Unmasking The Bullshit of Empowerment in Consumerism – Part 2

February 9, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

Balenciaga Aviator Shearling

Since the dawn of the Internet in the public sphere, people have always poked fun at angry feminists. They’re easy targets for public ridicule because a large base of the Internet users are men and women who did not have to face misogyny and sexism on a frequent basis, and are largely unaware of the extreme discriminations women had faced over the course of history. I haven’t thought of myself as a feminist for a long time, and personally had never properly understood the root of the feminist anger until I read in depth into the history of women’s rights.

This essay is a continuation of a three-part article looking into the validity of empowerment in consumerism. What started out as a noble idea to equip minorities and the oppressed with opportunities to help themselves became an oversold marketing buzzword, mainly targeted towards women. While it is easy to denounce all 'empowering' marketing exercise as a neoliberal pseudo-feminist by-product, at the heart of these empty messages is a history overwrought with gender discrimination and women's oppression. By looking in-depth into historical evidence, we can then make a more nuanced conclusion regarding various consumerist activities and avoid getting swept-up in self-righteous indignation that has become the go-to reaction in order to generate clicks. Read the first instalment here.

All throughout history, women weren’t allowed to do many things that men could. The extent of women’s rights waxed and waned, depending on historical periods and places, but they were almost always beneath their male peers. The Greek, Roman, and Byzantine men held the steadfast opinion that a woman’s place was at home. Women were not allowed to have a public voice or a public life. In some blips in history, women were allowed to inherit properties and own land. In extreme cases, women were not even allowed to exist, such as the preference for male heirs in China which led to the abortion of female foetuses until very recently. Even the wise Confucius himself thought that a woman's role in middle and upper class society was simply to be a human oven, as they were thought to have no capacity for education.

One doesn’t have to go as far back as the Roman times to find injustices inflicted upon women. The Victorian era (1837-1901) was the perfect example of sexism gone mad. I have decided to zoom in on this period for its vast trove of evidence, and its widespread practices that have permeated a large part of the world until today, thanks to British colonialism.

m 19th B20070 08

The Victorians loved to write about the rights and roles of every individual in society. For every man and every woman, from the rich to the poor, rest assured that every person had specific duties to fulfil. And they were very clear about what a Victorian woman was entitled to. She had every right to take care of the family, to be the caregiver in times of need, to be the comforter for all who was weary, and it was her right to ignore her own needs as a human being with desires and emotions that her male peers possessed and had the liberty to pursue.

Sexual desires wasn’t a thing that women harboured. They were supposed to be pure and chaste until they were married, after which they became objects that men had sex with. Bachelors were allowed to have sex with prostitutes; single women couldn’t even be in a room alone with a man. For married men, it was okay to have affairs, a social norm that wasn’t extended to their wives. During the dating period, you could only flirt with your fan, but none of those touching his shoulders or thigh business. It was blasphemous for women to crave for sexual interactions purely out of feelings and desires like men had the luxury of.

And speaking of sex, prostitution was the go-to profession for poor Victorian women. Due to their lack of education and prevailing gender discrimination, jobs were difficult to come by for women, let alone one that provided some semblance of a living wage. They could either be a housekeeper or a seamstress, but those were often insufficient to support their families. Many resorted to selling their bodies just to survive, falling prey to syphilis and the loss of social standing from their more privileged peers. Ironically, women were vilified for selling their bodies when they had to do it out of survival, while the act of buying sex by men were seen as a normal practice before and after marriage. Such notion continues until this very day, when the broader general public still maligns female prostitutes instead of addressing the underlying issues of human trafficking, poverty and the archaic idea of sexual puritanism.

"What would you do if your son was at home
Crying all alone
On the bedroom floor,
Cause he's hungry and the only way to feed him is to
Sleep with a man for a little bit of money?
And his daddy's gone in and out of lock down,
I ain't got a job now,
He's just smokin' rock now,
So for you this is just a good time
But for me this is what I call life

Girl, you ain't the only one to have a baby,
That's no excuse to be living all crazy
So she stared me right square in the eye
And said, "Everyday I wake up, hoping to die"
She said, "They're gonna know about pain
'Cause me and my sister ran away,
So our daddy couldn't rape us,
Before I was a teenager
I done been through more shit
You can't even relate to"
- What Would You Do?

