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Ylva And Alison, Cyclops Spring/Summer 2016 womenswear. Archive photographs by Danielle Levitt, courtesy of OWENSCORP

Rick Owens on Assembling Archives for His Retrospective

As a new exhibition dedicated to his life’s work thus far opens at the Milan Triennale, we present an interview with the designer from AnOther Magazine A/W17

“The horse fucking and fist-fucking videos? I don’t think Carolina Herrera has those on her résumé.” It’s June, a few days before the CFDA Awards, and Rick Owens and I are sitting in his garden in Paris, behind the concrete palace that has been home to him, his wife Michèle Lamy, and their business since 2003. He is about to be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American fashion institution, and he is completely delighted by the prospect, unlikely as that might seem of the oft-titled dark prince of fashion. “The thing about the CFDA is that it’s a pantheon of creators, at this point in time, at this point in history, and I’ve been invited to be a part of that. In a historical sense, that’s very moving. I really am honoured.”

That’s the thing about Rick Owens – fashion videos of horse and fist-fucking aside, he is incredibly gentle. He speaks softly and eloquently; his fashion shows, even when they might appear controversial by exposing penises or harnessing women to one another, are graceful statements of intent; his clothes, although they have often been labeled as ‘goth’, are so thoughtfully composed and carefully constructed that such a marginal term is most certainly a misnomer. What Owens has created over the course of his career is a universe that is as intimate as those videos are provocative, and anyway, “After Dadaism and Cubism and all of the aesthetic gestures that have been made in the past, how can anybody be surprised by anything like that?” Now, yet another esteemed institution, the Milan Triennale, is paying tribute to his career by inviting him to exhibit a retrospective of his oeuvre this December; a tour through a world of his own making, one that is staunchly independent and which celebrates individuality above all else. In his own words, “There’s all sorts of things that I have wanted to say, but a lot had to do with being an outsider, asking why am I restricted to these narrow parameters of what is aesthetically acceptable? Who has decided the rules and why can’t I experiment with them?”

“There’s all sorts of things that I have wanted to say, but a lot had to do with being an outsider, asking why am I restricted to these narrow parameters of what is aesthetically acceptable?” – Rick Owens

As a man, Owens is a Freudian fantasy: He was an only child and attended Catholic school in a painfully normal American town; his childhood was “pretty miserable”, his relationship with his conservative father so fraught that he regularly refers to him as a Nazi. While growing up in California, Owens’ handwriting was so faint that it was illegible to his teachers; now, every communication that comes from OWENSCORP is written in capital letters. In many ways – perhaps too many, he muses – his work, too, is visibly autobiographical, to the extent that the first time he became interested in clothing was through the ritualistic garb of the nuns at his school and their description of Biblical figures. “In Porterville, everything was so ordinary, so normal, but here were these people dressed in veils and robes every day. For somebody desperately looking for exoticism, that was it.” He sighs. “I’m so obvious.”

While such inspiration might be obvious to Owens, its manifestation is anything but. On the runway this season, those formative influences play out in pieces that have evolved from these theological roots, but are refracted through a prism of weirdness: makeshift but magisterial veils constructed out of wire and sweatshirts; tabards and vestigial robes peeled away from the body in folding swathes of fabric or fur. It’s a tribute to “the glitter of civilisation”, he said backstage, because “I’ve always thought of runway shows as contemporary ceremonies. Ceremonies are about groups agreeing on codes of behaviour and collectively committing to them… Community, responsibility and kindness usually top the list.”

“I’ve always thought of runway shows as contemporary ceremonies. Ceremonies are about groups agreeing on codes of behaviour and collectively committing to them… Community, responsibility and kindness usually top the list” – Rick Owens

While these values are the same that have been championed throughout Owens’ career, the aesthetic of his seasonal collections has most certainly evolved: where once there was ascetic severity, now there are ballooning duvets and muted pastels and swaddling. It mirrors his own personal shift: “I have been very self-destructive and self-critical,” he says, “and I learnt how to accept a lot of my faults and flaws and not make such a big deal about it. Just to get over myself.” That’s not to say that the core of the brand’s commercial offering – the exceptional cashmere knitwear, the most refined leather jackets, the oversized T-shirts that drape loosely and have become a music industry staple – have disappeared. These are, after all, the pieces upon which this multi-million dollar business is founded, and which have found fans all the way from the counter-cultural devotees of the brand to mainstream hip-hop stars. “I love that I have all these straight guys buying my clothes who would have kicked my ass in high school,” he grins – and perhaps that’s what’s just so exceptional about Owens: the codes of behaviour that define his world, even more so than the drapery or the leather jackets, have remained the same. It’s the world that has shifted.

Such a reality was hardly imaginable when Owens first set up shop in Los Angeles in 1994. He dropped out of art school because “I didn’t think I was cerebral enough” and ended up working as a knock-off pattern cutter and hanging around partying on Hollywood Boulevard before meeting Lamy and really getting started in his late thirties. “My business plan was that I was going to just keep on making stuff and selling it on my own and struggling until someone came along who would notice it and then somehow help – which is a naïve approach, but it kind of worked,” he said – and it did, to say the least. But such a roundabout approach means that his archive is rather scant, particularly considering he’s about to embark on an exhibition that ought to plunder it. “It was just about survival; it wasn’t really ever about legacy,” he explains, “because I don’t think I ever even had the self-esteem to think we would last long enough to have one.” So, in lieu of the original pieces, “We are filling in a lot of things,” he says. “We don’t have that much stuff. If people go to something like this and wanna see the original stuff, I guess it’s kind of a disappointment. Well I’m sorry, it’s just not there.”

“My business plan was that I was going to just keep on making stuff and selling it on my own and struggling until someone came along who would notice it and then somehow help – which is a naïve approach, but it kind of worked” – Rick Owens

In spite of this, assembling the archives has been far from a chore, he says. “Doing it is just the most delicious thing; it’s kind of validating to look over your successes, and you can just quietly erase every mistake you’ve ever made. It’s my version of my story, and it’s motivating; it makes me even more enthusiastic for the future.” He plans to create a pop-up catalogue similar to Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise which, if referenced by any other designer, might sound alienatingly avant-garde – but when Owens talks about Duchamp, it is with such unabashed excitement that the sense of any airs and graces are swiftly dissipated; allusions to Huysmans and Mallarmé are made in the same manner. Canonical cultural referencing aside, and beyond the immediate impact of the intimidatingly uniformed acolytes who so often surround this designer, Owens’ vision for his universe is remarkably inclusive. What this Triennale exhibition will offer is an opportunity for Owens to be the author of his own narrative, one that openly communicates that spirit with the same grace that he both speaks and designs, dismantles that gothic misnomer and explores the nuance of his creation. “I am going to be able to define what I did,” he says. “I’m learning who I want to be, who I am, how far I’ve gotten, what the next step should be. It’s not hard at all. It’s pure pleasure.”

Rick Owens: Subhuman, Inhuman, Superhuman runs from December 15, 2017 until March 25, 2018 at the Milan Triennale. 

The Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of AnOther Magazine is on sale now.