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Rick Owens SS16
Rick Owens SS16Photography Chloé Le Drezen

What you need to understand about those ‘human backpacks’

Forget the trivialising memes – in a new interview, Rick Owens discusses feminism, female strength and the ‘formidable’ women in his own life

It was inevitable that Rick Owens’ latest show would be met with derision and horror from the ranks of social media and gossip sites. “Human backpacks” is the quickfire summation of the collection, accompanied by a LOL with tears emoji. Make no mistake, this show only proved the power and worth of watching a fashion show in person. If you had been physically there and heard Eska’s voice thundering through Unkle’s arrangement of “This Land is Mine” through the cavernous basement of the Palais de Tokyo, and seen the serenity, grace and power of the way these women carried another, dispersed amongst Owens’ finest air-swooshed silhouettes, you would know that this was no LOL situation. There was surprise perhaps, because these duos of women, bound together by what Owens called “loving ribons” strode out so suddenly and with such an effortless strength. 

The overriding sensation that you were left with was of awe for Owens – a man, who is articulating his feelings about women so deftly. There was also a deep satisfaction that the spectacle did in fact chime in with the clothes, with their undulating volumes and Owens-trademarked construction mirroring the sculpture of limbs that walked alongside them. As Owens left the building straight after taking his bow, there was also intense curiosity, answered in part by the press notes, which talked about the show being an ode to “nourishment, sisterhood/motherhood and regeneration; women raising women, women becoming women and women supporting other women.” The straps were not a way of restraining women but instead supportive accoutrements used to symbolise the female bond. These relationships are not always easy of course. Binding yourself to another person can also be burdensome. That feeling only added to the power of the show.

“All the women in my life are formidable. I have seen them all step up to handle adversity with grace” – Rick Owens

Whilst shows are of course open to interpretation and subjectivity, put simply, the viral 15 second videos and the still images just don't do justice to what we actually saw. Whether he consciously courts it or not, Owens is no stranger to controversy and derision. However on this occasion, what was a gesture filled with uplifting sentiment and heartfelt emotion has been reduced to facile jokes and emojis. No matter, Owens remains defiant. He spoke to Dazed about the show via email to probe into the thought process behind what has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of Paris fashion week.

Can you tell us more about the people performing the support choreography in the show?  

Rick Owens: We recruited gymnasts from different gymnastic organisations in Paris. I hear that there is a NY performance group that feel I copied their routine and I should have invited a performance group to do it instead. Honestly I never heard of them. They might be overestimating my awareness or maybe overestimating their visibility. I think we both knocked off Leigh Bowery.  

(The art performance company FLUCT accused Owens of copying their 2012 routine but have since said on their Facebook that their own performance isn’t necessarily wholly original and they don't expect an apology from Owens.)

The press notes talk about the bonds between women and the way women nurture and care for one another. Was it also about the burden of loving, of being a mother, a friend and a lover?

Rick Owens: I was looking at the act of supporting but you’re right – the act of being burdened makes it deeper.

You also say that with the show you “amuse” women in a small way – can you expand on that? We felt it was more of an embrace and a gesture of compassion towards women.

Rick Owens: I was just trying to minimise what might be seen as my pomposity in thinking I know anything about women. Compassion and affection is exactly what I was hoping to express.

Would you call yourself a feminist?

Rick Owens: I don’t think I have that authority.

What sort of women in your life made you think about doing this gesture for the show?

Rick Owens: All the women in my life are formidable. I have seen them all step up to handle adversity with grace.

Was there any specific significance in whether a woman was strapped in upside down, behind or in front? 

Rick Owens: No. I was just making sculptural compositions. I suppose it was objectifying but some people get overly sensitive about everything so if I pressed their buttons it was done in a gently teasing way.

With the soundtrack “This Land is Mine” being from the film Exodus, with its themes of displacement and conflict, did the recent Syrian refugee crisis play on your mind at all?

Rick Owens: It reminded me of the eternal human condition of dealing with conflict. There will always be conflict forever and how we deal with conflict is what can help define our character.

Watch the full show below: