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Why fashion designer Rick Owens shocked his audience with exposed penises

Models walk the runway at the Rick Owens Autumn Winter 2015 fashion show during Paris Menswear Fashion Week on January 22, 2015 in Paris, France.
Models walk the runway at the Rick Owens Autumn Winter 2015 fashion show during Paris Menswear Fashion Week on January 22, 2015 in Paris, France.
Catwalking/Getty

Warning: This article contains images of nudity.

At the latest men's Paris Fashion Week, a provocative designer named Rick Owens unveiled a fashion trend we're calling "visible penis." Other names for the fashion include penis cloak, underdick, and peek-a-boo penis. The internet reacted as you'd expect.

But if you strip away all the giggles and furor, you'll find that Owens's latest collection, like all fashion, fits into a broader context within both his industry and life.

This isn't just about nudity. What Owens is doing is very subversively challenging Western cultural institutions — which are simultaneously obsessed with and repulsed by the phallus — by channeling his own complicated opinions of sexuality into his fashion sensibility.

What was perhaps most shocking about the visible penises was just how not shocking they really were. Mingled into the runway parade of be-smocked male models were just a few with their penises meekly peeking out through crotch-level openings. The subtlety of this execution underscored Owens' point. Runways all the world over have long provided a space for female models to tease audiences with bobbing breasts and visible nipples.

"Well," he asked i-D magazine, "isn't it time" for men to join the party?

Though Owens admitted that visible penis is a "simple, primal gesture," he's certain its many resonances were heard throughout the fashion world.

Said Owens: "You know I love a tiny, little gesture that packs the wallop."

Who is Rick Owens?

Rick Owens face

Rick Owens (Francois Guillot/Getty)

Owens is an American designer whose intense reputation precedes him. The Independent has labeled him the Prince of Dark Design. According to LA Times magazine, his work is described as "goth, macabre, apocalyptic, glunge" (glunge, by the way, is how he describes his aesthetic — it's his own portmanteaux of the words "glamor" and "grunge"). And his models are "exquisitely tailored, dusty-hued creations," often appearing as "warriors fresh from a battle in Middle-earth."

His clothing changes very little from year to year, with a design inspired by his time at Catholic School, Owens told the New Yorker:

I always loved that aesthetic of all those robes dragging in those dusty temples, with Jesus and the disciples and all that. It was very exotic and very alluring to me in my very safe little world of small-town California. When I look around here in the studio, I see wanting to re-create those dusty temples and robes and stuff.

But his work isn't limited to paying homage to these historical forms — it's about experimenting with them. "Owens is a designer who pushes boundaries," says Paola Di Trocchio, Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Owens also has a "very open view of sexuality," says Di Trocchio. Famously, he met his wife, Michèle Lamy, through a past boyfriend. Because most people knew him as gay at the time he began dating Lamy, he often felt compelled to expose his sexual past to his wife's friends before anyone could whisper to his wife, "You know, I think your husband's gay," he toldHint Magazine. He's since fully embraced what he believes is the generous spectrum of human sexuality:

I'm letting people know that the possibilities are endless. You can open your heart to love anybody. You can be available to more people than you think. There are no rules. You don't have to be just gay. You don't have to be just straight. Open your mind! You might not be able to be gay with most people, but maybe there's one person where it would work. So, it's not a big wide sweeping general rule ... It's not just about sex. It's all of that whole combination of things that make it work.

His complex sexuality plays an important part of his design process.

What are his fashion shows like?

They usually … get folks talking.

As VICE points out, Owens has "perfected the art of merging shock value with innovative ideas in clothing."

Dazed dubbed Owens the King of Kink because of how readily he explores sex in his work. His spring/summer 2015 show, he told Dazed, was inspired by Nijinsky's ballet Afternoon of a Faun. "It basically all culminates with this faun masturbating on a nymph's scarf, so everybody in the audience, with all their jewels, are just waiting for this guy to hump the scarf," said Owens. "I love that!"

But even when his shows are not blatantly sexual, there's usually a heightened, performative aspect to them, as you can see from the video below. For his 2014 spring/summer fashion show, Owens peopled his stage with step squad performers dressed wearing his garments.

What was his 2015 Paris Fashion Week show like?

The theatrics were much more subtle than they had been in the past. The show started "very traditionally," according to William Van Meter, fashion writer at New York Magazine's The Cut:

[Men walked down the runway] with shorts over leggings, then shorts with pulled-up-to-the-hem socks, and then shorts over leggings over pulled-up-to-the-hem socks. Black washed-leather overcoats were soon joined by a wool duffle coat that looked like it had been splattered with blood.

It was only after the coats left the runway that things started to get edgy.

Then a kind of religious tribal element seeped in with shiftlike robes, some dangling with fluttering materials reminiscent of wind chimes. Some of them had an arched peephole opening revealing the model's manhood. This actually heightened the religiosity aspect. It wasn't done in bad taste, but it was mysterious, like sending out bold fertility gods.

Rick Owens

(Kristy Sparrow/Getty)

Some of the pieces in the collection expose the model's chest; some, his thighs. But a few of them have fist-sized holes cut out around crotch-level to expose some of the genitals.

As Cosmopolitan writes, this was "like an extra neckline or collar stitched in the monastic-style garments. Of course, the only head poking out is ... well, it's a glans" (glans is the word for the bulbous tip of the penis. It comes from a Latin word meaning "acorn").

