When the lights darkened and the chattering of the audience ceased at the recent Rick Owens fashion preview in Paris, many of the seasoned fashionistas and reporters probably expected a frail-looking army of willowy 19-year-olds to come gliding down the runway. Instead, what they got were loud, stomping, thizz-facing steppers who made a different kind of statement rarely seen in the hallowed halls of high fashion.
The name of Owens’ latest line is Vicious, and the fashion show-meets-performance piece embodied just that. Real-bodied women, primarily of color, showed the minimalist ferocity of the new designs through exhilarating step-dance choreography to the beat of thudding music.
Stepping, a traditional dance seen mostly within black sororities and fraternities, had made its Paris Fashion Week debut. And Rick Owens couldn’t have found a more perfect way to showcase the wearability of his clothes than by having a team of steppers put them into powerful and graceful motion. Tossing their heads back, twisting their torsos, waving their arms and stamping their feet, the dancers/models made an impressive show of defiance.
Owens would later say backstage, after the show had left him and many in the audience in tears, that “It was such a fuck-you to conventional beauty.”
Though many covered the thrilling culmination of the dancers’ hard work and prowess, you’d be pressed to find the name of the person who orchestrated each stomp and step.
LeeAnet Noble, an acclaimed New York-based choreographer who’s been stepping since childhood, was charged with the task of auditioning and casting the 40 U.S.-based steppers and spending a grueling five months rehearsing with them.
“It was interesting using people that don’t fit the ilk you find on the runway,” says Noble. “Rick was looking for something that embodied Vicious, something that was intense and strong, so he decided to go with steppers instead of models. He believed they were the ones who could best bring it to life.”
Considering something like this hadn’t been done before, she was unsure of what the reaction would be. Many of the fashion show coordinators weren’t familiar with the tradition of stepping.
“Some of them would ask, ‘Why are they making those faces?'” recalls Noble.
But after the 11-minute performance that ended with all of the dancers linking arms and marching in unison, she was shocked to see tears in the audience: “That and the roar of the crowd as we walked off stage, it was on a different level I didn’t expect.”
Noble and her dancers had done something amazing, and it turned out to be a stomp heard ’round the fashion world. The bold movements of the dancers and the way Owens’ spartan, leather designs moved with them went viral, flooding Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and countless major media outlets. Noble was overwhelmed.
“Seeing photos of my curvy self in the top Parisian newspapers next to photos of super models blew me away,” she says.
More than anything, Noble’s biggest sense of accomplishment comes from knowing what a life-changing experience this was for many in her dance team:
“A bunch of them had never been outside the country and simply couldn’t believe that a fashion designer wanted to fly them out to Paris to step. Until it was over, some of them didn’t realize the magnitude of what they did. It is something they will never forget.”
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.