“I don’t know where this came from. Suburban domesticity has taken over, sprawling suburban domesticity,” wails Rick Owens. It is a few days after the designer’s latest show, for his Spring/Summer 2016 ‘Cyclops’ womenswear collection. Rick Owens is entertaining at home; this, needless to say, is hardly the hub of ‘suburban domesticity’ that he seems to think it is. Instead, the effortlessly elegant yet completely idiosyncratic interior has undergone a sudden change. There is still the self-designed furniture that has become such a substantial part of what the designer does – and started off only as a necessity for his personal spaces. This is combined with pieces from his private furniture and art collection, particularly the large ‘melting’ urn by Georges Hoentschel, which is something of an exquisitely deranged centrepiece in the Owens interior. That urn could once be found at the entrance to the forerunner of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, during the art nouveau exhibition that took place there in 1900. Its companion can presently be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, the change to the interior has not come from the addition of inanimate objects, but rather it has come from elsewhere: the animal kingdom.
“I don’t know where this came from. Suburban domesticity has taken over, sprawling suburban domesticity" – Rick Owens
As we talk, we are suddenly confronted by a ‘menagerie’ of animals; E.D. (it stands for Eating Disorder) a beagle owned by the artist Scarlett Rouge – Rick Owens’ stepdaughter and daughter of Michele Lamy – and Heckie the black pug-cross (crossed with god knows what), belonging to the agent Justinian Kfoury, have started to have sex with each other. They are both male. “E.D. is such a sloppy bottom, look at Heckie face fucking him!” exclaims Rick Owens with some glee, before adding: “If this were the 70s, we’d be watching people doing that. And we’d be doing coke and I’d be an incredibly glamorous fashion designer. Instead this is… domesticity with dogs fucking.” That is when the wailing about ‘sprawling suburban domesticity’ comes in.
The other part of the menagerie, Gaia the female Bengal kitten, has walked away in disgust. “Even I am disgusted by the way they keep going at it,” sighs Owens later. “And that’s really saying something.” Unprompted, the dogs had ‘gone at it’ again for the shoot that accompanies this piece.
But there is a point to all the talk of dogs fucking and cat disgust. Until fairly recently, there had been no animals in Rick Owens’ home; no bees on the roof, no blackbirds nesting, no borrowed dogs fucking, no black mice scurrying and no Bengal cat brought in to kill said mice. This sudden domestic onslaught has accompanied a different way of thinking by the designer, something that has manifested itself in a warmer, looser and less controlled aesthetic – it is an approach that also permeates the latest collection. It is a realisation by Rick Owens that his aesthetic has started emanating from influences entirely different from those he had initially perceived over the last few years. Rather, there is a return to those that originally shaped his worldview – the objects, people, things and ideas that have surrounded him domestically for many years, from the very beginning of his career.
The Sensual Collapse of Art Nouveau
“When I was doing this collection, I realised that things around me are not severe, they are Art Nouveau,” says the designer. “Art Nouveau is about beauty, emotion and sensuality. Brutalism has often been related to what I do, but Art Nouveau is what I have around me. At the beginning of my career, I started off with an idea of collapse and it then became the fantasy of precision, of control and geometry. And now it has become collapse again – but the sensual collapse of corruption.”
Strength through ‘sensual collapse’ could be seen to manifest itself in Rick Owens’ latest collection and show with the motif of women carrying other women. A mixture of gymnasts, acrobats and contortionists took part; they were both the women carrying and the women being carried – the regular models were free of this literal burden of responsibility. The original inspiration had come from Leigh Bowery ‘giving birth’ to his wife Nicola Bowery on stage – a similar harness was worn in that performance – but with the active participants becoming two women, together with the mood made less jokey, grotesque and hysterical through the elegiac tone of the live music, something completely different in feeling and emotion was achieved by Rick Owens’ show.
