“This is one of those times where I really feel that I’m working in a film about fashion,” grinned a journalist backstage at Rick Owens’ Autumn/Winter 2017 show – and, looking around the room, you could sort of see what she meant. Interspersed with models dressed in the collection, draped in tunics and tabards, wearing crowns constructed from T-shirts wrapped around wire frames, there appeared a tribe of acolytes wearing Rick Owens: a community of supporters and collaborators who appeared as posterboys and -girls for the brand, each drinking and chatting and milling around the designer, bestowing effusive congratulations. It was like watching the outsider spirit that Owens champions come to life: a snapshot of a parallel universe where black drapery and sickly, earthy palettes are a mandated uniform.
After all, Owens is a designer who has created an inclusive world that extends beyond the clothes he sells, and one which celebrates weirdness – as he once told Susannah Frankel for AnOther Magazine, “What I do is perhaps for people who don’t feel that they fit into the whole fashion thing. It’s like, ‘welcome to my alternative universe’.” The collection he showed this season was an explicit extension of such a philosophy, a ceremonial invitation into his own utopia, complete with a subversively regal wardrobe befitting of such an occasion.
“I’ve always thought of runway shows as contemporary ceremonies” – Rick Owens
“I’ve always thought of runway shows as contemporary ceremonies,” he said after the show. “Ceremonies are about communities coming together, and communities are about people affirming the values that they all want to follow.” Today, more than ever, we are in desperate need of collective action affirming positive change – and here, Owens created a collection intent on championing the things he prizes above all else; a determinedly optimistic exploration of what he considers the most glittering facets of humanity: grace, dignity, integrity, thoughtfulness. It was a welcome proposition for dealing with the apocalyptic state of the world right now, and yet another step away from the gothic misnomer often applied to his work. “I’ve done the whole protest thing,” he said. “What does one do after protest? You pick yourself up and find the most civilised way to move forward.” And that is precisely what he did.
The Glitter of Civilisation
For his Autumn/Winter 2017 menswear collection, which was also titled Glitter, Owens used that word to describe a “defiant flamboyance in reaction to turbulent times,” asking “how do we find the gentlest way to react to cultural and political threat?” So, in an abstract homage to glitter rock – to the sleazy and makeshift spirit of the 70s, to Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls – he then offered nylon down jackets in balloon animal colours; beautifully bombastic silhouettes and swollen shapes. But for his womenswear A/W17 collection, “I was thinking, instead of the glitter of protest, this is about the glitter of civilisation,” he says. And if civilisation truly is based on ceremony, then this was certainly civilised: a sensitive alternative to the frenzied anxiety that is all too easy to embrace at the moment.
The show was staged to a soundtrack of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major – “a great example of what civilisation at its best sounds like,” he wrote in his show notes – and referenced at once the ceremonial garb of Egyptian pharaohs and Catholic priests, Byzantium icons and Celtic druids. Those ballooning shapes of menswear now became gently protective capes and cloaks, or were formed from bundled duvets; layers upon layers of tabards and peeling leather robes came in an elemental palette that was powerful in its restraint. The crowns, mitres and veils perched atop models’ heads, formed from bits of wire and sweatshirts and sleeves – were “frivolous, but they also create a state of solemnity and, on top of that, magisterial volume”. They looked regal, yes, but also sometimes a little bit like squids, or Anubis’ ears: “Humour is one of the chicest reactions to anything,” he said.
“Humour is one of the chicest reactions to anything” – Rick Owens
That is perhaps what is so appealing about Owens’ work – while it addresses the serious turbulence around us right now (a theme which can often feel trite in fashion), it is self-aware; not as serious as one might expect from the oft-titled dark prince of the industry. “People have forgotten how to ridicule themselves or embrace the ridiculous… people are really straight. Did everyone forget about Surrealism, or Dadaism?” he asked Vogue Runway. “I don’t really know if fashion can protest… well, it can protest, but I don’t really know how effective it is,” he continued to explain. “That’s why I thought that I’m done with trying to protest with clothes; the positive thing I can do is talk about is how to conduct my personal behaviour and what we can all do to be more positive going forward. Hats! Hats can do that!”
These crowns, or hats, were, according to Owens, improvised. “The fact that they were improvised I thought was very important. The idea that all of us, everybody, can improvise. We can take what we’ve got, pull it together… pool our personal resources and make the best of them.” This philosophy has informed the trajectory of Owens’ career: he started out as a knock-off pattern cutter in LA before, in 1994, he managed to sell clothes he had created out of cheap fabric remnants (largely silk georgette and cotton jersey) to a store with whom he negotiated up-front payment (he was broke at the time).
“All of us, everybody, can improvise. We can take what we’ve got, pull it together… pool our personal resources and make the best of them” – Rick Owens
Over 20 years on and with his business now worth over $100 million, the materials that compose Owens’ garments have become more refined, but the principles informing them have remained the same. They are luxurious (to the point that, in recent seasons, he has employed couture ateliers or hand-draped each piece) – think of those perfectly-sculpted leather dresses, or the nutria and pekan furs – but nonchalant, artfully crumpled, twisted and knotted. Each piece carefully embodies what he has previously termed “the luxury of not caring”. It is perhaps this spirit of DIY improvisation which means that, in spite of his success, Owens has managed to remain embedded in the heart of a countercultural community. While everyone from Justin Bieber to Kanye West now wears his designs, his tribe still comprises the likes of Kembra Pfahler, David Hoyle, James Jeanette, Christeene: alternative icons without Wikipedia pages.
“My business plan was to be Charles James,” he once told Frankel. “I was going to make beautiful things and live in glamorous squalor on Hollywood Boulevard and die the hero for having stuck to my vision and not compromised.” But, instead, he’s stuck to his vision and flourished; a testament to doing things right in a world, and an industry, that can so easily engender ugliness. During a period where fashion’s interest appears to be more quickly fickle, more fleeting than ever before, the consistency of his message has proven an enduring success.
“Ceremonies are about groups agreeing on codes of behaviour and collectively committing to them” – Rick Owens
In many ways, this collection presented the philosophies that define Owens’ world in their most elegant form, and during a time when we need them most. “Ceremonies are about groups agreeing on codes of behaviour and collectively committing to them… community, responsibility and kindness usually top the list,” he said. You can already imagine his army next season, proudly surrounding him in these clothes, visually proclaiming affiliation with his values. Inspiring, and beautiful, to say the least.