Rick Owens put poetry in motion when he sent pairings of gymnasts down the runway sporting ‘human backpacks’ for SS16. Sculpting a tangled mass of limbs into a symphony of compassion, the show was a surrealist vision of women supporting women. From his batcave by the Seine, he lifts the lid on his limitless vision, his enduring love of “cheerfully degenerate weirdos”, and why you should never trust a designer in sweatshirt and jeans
“Straps can be about restraint, but here they’re all about support and cradling. Straps here become loving ribbons,” explains Rick Owens in the self-penned show notes for his spring/summer 2016 women’s collection, titled Cyclops.
Usually, if anything is strapped to a model on the catwalk, it’s an expensive handbag, the baguette-and-beurre of fashion houses. A handbag is more ready to wear than ready-to-wear itself, because anyone can walk into a shop, slap down a credit card and live the dream through it. There is no stress about sizing or whether it looks good on your particular body. A pretty bag will always be pretty, therefore you can smile and swing it as hard and proud as you like when you walk down the street.
But, in case you hadn’t noticed, Rick Owens is not your regular doilies-and-salmon-sandwiches, florals-for-spring type fashion house. The designer is one of the few who doesn’t parade leather goods in shows – though he does make them, from creatures such as frogs, horses, and a host of other things that’d make Cher from Clueless, or any small child, scream. Instead, what Rick Owens strapped to his models were other women. In doing so, he made a statement more beautiful than blinging minaudière could achieve. They really were ‘loving ribbons’, feminism reclaimed from the jaws of 2016 clickbait.
“I just thought that there were physical messages we could explore other than putting women in really high shoes,” says Owens from his Left Bank batcave, the Paris fortress in which he lives, works and creates his very particular kind of French fancy (with an American accent). “I like the idea of presenting different ideas of beauty, not only physically but morally and emotionally.”
For a while, Owens has been doing shows that explore the elements – wind, fire, water – and suggest our place within a larger context than just the here and now. “It was about our relationship with eternity,” he says. “Getting more introspective was the next logical step – making it more about our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Reducing the theatricality down to the physical gesture just seems stronger.”
The SS16 show was about “nourishment, sisterhood, motherhood and regeneration”, adds Owens. “Women raising women, women becoming women, and women supporting women.” His models were not cast, as convention dictates, from agencies, but from different Paris gymnastic groups. “I don’t like to show women under strain on the runway, but these were athletes used to working with their bodies, and I liked the idea of showing that power.”
The clothes for the collection were created in tandem with the choreography, so the results were a work of total integrity. Shoulders were sharply defined; sleeves on coats could be removed to drift behind the bare arm like a cape. Harnesses were integrated into jackets – and they were sold that way in the showroom. “The jackets with harness buckles will be relics of the experience,” notes Owens. “And, for the record, I think that waiting three months (to buy) those relics might be a nice alternative to the fast fashion mood that we seem to be entering. I think there’s room for both speeds.”
Social media orgasmed over the sheer visual poetry of the show. As one woman was in control, physically propelling herself forward on foot, the other was suspended, along for the ride. It felt very human, fashion with the cage door left open. A symphony of compassion. The music was Unkle’s arrangement of “This Land”, the theme from the 1960 film Exodus – “used as a reflection on the timelessly female way of protecting and nurturing a tribe, sung live by vocal powerhouse Eska”.
“I’m not trying to suggest I have any big message,” says Owens. “I just like looking at different angles of humanity and picking out moments of beauty that might be overlooked. I feel like I’m fulfilling a moral responsibility by putting good energy out there. Do I sound like an earnest, new-age hippy? I’m totally a selfish cunt, but I like the idea of trying to be better and I like the idea of that transcendent level being always out of grasp, but we try anyway because the effort is reward enough.”
We are speaking on the last day of the autumn/winter 2016 menswear shows. Owens himself presented Mastodon, arguably his greatest menswear line-up yet, three days ago. Everything on that catwalk was a ‘piece’, especially the ultimate dusty mohair parkas and the type of high and tight leather jackets Lou Reed used to wear so well. The soundtrack was Dat Oven’s pummelling voguing anthem “Icy Lake”, whose answerphone refrain “I just thought I’d call before I throw myself into the icy lake” is repeated to the point where you realise it’s pure emotional blackmail. Naturally, the track was played REALLY. FUCKING. LOUD.
“It helps me take things less seriously if I consider my position and status in the context of 400,000 years,” says Owens of the show, which entertained the possibility of humanity going the way of the dinosaurs. “And it helps me think of what I would like clothes to look like right now.”
In his studio, there’s no bustling, no shuffling, no sense of it still being fashion week, albeit the tail-end. He’s straight into finishing off another collection, to give you an idea of how relentlessly designers work. Yet this Sunday evening mood is as pleasant as waiting for the Antiques Roadshow to start (do they have that in France? It would be full of sublime gear – the country spawned art deco, after all).
Considering the signature flourish that applies to everything he does, Owens offers, pullquote ready: “I’m a concrete cupcake topped with meringue.” Well, quite. If you’re wondering what the great one drinks, other than the uranium-strength espresso we’ve just shot, it’s the brilliantly sunshiney Orangina – he is from California – off a silver tray. Only fine people quaff that. It’s a fact.
“I’ve always professed complete innocence regarding the ‘cult’ thing,” he says of the word often used to describe the obsessive fandom he inspires. “But, on further reflection, I guess that’s what I’ve been putting out there: inclusivity, the commitment to an aesthetic ideal and sticking to it. Trying to fulfill your moral and compassionate potential, restraint and modesty – which I violate repeatedly – and an appreciation of community. That’s what I’ve been trying to put into my shows: (it’s about) how people treat each other and find different ways to connect after the initial signals that their clothes project are registered.”
