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Rick Owens SS16
Rick Owens SS16Photography Chloé Le Drezen

Soundtracking Rick Owens’ powerful ‘human backpacks’ show

Mercury Prize nominee Eska’s runway performance at the designer’s SS16 show moved the audience to tears – she revisits it here

Back in October, South London singer Eska made an unexpected debut into the fashion world with a performance at Rick Owens’ Paris show, which saw gymnasts take to the runway strapped to one another in a moving tribute to the power of female strength. The collaboration came about by chance – a past project with James Lavelle of Unkle (with whom she arranged the song performed, a powerful rendition of “This Land is Mine” from 1960 film Exodus), led to the singer being introduced to the designer and his wife Michèle Lamy – thus sealing the fate of SS16’s most memorable runway music. Ahead of tonight’s Mercury Prize – for which Eska is up for Best Album with her 2015 self-titled release – the singer talks us through meeting Owens and Lamy, the power of clothing and what happens when you suspend the boundaries between music and fashion.

What was it like meeting Rick and Michèle?

Eska: I remember the first time meeting them in Paris at their apartment, and they were just open-armed at the door to receive me. There were these really otherworldly creatures – called models – all walking around and it was quite intimidating at first. But Michèle very warmly just took my hand and took me to meet Rick and he’d made not just one outfit but three to choose from, and there were these wonderful assistants who were helping me dress and feel comfortable. That was what Rick kept saying – ‘You’ve got to feel comfortable’. For him it was like, ‘You can’t have the clothes wearing you, you have to wear the clothes’. It was about him dressing me, not just, ‘Oh he’s made clothes that I’ve got to wear’. The song is quite epic, so for me it felt like I had put on this wonderful kind of coat that matched it. I remember wearing these shoes and putting the coat on and feeling like the artist that should be singing that song. It was such a good feeling.

“This is an artist who’s trying to make a statement about the power that women have... When you put those clothes on you really feel that. Who would ever think that a dress or a skirt could make you feel that way?” – Eska

What did you think of the concept of the show?

Eska: Well, it had that sense of theatre, it was about how you explain a higher idea through clothes. Most people think it’s just clothes, right? But actually this is an artist who’s trying to make a statement about the power that women have in terms of their nature and nurturing, and being able to carry each other – that strength. When you put those clothes on you really feel that. Who would ever think that a dress or a skirt could make you feel that way? But as women, there are certain clothes that make us feel something, that make us move in a different way, that make us have a bigger idea of ourselves. I thought it was really inspiring and really clever, and just shows what happens when you stop labelling things just as ‘music’ or ‘fashion’ – this is art now. There were people that were literally moved to tears; they felt something. To be a part of something like that was a real honour.

What was it like experiencing the fashion world?

Eska: I felt like I’d got an invite into a world that was so ‘other’ to me, but I only got warmth from them and kindness and real consideration. Rick gets involved with everything, from picking the song and wanting to make sure the arrangement is right to the art direction… you know, it’s theatre. And to see a polymath like that at work, it’s not just that he makes a bunch of clothes or whatever and that’s it, there’s more than that going on. I could relate to that in my own way, and I felt very comfortable and really challenged and excited to meet someone like that and work with them. He’s a really inspiring individual, seriously! And you know, Michèle is a force of nature… she doesn’t have to say much, she just is! She really is something else.

Did you get to keep the costume?

Eska: I did! Yeah, it’s the proudest thing in my wardrobe… well, I say that but it doesn’t actually fit in my wardrobe! It’s quite elaborate. But it was a very proud moment. Meeting Rick... I had never encountered that world before and, I’m not fashion-literate. So I was really overwhelmed by the warmth and the kindness that I got, and also his understanding – it was just one creative mind meeting another, one person explores it in clothing and material and another does it in sound. It felt like a meeting of minds and a really interesting collaboration to do, I’m still reaping dividends from that just in terms of creative ideas.

You’re now involved with a project to educate people about illegal downloading, why is that important for you to support?

Eska: There’s a real suffering going on right now in terms of how much revenue has been sucked out of the creative industries through the fact that people aren’t necessarily connecting in the right ways with things anymore. This isn’t just affecting people at the top end, you know, it’s affecting the little guys like me. We’re at the bottom of the food chain here, and in terms of independent artists and the ways in which we’re able to create, it’s going to impact us the most. Artists are being affected in terms of not being able to create any more because they’re not able to receive any kind of income from their work. And so I think it’s really important for people to know about this, whatever they choose to do with afterwards. What I think is wonderful about this campaign is that it’s not trying to point the finger at anyone, it’s an education.