Education for Victorian women consisted of knitting, embroidery and learning to play coy in order to attract suitors. No respectable women wanted to be seen doing intellectual pursuits. Tut tut. You’d be called a blue-stocking if you understand calculus, and no men would want you because you’re usurping their intellectual superiority. Yegads! Victorian masculinity was so strong it couldn’t even face competition from feminine, graceful women. Some doctors went so far as to claim that too much studying could damage the ovaries, turning beautiful women into dried up prunes. I knew I shouldn’t have gone to university!

"If we help an educated man's daughter to go to Cambridge are we not forcing her to think not about education but about war? Not how she can learn, but how she can fight in order that she might win the same advantages as her brothers?" - Virginia Woolf

Bound by societal pressures, young women grew up to be the ideal Victorian wives and snagged herself proper husbands. Whether or not they'd had their fill in brothels prior to marriage was none of the wives' business. Lads will always be lads eh. Sooner or later the marital bliss became less rosy. Husbands gave their wives syphilis from their various affairs (and let me reiterate, which was a-ok for men by Victorian standards), sucked away their wives' hard-earned income and abused them and their children. Physical abuse and marital rape were very much tolerated so long as noone died and the ruckus didn't bother the neighbours. If women wanted to get out of this mess, well tough luck for them. While men could get out of marriages on grounds of adultery, women didn’t have those rights unless there were other life-threatening reasons. Even if by some miracle they managed to obtain a divorce, they could forget about being accepted as a normal member of society. The stigma of being a divorced woman was so strong that its remnants still persist in modern times.

While the Romans allowed women to inherit properties and own land, all of these rights were rescinded by the dawn of the Victorian era. For women of the working class, they had no right to financial independence. Their husbands would automatically control the income they earned. They weren’t even allowed to open their own bank accounts. If their husbands were no good, deadbeat losers, they didn’t have the liberty of leaving the marriage because the women would be left penniless. For women of the upper classes, they were left utterly dependent on the husbands for finances as no respectable ladies were allowed to take up employment. Monetary generosity on the husband’s part was often a matter of showing off to fellow neighbours, because this money was to be used for the running of a Victorian household, from paying cooks, gardeners, butlers and coachmen, to paying for clothes that Victorian wives had to wear for various occasions and times of the day. It was ironic that Victorian men made fun of the frivolity of fashion and banished it to the realm of femininity when they needed their wives to take up the roles of status symbols to boost their own pride.

All of these societal norms, with minor variations throughout history, was based upon the pre-historic days when men and women indeed had different roles to fill in the hunter-gatherer tribes. But as civilisations started to form, this outdated notion persisted well past its sell-by date and seeped into religions and other prevailing human doctrines of the respective times, the major pillars that shaped societies throughout the world. Social theories about gender were based on biological determinism. Essentially, men were stronger in all aspects of human nature except for care-taking and everything to do with gentleness, which was considered a feminine trait, because they were born that way.

The theory of biological determinism proved problematic on many levels for both men and women, especially when it reached its peak in the Victorian era. Even though women faced various forms of oppression due to a misguided sense of reality stemming out of patriarchy, men fell victim to societal pressures because their peers judged them based on a strict set of rules that revolved around material success and social status, as well as fixation on masculine ideals of the day such as finding a chaste wife. Not being able to build and support a family financially was seen as a failure for men, yet they would feel emasculated if their wives were to find work. Biological determinism postulates that masculine and feminine traits are inborn, and not surprisingly, the qualities embodied by the male species are tied into the ability in being the provider in a tribe/group/family unit, namely strength and intelligence. Victorian books proclaimed that men were the fighter, protector, the doer and the thinker, while women are the caregiver and provider of gentle respite for the wounded bodies and souls. These ideals, though not inherently harmful nor completely inaccurate in reality, were stretched beyond measure, so much so that it dismissed the overlapping characteristics which men and women do share. It implied that women had little faculty for intellectual pursuits and physical prowess, while men are insensitive robotic clots that absolve them from being an emotionally mature partner and parental figure. Modern reality has shown that men are capable of being caring fathers and women have as much capabilities to be pilots as men, but even these ideas still have to be fiercely fought for by feminists and academics (both not mutually exclusive).