While Owens is not concerned with rolling out new licensing opportunities to stick his name on and facilitate buying a Hamptons home drowning in striped cushions, he does possess an unfailing desire to create his own harmonious universe beyond getting dressed. Naturally, anyone with such a strong fashion aesthetic – and his has been traced over by some other brands, bold as brass – would have a vision for other stuff, be it bronze urns or bone-handled prongs to push food around a plate with. Owens creates products to enrich our experiences, because life is in the details. Realising that smartphones aren’t so smart when it comes to battery life, his latest beyond-clothes offering is a pocket phone charger, as sexy and exotic-looking as something Indiana Jones might have found.
The word in the dictionary to describe what Rick Owens does is not ‘lifestyle’, but ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ – a synthesis of many different forms to create a definitive statement. (OK, it’s a German dictionary.) “Do you think I’m ever gonna get anyone to say ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ instead of lifestyle?” he jabs. “I’m not sure that the stuff I make is genuinely anyone’s lifestyle but my own. I’m just customising stuff I want and selling some of it to fund my being able to customise more stuff.”
Still, we see it and we want it, and that is how empires are built. His business is huge for someone with such a deliciously alternative spirit and a predilection for life’s outsiders. The Rick Owens griffe is the ultimate revenge of the freaks, who look so fabulous in his asymmetric draping that the norms want in on the action. How excellent is that? It might sound huge and pretentious, but Owens is actually in the position of being able to affect broader societal change, albeit at a gentle pace, grinding up a few of those decrepit, conservative stigmas about gender and sexuality still hanging on among the padlock-minded. Imagine if prejudice of any kind one day ended because Rick Owens’ Instagram, full of idols like The Divine David, was so mega? For a designer who mostly creates things in shades of various decay, he really colours the world in.
“When I was young and I saw the party scene in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I physically ached to be part of that group of cheerfully degenerate weirdos,” remembers Owens. “Now when I see the people entering my shows, I think, ‘Fuck, I kind of did it.’”
“If your priority is having a full closet with tonnes of stuff in it, then maybe I’m not your guy,” he continues. “But if it’s about something which you edit carefully and has a story then I am your guy. It’s about committing yourself completely to an aesthetic – throwing yourself into it and not looking back. In all facets of your life, if you’re going to do it, go all the way. That was always really important to me. I still don’t understand it when I see designers do these extravaganzas on the runway, having sent these boys out in all these crazy things, and they come out at the end in, like, jeans and a sweatshirt.” Let it be said, you should never, ever trust a designer who doesn’t wear their own collection. If they don’t have the conviction to stand inside their own message, why should anyone else?
As a kid growing up in Porterville, California, Owens wanted to be a painter. (You could say he’s an artist, because fashion is the theatre of life.) “It was pretty conservative and I was pretty uncomfortable there the entire time,” he says. “But having an uncomfortable childhood makes for an interesting adulthood, I think. If I had kids I would want to protect them from any shame or fear, but what would have happened if I’d had a completely well-adjusted childhood? I wouldn’t have the rage, I wouldn’t have the vengeance that I feel now.”
Having established his label in Los Angeles in 1994, Owens relocated to Paris in the early 00s with his wife, the wonderful, equally creative Michèle Lamy – “the most punk-rock element that we’ve got. She cannot be tamed,” he rhapsodises. For someone who loved living in Hollywood, he doesn’t do celebrity placement – if you see a film star in Rick leather, they bought it themselves. As they should.
Owens’ vision has struck such a chord (and become so established) that he has been able to buy the factories in Italy that make his garments. He has directly operated stores in LA, Miami, New York, London, Paris, Milan, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. Still entirely independent, he designs every Rick Owens product you can buy – great fashion is about dictatorship, after all, not a committee. There is no ghost team loitering and knocking out keyrings here. Even the coffee we drank earlier he poured with his own hands.
If Owens has one extravagance, it is art. He doesn’t have a collection of vintage cars, or indeed a collection of anything, preferring to be free from the burden of stuff. He wears the same Rick Owens look, his ‘uniform’, every day, his wardrobe full of things in multiple, like Bart Simpson’s. A few weeks before our meeting, when Owens was in Italy working on the AW16 menswear collection, we spoke on the phone. He was excited about a painting he’d got at auction by Steven Parrino, an artist whose work he admires. “Contemporary art isn’t my thing,” he says. “I love the glamour and wit of what I see in art fairs and I see the attraction of feeling connected to the moment, but I need to see an artist’s oeuvre before I can really commit – I need to see that there was a steady development of a unique voice.” The latter statement could just as easily be used to describe his own achievement in culture.
“Provenance is a big part of my attraction. I need the romance of the era (a piece) came from and the subtle references of that generation… And I probably need the melancholy of all of that being extinguished and no longer in existence. I’m not really a collector, because I like eliminating more than accumulating, but I do have a few beautiful things around me.”
He is also fond of uppercase, which you’ll know if you follow the Rick Owens Instagram or Twitter. What you may not know is that, when he emails you personally, that’s all written in capital letters too. You can’t knock him for consistency.
“I like how things almost come out like a proclamation,” he says. “I might have it completely wrong because I know to some people it’s just shouting, but to me it’s kind of a cheerful proclamation. Everything I say is kind of like, a little artificial and happy. Almost like a child speaking too loudly in church.”
Except no one’s gonna tell him off. It’s a pleasure listening.
TEXT DEAN MAYO DAVIES
PHOTOGRAPHY PAUL KOOIKER
FASHION ROBBIE SPENCER
ALL CLOTHES RICK OWENS
DAZED, SPRING-SUMMER 2016