“I love Jimmy Scott’s song Exodus, and I had asked James Lavelle if we could re-do it with Eska,” explains the designer. “I kept telling him to make it more raw and less lush, I liked that focus on her voice.” And it was Eska’s live performance with her repeated refrain of "This land is mine" that gave the show an additional, haunting power. "More raw and less lush," was also something that could be witnessed in the aesthetic of the collection itself. Stripped back in its simplicity and classicism, yet oddly, meltingly languid and sensual, the collection felt like a similar composition of freedom and restraint.
"When I was doing this collection, I realised that things around me are not severe, they are Art Nouveau" – Rick Owens
“I suppose a lot of things have been said about the show by now,” continues Owens. “But for me it was about how people respond to conflict. Conflict is eternal, it has always been an issue; I was using the idea of grace under pressure as a motif. It wasn’t really critical – you sometimes run the risk of appearing pompous if you are. It was not that sophisticated in a political way; it was about emotion. And of course a show is not going to stop conflict; that’s a part of life and life isn’t fair. It’s fine to say it was ridiculous, that’s fine. But I am doing shows where people are talking about something other than ‘red lips.’”
In his shows and collections, Rick Owens often puts women on a pedestal – or, in this case, a harness – to perhaps an overly idealistic degree. “I think I automatically get polite with women,” he says. “With the men’s shows it’s autobiographical; about what dicks men are, how aggressive they are. Women have a mystique for me; I certainly can’t profess to know what they want, but there are the things that I admire.”
It is perhaps two of the women that are closest to Rick Owens domestically, his wife Michele Lamy and his stepdaughter Scarlett Rouge, who could be seen to have made the biggest impact on his attitude towards women. Yet when the idea of mother and daughter is brought up in reference to the show, and whether it had anything to do with Michele and Scarlett, the designer laughs, “That would be more like the Joan Crawford scene on the floor!” Of course he is referring to a notorious take from Mommie Dearest.
Nevertheless, deranged domesticity seems to be the biggest defining influence on the designer at the moment, and maybe it should be left to Scarlett Rouge to narrate a very telling story about an early incarnation of the unconventional Owens-Lamy household in Los Angeles. “As much as Michele is a hard ass mother, she is also a great one,” says Scarlett Rouge. “When Rick moved into our house he brought with him a big, black dildo. One day I found it, took it outside, and my friends and I started throwing it around the pool! We were about eight years old. At that time we also had a French lodger – I’ve forgotten his name – he discovered us throwing this dildo around and I was in trouble. When my mother got home, I remember I was sat playing with my doll’s house as he told her what had happened. I remember her reaching for a cigarette and her just saying ‘What’s your point?’ I thought, 'Yes! That’s my mother.’ As much as she is crazy, she’s amazing. After that no kid was allowed to come to our house.”
"You know when people talk about designers losing touch with reality, like that’s a bad thing – I plan to lose touch with reality" – Rick Owens
How times change – except they don’t. As well as all the unconventionality, there is still all the warmth and freedom of Owens’ domestic set-up in Paris today as there was in LA. Paris was also the place that Rick Owens always dreamed of going to when growing up in California – not because of fashion but because of literature. And it is still the ideas the designer learned by reading French literature at that time, that guide his abiding quest for perfection in what he does today.
“I am fed up with stuff that isn’t perfect,” huffs Owens. “Affecting casualness is every bit as precious as being precious and I am going to be as refined and elegant as I can. I am going to make my interiors as perfect as they can possibly be. At the factory I need it to be exactly the way I want it to be, so why should I compromise elsewhere? It is very A Rebours, very Jean des Esseintes, its hero and my hero. I plan to shut myself away more and more and more… And you know when people talk about designers losing touch with reality, like that’s a bad thing – I plan to lose touch with reality. And the more I lose touch with reality, the better I’ll get… I think.” Later he removes a cushion from the couch that seems to be covered in dog cum. The offending item is placed outside and out of sight on the terrace.