Although women in most regions are no longer barred from chasing after their dreams, modernity sweeps many of these existing biases under the rug, such as implicitly making it difficult for women to hold high-ranking positions, whether in the public or private sector. In many ways these invisible forces and biases make it harder for women to point out covert discriminations.

Balenciaga Aviator ShearlingJust about a hundred years ago I wouldn't even be allowed to wear trousers

Having explored the recent history of women's rights, I began to think twice about the validity of empowerment claims in consumerist activities, or rather not dismiss them outright. While I maintain that some remain preposterous, such as the Dior campaign I mentioned previously, there are others that we have now taken for granted. In the last segment of the article I will attempt to separate empty pitch-speak from genuinely empowering commercial pursuits. You can read part one here.

Balenciaga Aviator ShearlingWearing: Balenciaga shearling coat; Alexander Wang x H&M bra; Taobao shirt; Ann Demeulemeester trousers and boots (available here)

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Staying Warm in Rick Owens

January 23, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

Rick Owens Stag FW2008

Wearing: Rick Owens 'Stag' shearling; Ann Demeulemeester trousers and boots

I'm currently in the midst of solidifying my research into women's history for the next part of my essay. Can't be pulling out random facts out of nowhere, which is why writing is such a slow process for me. That and having to run around the city taking care of various other aspects of my life and work. Here's me on a day out lugging metres of fabric on a cold winter day in Shanghai. Pro tip: when one gets tired of wearing sneakers, Ann Demeulemeester's boots are good alternatives in terms of comfort. Several options are available on ROSEN.

Rick Owens Street Style

One must tousle one's hair for a complete editorial look.

Rick Owens Street Style

This is messy hair for real.

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Unmasking The Bullshit of Empowerment in Consumerism – Part 1

January 12, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

Junya Parka Parachute
Wearing: Junya Watanabe parka (available here), wool shirt and parachute jacket, Y's trousers (available here), Margiela tabi boots, Alexander Wang bag

I sat on my bed finishing another Murakami. My literary choices were rather predictable these days, though I did plan to spice it up by throwing Hawking into the mix. It was only half past nine at night, but fatigue was slowly dawning upon me. A long day of traveling from Singapore to Shanghai some days after the holiday season, lugging 30kg of clothes and food, mixed with the comfort of snuggling under the duvet after a long hot shower, had made me a very sleepy but happy camper. Happy that I could finally enjoy some alone time again, even though I had enjoyed spending the last few weeks with my family and friends. I thought of a repetitive soundtrack to play as I wrote. My choice fell on Jóhann Jóhannsson.

It had only been a little over a month ago that I was in Tokyo. Having moved to China, flying to Japan becomes much less tedious. It so happened that a few friends from around the world were converging in the city at the same time, some without my knowing. Had it not been for Instagram, these new and old friends would not have known that I was in the city, nor I of them. Despite all the downsides of social media and the Internet in general they do bring people closer together when used wisely.

Junya Parka Parachute

As I was writing this I scoured the web for various other reading materials when I chanced upon this article about Dior’s ‘empowering’ campaign. I laughed.

Dior Campaign SS17

Dior Campaign SS17

First of all, it’s just another set of boring pretty clothes that doesn’t defy any beauty norms. The choice of models, pretty as they are, doesn’t inspire anyone to make a change, not even to be a patriarchy-smashing keyboard warrior. There’s literally nothing in those images that stirs up the imagination, let alone give anyone the faculty to change their life situations. What baffled me most was how Dior’s PR team allowed such blatantly empty copy to be used for a lackluster set of images. Either they were taking their customers for fools, or their audience isn’t as intelligent as I’d like them to think they are.

And what in their definition is empowerment? Really, what is empowerment anyway? The word has been used so often it has lost its purpose like a dull knife that can barely cut through butter. Especially when it’s been slapped on every lackluster product in the market, Dior’s pseudo-feminist T-shirts included.

In my quick research I found an article that decried the word all the way from 1991. That’s twenty-five years ago! The difference between that article and the hullaballoo we are getting now is that back then the word ‘empowerment’ was used to give the oppressed and/or minorities the individual power to change their economic and social standing, by politicians of the left and right. Today, it’s been coopted by marketers who have noticed that since the 90s, the biggest growing group of consumers are, you guessed it, women.