But exposed penises on the runway didn't interrupt the flow of the show. As Charlie Porter notes at the Financial Times, the penises were off the stage almost as soon as they were noticed. "Just as the show was turning into a game of spot the immodesty," writes Porter, "Owens snapped back to showing some coats and tops that were seriously complex constructions of quilting, fluting and defined line."

How did people respond?

The audience was slow to respond to the visible penises, according to The Guardian, but as they "gradually realized that a taboo was being broken in front of their eyes, whispers and occasional giggles rippled" through the crowd.

Porter said the audience reaction was mixed, with the Brits "obviously giggling," and "editors and buyers from other territories looking less amused."

Has anything similar happened before at fashion shows?

When penises do show up at fashion shows, it's usually in representational ways. Think Tom Ford's penis crucifix, which he premiered last June in London. Female nudity, on the other hand, is much more ubiquitous, with exposed nipples "the leftfield trend" of London's Fashion Week, according to The Guardian.

How does this fit into the broader context of changing fashion?

Di Trocchio points to British Costume historian Sir James Laver for one theory. Lavar argued that the history of fashion was "driven by shifting erogenous zones."

Backless dress

(Gordon Anthon/Hutton Archive/Getty)

For example, Di Trocchio says, "in the early nineteenth century men wore flesh-colored knitted stockings that gripped and accentuated the curve of their calf, highlighting an erogenous zone particular to the era."

Similarly, in the 1930s, open backs were all the rage, which probably had something to do with the growing interest in sunbathing. "Many dresses of [that] period look as if they had been designed to be seen from the rear," writes Laver.

With this in mind, suggests Di Trocchio, "Rick Owens' collection provides a possible shift to a new erogenous zone."

What has Owens said about the collection?

Owens told WWD that his twin inspirations for his line were the sphinx and a black-and-white movie about a submarine. Sphinxes, he said, are glamorous and exotic, but also mysterious. Who knows when they'll strike?

As for the inspiration he gleaned from underwater vessels:

It's about men being together in closed quarters having to maintain a sense of decorum under intense pressure, and when that happens, their best comes out and their worst comes out, a sense of order and a sense of honor can be enhanced, but then everything can fall apart and become primal.

Like most of his work, Owens told WWD he sees his Fall/Winter 2015 collection as an attempt to walk "on the razor's edge."

His work is a balancing act. His clothing is at once glamorous and grungy, high-brow and goth — "elegant monsters," as he described it to the New Yorker.

So what does it all mean?

Maybe we're making too much of the penises. After all, Owens's show doesn't even make too much of them. In fact, they were barely noticeable at all.

Maybe that's what's going on here.

Sheer top

(Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty)

Unless male nudity is absolutely integral to the story or piece of art, producers tend to think it distracts from the quality of the product. Female nudity, on the other hand, even when it seems to have nothing to do with the plot at hand, is often welcome.

This also seems to be the case in fashion. Sheer tops are typical at runway shows, as are visible breasts. But most of this nudity — the overwhelming majority of it, in fact — doesn't make headlines. That's because it isn't headline-worthy. It's just breasts.

Jeremy Lewis at VICE argues that Owens took a similar "just a dick" approach to his show.

This particular display of genitals does not so much illicit lust as it does a naïve honesty, a shamelessness of the body, as if Adam never ate that apple and realized his own nakedness. Hey is my cock out? the models seem to ask. Oh, hey, it is. Huh. Well how about that.

The Telegraph's Bibby Sowray reached the same conclusion after speaking with the designer. "Owens's 'Free Willy' moment was also a tactic to challenge the fact that we don't bat an eyelid at female nudity on the catwalk, but when it's men it causes a fuss."

There's a case to be made, then, that Owens' penis smocks were about the normalization, or even the desexualization, of the male member.

But you might also see it as a type of sterilization of manhood; a metaphorical castration which leaves the penis fully intact while cutting away its inflated self-authorized illusion of grandeur.

Tim Teman developed this idea at the Daily Beast, arguing that the collection of "underwhelming" male members "brilliantly devastates penis power."

Look at these walnuts, women of the world: This ridiculous thing is the basis of patriarchy. This little scrunchy sack and mini-gherkin is the root of wars and female subjugation.

A different way of looking at the collection would be to see it as an embrace of the male form, which, as noted above, is under-appreciated in fashion settings.

"I always loved how the Japanese appreciated things that were damaged," Owens told the New Yorker. "They would elevate the idea of something damaged and make it beautiful." Maybe that's what visible penis is about: reminding everyone that male beauty properly displayed is just as lovely as female beauty.

It might also underscore a larger issue within fashion communities, as Julia Rubin, features editor at Racked, points out. "Male versus female nudity isn't a thing in fashion so much as male versus female model status is."

Unlike many other professional settings, modeling is a world where females enjoy a certain privilege their male counterparts can only dream of. As Racked explains, male models "still struggle with equal treatment" within the fashion world.

Back in October, in their annual report of world's top earning models, Forbes noted that 2013's top-earning model, Sean O'Pry, had an annual salary of an estimated $1.5 million, while the world's top-earning female model, Gisele Bündchen, pulls in some $42 million annually. The average female model's salary, at $41,300, is 148 percent more than the average male model's, according to payscale.com.

Thus, exposing a man's genitals on the runway could be read as a subversive slight on these issues within the industry.

But again, let's not overthink this. As Owens says,

I'm still not exactly sure what it is. That sounds lofty and I don't mean it to be, but there needs to be a certain ambiguity and mystery for it to be — for the lack of a better word — magic, and I'm working for that magic.