felt a pang of guilt. “I was a little bit deflated because I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is what they really want to look like and I put them in those outfits! It must have made them feel like truck drivers or something!’ So they were stepping into a role that I can see must have been bizarre for them. I didn’t see that until that night.”
For the steppers, the adventure was an empowering one – some even claim that the show felt like an out-of-body experience. The dust might have settled six months after, but they say the memory will remain with them forever. For Owens, meanwhile, it was quickly on to the next collection, for which he cast his own studio team – his extended Owens family – instead of traditional models. “All of us want to be part of a group, to cling together, to create something bigger than we are,” he explains. Now we’re just left to wonder what journey he’ll take us on next.
All clothes and accessories by Rick Owens SS14
Hair Martin Christopher Harper at Platform; make-up Kristin Hilton at The Wall Group using Chanel; photographic assistants Jordan Zuppa, Will Pierce; styling assistants Ellie Sikes, Kat Banas, Emilee Jackson; make-up assistant Andrew Colvin; prop stylist Chris Stone; production Stephanie Porto; production assistants Natalia Mantini, Nate Freeman
Special thanks to LeeAnet and Lauretta Noble, Rick Owens and Daniel Urrutia of Owens Corp