Dove did it. Aerie did it. It is not surprising that today the concept of empowerment is sold mostly to the female market by corporations. In the words of a BCG executive, “I have literally invented billions of dollars of product that is based on listening to women.”

On one hand it’s great that corporations are trying to tune into what women need. Today I am grateful that Nike makes amazing sports bras that keep our breasts in place while we do strenuous physical activities, that it’s easier and more hygienic to use tampons that come in plastic casings, and that sanitary pads are thinner than ever. All of these inventions have enabled women to pursue our ambitions and attempt to equalise the playing field between men and women in a patriarchal society. As a side note these empowering products are invented so long as they don’t impede on the liberties of men. So far male birth control pills are still non-existent.

The worst culprits are the ones who slap 'empowering’ slogans on empty campaigns purely to move products off the shelves. Yes, trousers were once a nifty invention that moved Victorian women from their domiciles to the outdoors on bikes and horses, but most of society whom marketers sell to have moved past that now. To use that on clothes that have become ubiquitous, nay, have to be mollycoddled even, is just blatant laziness. Empowerment has become another buzzword co-opted by consumerism, such as buying diamond ring for oneself (De Beers, 2004), never mind that the diamond industry is oppressing the labourers. It provides women with a moral superiority to consume beyond a simple, ‘yes I need this’ or ‘yes I want this’. Just call a spade a spade.

Between diamonds and tampons there are various acts of consumption that are not exactly black or white in the empowerment camp. Is it empowering to be sexually promiscuous, or to be aggressive on the internet, or to take up pole-dancing classes because women are doing these for themselves? Are they really? The answer is never a straight yes or no. In the next two segments I will be exploring the fluctuations of women’s rights and social status throughout history, and in light of this, I’d like to argue that while it’s tempting to dismiss all consumerist activities that tout empowerment, there may be a grain of truth in this rhetoric.

Junya Parka Parachute


Zhu Chongyun’s Steadfast Nomadism

December 23, 2016

by Gracia Ventus

I had always had a problem with my water heater ever since I moved into my own flat over four months ago. It shut itself off within a minute, so to get hot water again I had to switch it off and wait for two minutes for the water to be heated up proper. I had put off calling a repairman because the weather had been rather bearable. Not knowing where to find anyone trustworthy – as my last two experiences with handymen had been troubling (another story for another time) – also made this a daunting task. Do I call my landlord whom I really not want to see? Or do I call the various numbers plastered all over the walls of my apartment’s corridors? But as winter took over, the chills in between the waits became unbearable. The final push came knowing that one of my best friends was flying over within 48 hours. As I didn’t want to be a terrible host that provided intermittent hot water in the middle of winter, I finally texted my real estate agent – a sweet lady younger than me from a small village - for a reputable repairman. Two hours later as promised, an old man with a heavy-duty tool box - the kind that looked more like something mafia men transport a million dollars’ worth of notes in - knocked on my door. Between his heavy regional accent and my English-inflected southern Mandarin accent I was well-pleased to find we could understand each other for the most part. Thirty minutes and twelve dollars later, I finally had the luxury of uninterrupted hot water in my very own place for the first time. I thanked him profusely and sent several more grateful texts to my agent. Then wondered why I hadn’t done this earlier.

Despite the astronomical rents in Shanghai and the high prices of Veblen goods and activities, everything else in China is still relatively affordable. With so many people vying for a slice of the pie, business owners and the self-employed are forced to undercut each other, resulting in sub-par outcomes on many occasions. Finding a trusted real estate agent and handyman becomes a chore, and the same goes for a tailor or Taobao vendors. Despite the uncertainties and inconsistencies, most of my experiences in engaging with service providers have been heartwarmingly positive, from my real estate agent, to my part-time ayi from Anhui who is very much like my own grandmother now, as well as knowing which reputable Taobao store to buy for potteries.

ZhuChongYun FW2016

ZhuChongYun FW2016

ZhuChongYun FW2016

So where am I going with this? My intention with the long-winded introduction was to stress on the importance of finding a trustworthy Chinese label that is consistent with their offering, and that one particular label is Zhu Chongyun.

