Human backpacks and full-frontal nudity: why Rick Owens is master of the catwalk stunt. Zoolander script or performance art? How to interpret the glam goth’s fashion week theatrics.

By Hannah Marriott

How does a cult designer win effusive praise from the world’s snootiest critics and coverage on the front of the Daily Mail website at the same time? Welcome to the world of fashion’s pre-eminent haute goth, Rick Owens, master of the access-all-areas catwalk stunt.

Forget the intricate tulle and embroidery presented by storied fashion houses this week in Paris. Last night, Owens stole the season – again – by sending models down the runway wearing flesh-and-blood accessories, with models carrying each other as human backpacks – or as living knapsacks, swung out to the front in the paranoid tourist position.

It was quite Leigh Bowery and, according to critics in the room, felt “moving,” “disquieting” and “impressive”. It was also “a tribute to female strength” that “suggested the physical labours of pregnancy”.

Away from the high-mindedness of the fashion world, the rest of the media has found the show sufficiently ridiculous to cover it extensively with some fairly genius headlines. The Daily Mail went with: “Does my bum look big on her?” Jezebel’s was “Here Are Some Models 69ing On the Runway at Rick Owens”.

Jezebel’s analysis doesn’t feel too bawdy given that Owens’s last big catwalk caper involved male full-frontal nudity – models wore outfits with crotch holes cut out – and precipitated a media furore. But while the mainstream press was giggling, critics celebrated the show’s brave take on the themes of “compression” and “pressure built up in silent vessels filled with energy”.

Owens’s presentations are fast becoming the most talked about of the season, winning plaudits from fashion industry peers as well as blanket media coverage. In 2013, he commissioned a refreshingly muscular and ethnically diverse step dance team to stomp, scream and shout while presenting his collection on the catwalk (and this was before #squadgoals had even been invented).

There was a right to-do at his show last season, too, though for once he hadn’t intended it: one model went rogue, unfurling a tatty paper sign that said “Please Kill Angela Merkel – Not.” Backstage, Owens lived up to his nickname as the prince of darkness and punched the model in question. The designer later explained: “I thought ‘Hey, this is my spotlight, and you fucked it up’… I don’t mind drama, but I don’t like death threats.”

As for the clothes? Owens’s signature silhouette is monastic and apocalyptic – think one part Mos Eisley cantina, one part Westeros. Though he is not the kind of designer who aims to set trends season by season, he has a clear influence for other designers, not least on Kanye West’s burgeoning fashion career. But right now, beyond the dedicated shoppers who adore him, it’s all about those shows, which offer all the lols of the Zoolander script – or all the ingenuity of the Turner prize – depending where you’re sitting when you look at them.