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Raf Simons SS16 Menswear Paris
Backstage at Raf Simons SS16Photography Virginia Arcaro

Is covering the face the ultimate fashion statement?

After Rick Owens and Raf Simons mask their models, we explore what it means to conceal identities on the runway

At his SS16 show this week in Paris, Belgian designer Raf Simons sent out a collection of super-wide trousers, shrunken, holey knits and sack bags that models wore hung across their shoulders on thick plastic chains. Perhaps most notable, though, were the checkered hoods that cloaked faces, extending from shirts cropped abruptly at the midriff and rising from beneath the collars of jackets. In some cases, they were pulled down so far that, unable to see, the models took a tumble on the precarious platform runway. But what could have been an ominous image was softened with the familiarity of the plaid fabric, also found in button downs and as prints across overcoats. 

Rick Owens, too, chose to obscure the view of his muses with sculptural wigs created by stylist Duffy that wrapped around models’ heads, nest-like. His collection explored ideas of male aggression, with Owens reworking and fetishising military garments, models stomping determinedly down the runway in army boots. “Tunnel vision,” he explained backstage of the headpieces, connecting them to a symptom of male rage. “The collection’s called Cyclops...I was being a little bit literal.”

The act of covering the face is a charged one, especially in France, where a controversial 2011 bill – primarily aimed at religious veils, but unintentionally also affecting masks and costumes – banned it in public places, since leading to several arrests and fines. The law argued that choosing to hide your face was a symbol of religious oppression at odds with French secularist values, but our cultural concerns around obscuring the face run deeper than anxieties of Islam oppressing women. Hide the face and you hide the ability to be identified: a masked person is someone to fear – think executioners, bank robbers in balaclavas, Klansmen in hoods.  

“Most notable were the checkered hoods that cloaked faces...In some cases, they were pulled down so far that, unable to see, the models took a tumble on the precarious platform runway”

But what about in a fashion context? Alexander McQueen crafted coverings for the face from lace and chainmail in early shows such as Dante and Joan, but perhaps the most famous example came from Simons’ fellow Belgian iconoclast Martin Margiela, who developed a tradition early on in shows of masking models. It was an act that both rebelled against the current era of the Supers (Naomi, Kate, Linda and the rest) and reflected on his own facelessness – someone who chose to remain out of the spotlight, very few known images exist of the designer. The anonymity seen at shows extended to lookbooks too, where the eyes of models would be covered with a black line, something the house still follows now – although as former director of communications Patrick Scallon revealed in a recent documentary, “Nine out of ten times, if there was a black line over the eyes in the lookbook it was because if (there) wasn’t we couldn’t pay the rights for the models, we didn’t have the money.” 

Whoever the designer, concealing faces on the runway remains a pretty brave statement. It forces attention away from the model and the cult of personality that may come with them and makes people focus instead solely on the clothes; a collection has to speak for itself. While others are opting for celebrity castings (see Breaking Bad star RJ Mitte at Vivienne Westwood) or choosing the latest Instagram It-Boy to take to their runways, some, like Owens and Simons, are going the other way, reaffirming their status as fashion’s ultimate outsiders. In rejecting our current obsession with identity (think social media celebrities and street style stars) that sometimes suggests an outfit is only as important as the person wearing it, they’ve put the attention squarely on their creations: and isn’t that the ultimate fashion statement?