I first wrote about Zhu’s eponymous line early this year here after discovering the store in Singapore. I had the pleasure to attend the Fall/Winter 2016 show in Shanghai – a lucky coincidence considering that previous shows had been held in Beijing. The venue and setting were grander than those of the typical Shanghai Fashion Week shows, with a large projected screen and a long narrow strip of water that separated the runway from the audience. Nomadic solitude in winter immediately comes to mind.

ZhuChongYun FW2016

The Chinese fashion scene is still in its infancy, so young that you can smell its rebellious attitude from a mile away. And as with any teenager still trying to find its identity, a large percentage of the burgeoning fashion names is easily swayed by the cool Parisian and English zeitgeist, which is why Zhu Chongyun’s steadfast aesthetic stands out amongst the crowd. Much like her demeanour, the garments are modest but regal, subdued yet rich and poetic.

For her Fall-Winter 2016 collection, Zhu showed her trademark luxurious outerwear made with three-dimensional textured fabrics that reminded one of moss-covered rocks on the banks of a shallow creek hidden deep in evergreen forest. Her love for red shone brightly as she shifted from muted ruby to fiery dark vermillion. She’s always had a preference for high collars while showcasing the rigid, voluminous cocoon silhouettes that moved ever so subtly in motion, a tailoring feat that is not easy to achieve.

ZhuChongYun FW2016

ZhuChongYun FW2016

What was apparent in Zhu’s designs is the profound respect for craftsmanship and history. She continued to harness the rich cultural past of the East, from distinct floral embroideries to her special textile treatments. The painstaking amount of work that went into each garment was evident even from a distance away. It’s no wonder her coats and dresses cost upwards of a thousand dollars. Relatively speaking it is still cheaper than a typical offering from luxury French labels, many of which are overpriced coughSLPcough. You might also like to know that runway items are available for purchase in store. Aside from her eponymous line, she also heads the sister label Marisfrolg that leans more towards modernity, as well as the recently revived Krizia, an old Italian label that is now back on the catwalk. One can only wander how she is financing her very expensive endeavours, considering that she has over ten flagship stores in China, and many more overseas.

Immediately after the show I spotted Uma Wang who got up to congratulate Zhu on the stage. One swathed in ivory – a gentle, shy figure surrounded by fans, the other clad in floor-length ebony – by now a powerful name on the international stage, both lighting the torch together for the rest of China.

ZhuChongYun FW2016

ZhuChongYun FW2016

ZhuChongYun FW2016

ZhuChongYun FW2016

ZhuChongYun FW2016

ZhuChongYun FW2016

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Introducing The Latest Designer Throwing about The Word Artisanal

December 8, 2016

by Gracia Ventus


Greg Lauren FW2016 Collection

When the CFDA (Council of Fashion Design America) called Greg Lauren to tell him Banana Republic wanted to do a collaboration with him, he joked, 'Yeah of course they would. I make great clothes.' Lauren's aesthetics is hand-distressed and artisanal, without admitting that he had taken Paul Harnden's unoriginal approach to clothing design by copying Victorian peasants' lack of sartorial choice. But in his case, with Americana - which is what Banana Republic is all about. “We have so many similar reference points, even if we’re on completely opposite ends of the spectrum - them doing mass market tailoring for preppy wannabes, me doing overpriced military reinterpretation for the preppies,” Lauren says. Another reason the collab makes sense? Lauren was already thinking about expanding his business and how to reach more people. "My uncle didn't want to give me more money, so I have to find other ways to fund myself now." In case you haven't heard, Lauren is the nephew of the lacklustre Americana designer with the same surname who makes bank on polo shirts.

All 16 pieces are hitting Banana Republic's stores tomorrow. “I didn’t want to take my most creative [runway] pieces and dilute them into something that was suddenly affordable by using cheap materials or without the handmade approach. I mean, H&M already did that with Margiela. Look where it got them - massive pile-up of unsold stocks that made it to clearance racks very soon after,” Lauren explains. “The first idea I had was the stonewashed twill tuxedo. It’s exactly the way I like to approach black tie. No one even wears black tie to events anymore, but it fits beautifully and you can roll it up in your bag to wear to a beach wedding or mixed with other pieces.” The tux has silk faille lapels for just a touch of the traditional, and comes purposefully rumpled—no steaming required. It was an idea he had seen Comme des Garçons, and subsequently Paul Harnden, does to their jackets. "People hate steaming their clothes. Not everyone can bring their helpers on their trips to iron their clothes."

