Alternate Worlds at Rick Owens and Off-White

PARIS — Rick Owens could no longer use Mahler on his soundtrack. He didn’t want a retread of Winter’s emotionally charged tour de force. Then he heard Siouxsie and the Banshees’ hit “Dazzle” in 1984, with an ebb and flow string section that sounded like an extension of Mahler’s symphony.

Still, he has doubts. He’s 60, he’s been doing this for a while, he’s doing the Siouxsie soundtrack: is this all going to sound really old? Then he plays “Dazzle” for his young stylist/sounding board Tyrone Sussman, who has never heard the song. He loves it, and Rick thinks, “Wait! There’s a whole generation that this is all new to, and I can kind of recycle so much stuff.

In fact, Owens traveled untold millennia to a 700-million-year-old jellyfish, which he likened to the texture of vampirically beautiful leather dresses. The full-grain cowhides (collected as waste from the food industry) had been tanned with natural glycerin, which filled the pores and lent the leather a rather bizarre translucency. “Like jelly fruit roll-ups,” said gleefully Owens, who is never one to dodge a left-field reference.

Ancient worlds beyond comprehension were clearly in Owens’ mind (fruit roll-ups aside). In part, they are his way of coping with the current collapse of everything we hold dear, nonchalantly, in our own world. Like his men’s spring collection, this one was called Edfu, named after an ancient temple on the west bank of the Nile that he visited on several occasions. Civilizations have risen and fallen for eons in Egypt, and something has always survived. Owens finds this overview reassuring. He loves the vastness, the timelessness and, at the same time, the curiously immediate physicality of ancient Egypt. He spoke of lying in the dust and beholding the Valley of the Kings, a place that was, is, and always will be beyond modern human knowledge. That sense of primitive, almost alien grandeur permeated a collection that elevated winter’s extraordinary Haute Hollywoodisms. A fusion of camp and awe fueled explosions of Scarlett O’Hara-style tulle – in fuchsia, no less – that took over space like no Owens creation had ever done before. He chuckled as he watched Danielle Leavitt photograph the dresses backstage, but even he looked impressed. “It’s such a cheap thing, it’s just a bunch of tulle [pregnant pause] but it’s a bunch of tulle from me, and that’s fine. Owens has come to appreciate the power he wields as one of the industry’s truly independent megahit stories. He is the alt-Armani. (The tulle, by the way, was made from Econyl, using recycled waste from the oceans and landfills. Owens is increasingly emphasizing responsible production.)

Scale is second nature to Rick. A cloud-piercing geyser of water erupted from the pool around which the models walked. But there was a softening in her vision: an embrace of color (beautiful abstract plaids), shimmering charmeuses, abbreviated dresses sculpted and folded around athletic female forms. There was even a floating baby doll here, grounded by thigh high boots on Owens’ signature heels. “I have always advocated exoticism and otherness,” he said. More than ever, he considers his aesthetic as a form of protest. More and more necessary, moreover.

I could wish a similar career for Ib Kamara, who filled Virgil Abloh’s shoes at Off-White for the first time on Thursday. Having carved out a career over the past few years as one of fashion’s most dazzling and influential designers, Sierra Leone-born Kamara became an invaluable right-hand man to Abloh as he shaped his collections for Louis Vuitton and its own brand. It’s always a moment when a sidekick steps in. Kamara called his debut a fusion of the brief that was in place and the new ideas and codes he is studying from his own right-hand man, London-based art director Gareth Wrighton. But Abloh’s advice and inspiration were essential. “He taught us to be free, to make and correct our own mistakes,” said Kamara, who made the very wise decision to keep the collection tightly edited, building it around a handful of codes from mark rather than the rush of different looks that characterized Virgil’s presentations.

The most obvious was the particular shade of blue that Kamara intended to be Off-White’s signature shade. For him, she manifests everything from vulnerability to futurism to common ground between men and women, and that’s how she appeared: gentle fluidity for men in a blue organza pajama suit floral appliqué, a motocross leather mini dress for the women, sinuous mesh for both. And there was a “bride” in blue lace to close the show.

Another part of the code was the circle that defined the midriff on women’s clothing, to look good in an abbreviated tuxedo dress. It was the collection’s most graphic sign of body awareness, which was also expressed in skeleton jacquards and anatomical stitching that sometimes appeared as scarifications, others as Aboriginal art, or, still others, like something from a Gaultier collection from the 90s, which is never a bad look. Kamara cleverly conveyed a sense of a work in progress by leaving some of those topstitching unfinished, like basting stitches. There was also an impressive coat whose shoulder seams were held together with pins (made to measure, of course). Chalk that down to a sense of play that will likely be more evident over time. But make no mistake, Kamara is very keen on keeping Off-White focused on the luxury market where Abloh has always wanted it to sit. “We won’t give up jeans and t-shirts, but we will find new techniques to improve on what we already have.”

Where Kamara and Abloh won’t diverge too much is in their celebration of community. The show was actually called “Celebration”. Besides the fashion, there was a film and a mesmerizing dance performance by a platoon of blue aliens choreographed by Kamara’s friend Nicolas Huchard. Alternative worlds fascinate Ib Kamara. He should have a word with Rick Owens.

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