Fashion & Beauty / Collections Digest

Why is Rick Owens the new Ralph Lauren?

In the wake of his S/S16 collection, we explore Lamyland, perversion and Ralph Lauren with Rick Owens and Michele Lamy

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Rick Owens S/S16
Rick Owens S/S16Photography by Dorothée Smith

Rick Owens is at the head of a fully-fledged 'lifestyle brand,' and a phenomenally successful one at that. The designer is certainly one of the biggest independents in the world and, let’s remember, Giorgio Armani is also among that number. Rick Owens bristles at this idea with all of its aspirational and bourgeois connotations – although he is a fan of Armani – and yet his too is a lifestyle brand with vast clothing collections for women and men, an e-commerce site, a flourishing furniture business, objet d’art, leather goods, jewellery, books and even a line of swimwear. Yes, swimwear. It is a lifestyle brand although, to reassure the designer, I always stress that this is the lifestyle brand of a sick, twisted pervert – I think this comforts him somewhat. In other words, this is a brand intrinsically based on and linked to Rick Owens own life and an inextricable part of that life is his wife and frequent creative partner, Michele Lamy.

Lamyland
Rick Owens is sat in the garden of his vast, vertically rambling Paris HQ in the Place du Palais Bourbon. A bee has just made an appearance. It is only a few hours after his latest menswear show yet all is calm here in the late afternoon sun with the birds twittering. We are talking about the influence of Michele Lamy, Owens extoling her virtues as “a pollinator” when, as if by metaphorical magic, a bee appears. "She is like a lady of the grand salon, for her it is the barge in Venice," explains the designer of her recent hosting of a barge-salon-restaurant during the first week of the Venice Biennale. "She is collecting young people and breeding them, making them cross pollinate. Hers is an ancient, maternal influence and like a ‘salonist’ or an editor there is a degree of selflessness. With men, it is more about dominating.”

“Did I tell you Michele is keeping bees on the roof? Anyway, she’s keeping bees. And look, look at the blackbirds nesting there with their chicks…” - Rick Owens

Owens has just revealed a men’s collection for Spring/Summer 2016 called ‘Cyclops’ that is full of masculine insecurities made fashion, among them the desire to dominate. "Every man wants to be heroic," he sighs. And the physical embodiment of this notion in the Cyclops collection is the recurrent motif of the U.S. M-1965 military field jacket. It has manifested itself as a symbol of heroism and rebellion for the military and the counterculture respectively, and Owens is drawn to this kind of tension, something that he sees in himself. "Male aggression always fascinates me," says Owens. "There is always a sense of menace and vulnerability. Whenever I do a men’s collection they are always about self-loathing; how petty, how selfish, how vain I am. My women’s collections are always about the mystery and strength of a woman; the creation of families and the sense of togetherness."

"Whenever I do a men’s collection they are always about self-loathing; how petty, how selfish, how vain I am." - Rick Owens

Meanwhile, Michele Lamy – herself a woman of mystery and togetherness – is holding court at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris at the current Carol Rama exhibition. This quality of creating a court, or more accurately a salon, wherever she goes is something that Lamy has without even trying; people are simply drawn to her. "It’s because I have been around the block for a long time – it just happened," she says, somewhat shrugging off her influence. "All the people just gather at the house." But it is a diverse and generous mix of people who are drawn there by her presence particularly. At the moment, Lamy is scheduled to appear in two music videos by two of her young acolytes: ASAP Rocky and FKA Twigs. In ASAP’s video/film project, Lamy plays, "His mother. I sit on a bench in Hyde Park, give him a letter and send him on his mission." While in FKA Twigs video, "I am like some kind of witch. I’m always a witch."

"I am like some kind of witch. I’m always a witch." - Michele Lamy

The Uncanny Furnishings and Carol Rama
There is a strange synchronicity between Lamy, Owens and the artist Carol Rama. It is Owens furniture – now in its tenth year of production, since it started only as a necessity for the designer’s Paris home and studio – that uncannily graces the current exhibition. It was the curator of the exhibition, Anne Dressen, who first approached Lamy, sensing this synchronicity from the start. Like Rama, an artist who also has a sprawling output and a perpetually recognisable signature, Owens and Lamy seem always slightly on the outside looking in. And like Rama’s women in her paintings, they are also always sticking their tongues out in mischief – or is that disgust?

And yet Owens and Lamy have not had to wait for the kind of wide acceptance and recognition that has eluded Rama most of her life – she was born in 1918 and it is only in recent years that she has been hailed. Instead, both are figures that have now been assimilated into a wider pop culture. But it is particularly Rick Owens clothing that has transcended so many boundaries and become the wardrobe of choice for West Coast wastrels and starlets, Ghetto Goth rappers and uptown ladies that don’t lunch, as well as doom and gloom followers of fashion. If anything, the tongue that is stuck out is to the American fashion establishment that rather myopically doesn’t seem to realise the phenomenon it has on its hands. Alongside Marc Jacobs, Rick Owens is the great American fashion designer and it is Marc and Rick that are the new Calvin and Ralph – and that’s respectively.

"Alongside Marc Jacobs, Rick Owens is the great American fashion designer and it is Marc and Rick that are the new Calvin and Ralph – and that’s respectively."

Why Rick Owens is the new Ralph Lauren
Of course, Rick Owens’ style is global, and has seeped into pop culture in a similar way to that of Ralph Lauren’s clothes in the seventies and eighties – albeit with a slightly different business plan. Like Lauren, there is the same sense of selling something European in feel back to the Europeans, yet never losing the notion of a quintessential view of American culture and history. And like Lauren, Owens shares an almost anti-fashion outlook, never falling for fickle trends; they also share the same interest in a dream world concoction of style learned from the golden period of American cinema and a historical design precedent. It really is not far-fetched to talk of Rick Owens power in this way. While other, far more conventional independent designers are struggling, Owens is getting ever stronger and expanding his operation. His is a multi-hundred-million dollar independent company to be reckoned with – and he has refused offers to buy his company on more than one occasion. Instead he reigns supreme, remarkably designing all the products himself – “It would freak me out to put my name on something somebody else had done.” – he is the author of his own brand and life, and in many ways he is his own best creation.

"While other, far more conventional independent designers are struggling, Owens is getting ever stronger and expanding his operation."

“I am a reaction to Ralph Lauren,” says the designer. “That preppy thing, in love with the British aristocracy; a whole fake world that really wants to be royal. And yet I am criticizing that kind of fakery when I am the same fake thing. Except I am a middle-aged opera queen in loafers that makes out I am a 16 year old death metal skater… It’s all fake! My hair is fake, my body is fake and my teeth are kind of fake.” And instead of Lauren’s golden retrievers on cue… “We have ugly blackbirds that serve no purpose. And bees.”

"I am a middle-aged opera queen in loafers that makes out I am a 16 year old death metal skater… It’s all fake! My hair is fake, my body is fake and my teeth are kind of fake.” 

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