Greg Lauren Banana Republic

Greg Lauren x Banana Republic

Softness is key for Lauren, so he tapped his Los Angeles resources to stone-wash and hand-distress many of the pieces so they felt lived-in. “Guys don’t want to sacrifice comfort for fashion, but at the same time, they want to update their look more than ever,” he says. “They want a different version of the pieces they already have. So it was important to find that balance and make comfortable clothes with a little bit of an edge. Especially when they are not ageing very well due to the unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles they tend to choose. But at the same time they still want to go after women much younger than them so they have to look cool, " Lauren, quipped. "We still have hand-stitched details, a few patches, distressing, and we washed things multiple times so it feels like you’ve had it forever. People don't really wear their clothes more than once anymore you know, plus they tend to buy clothes that break down within a few washes anyway, if they happen to wear them more than once. But they seem to like the lived-in look. I don't know why."

What guy doesn't want to look like they've just stepped out of Mad Max? There's no better way to capture that tryhard, rugged vibe while living in Nolita than with pre-distressed hoodies in military green. "These guys, they have fantasies of adventures in far yonder, but at the same time they don't want to leave the comfort of their air-conditioned homes they go back to after a hard day of work at the snazzy open plan offices. I think this collection brings out the rebellious spirit of individuality in guys by looking the same as the other guys who thrift in milsurp stores."

“We don’t need more clothes out there, but there’s always room for a unique approach and to change the way people think about things. And so I'm going to keep making more clothes to fund my workout regime and potential need for botox despite whatever I've just said a sentence ago.”


The Enduring Feminism of Rick Owens

December 6, 2016

by Gracia Ventus

Rick Owens SS2015

Friendship with women is different from that with men. Personally I find it easier to navigate around a larger group of male friends because we’re different from each other. With women, we share similar fears and insecurities, which becomes a reflection of our inner demons that we may not necessarily want to be reminded of. But once in a while, we transcend the petty rivalry and squabbles. Out of the many casual friendships we form with women, one or two would burst forth like a butterfly out of its cocoon, into the realms of sisterhood in which we share a higher level of understanding through similar life experiences and trauma bonding. Upon reaching that level, we can support each other wholeheartedly without the presence of envy nor judgment. We shower praises on our sisters sincerely without expecting anything in return, and we love them enough to call out their unwise decisions.


- Rick Owens with Dazed

Rick Owens SS2015

We know what Rick Owens looks like. Sculpted torso, long straight hair, chiseled face, the epitome of primal masculinity. Hidden beneath this severe exterior lies a soft-spoken demeanour and gentle outlook that have shaped his direction for womenswear. Here is a designer who put women on pedestals, giving them the due respect many other designers, especially ones who are far removed from the realities of women and their daily lives, fail to acknowledge.

I was hesitant about showing women under strain, but we show women as sugared dolls enough. Women can also be athletes that go to another physical level to achieve an aesthetic ideal. And these women did that with a powerful serenity, which is something we can all hope for in ourselves.

- Rick Owens with New York Times

Rick Owens is a designer whose idea in beauty does not lie in frou frou, who can see that women are not just pretty things strutting to the next champagne brunch and dinner parties. In the last couple of years, his womenswear have become much more functional. Gone are the needle-thin heels and impractical floor-length gowns. Instead they have been replaced with shoes women can run around in, and clothes that allow for natural movements. He understood that women of the 21st Century no longer dawdle. The powerful women who wear Rick have things to do, places to be, sisters to support, people to love, and butts to kick if necessary.



- Rick Owens with Another


Granted he does not do pussyfooting, preferring to be direct, loud and controversial when addressing social issues. In light of this, he has stepped on some delicate toes in the past, especially those who don’t seem to understand where he’s coming from. He plays between severity and compassion, with an austere vision that may grate on soft sensibilities, but ultimately, he meant well. And he’s unafraid to be politically incorrect so that we as the audience would jump on the discourse while coming to terms with growing pains.

It is with this high regards for women’s bond with each other, stronger than the most Brutalist concrete furniture, that Rick Owens’s legacy endures.

Rick Owens SS2015