Rick Owens and I have been talking about poets and artists and heroes.
“I link what I do more to poetry usually because it sounds less lofty than a lot of other things,” he says. “Anyone can be a poet. A poet can be more damaged and soft, but an artist has to be a hero.” So ‘poet’ he’s happy with, ‘artist’ not so much. He feels heroism demands a grandness – bigger urges, bigger appetites – that he can’t match.
Ironic, then, that everything about Owens is grand. Immense even. His shows in the plaza of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris evoke pagan rituals, with clothes of primal majesty. The furniture he designs has the brutalist heft of ancient Babylon. His apartment in Venice, “stone and super-done”, is on the top floor of a condominium building on the Lido, next door to the Excelsior, where Errol Flynn and Joan Crawford frolicked. Nearby is the Hotel des Bains, where Diaghilev died and Nijinsky danced on the sand. Such details matter to Owens. Extravagant context is a given with him. His house in Paris was once the office of former French president François Mitterrand. It shares a square with the Palais Bourbon, originally built for Louis XIV’s daughter Louise, gussied up by Napoleon, and now home to the French National Assembly. On the other side of the square is the society florist Moulié, its wares sprawling like a lavish garden across a city block.
And now I’m seeking Owens, the feral warrior king himself. Through the vast, shadowy interior of his home I go, and out onto a sun-blasted terrace where he’s sitting under a bower of jasmine planted by his wife, Michèle Lamy. Hortense the Bengal cat sprawls nearby, fiercely exotic beauty in purest feline form. Owens’ perma-tanned, hawkish features are offset by an incongruously large pair of wraparound reading glasses, through which he peers at a laptop.
He's enthusing about Picasso and War, the summer exhibition at Paris’ Musée de l’Armée.
“You see how he had classical training and then it all became about reducing, reducing, reducing to the simplest, most powerful, reductivist statement.” Sound familiar? Owens calls up a Picasso painting on his screen, Woman Smiling. I’ve never seen it before, and have been unable to find it since, but it has the mesmerising starkness of his own work. He shows me another image, a little readymade, a bit like a jzuzhed-up toilet roll. The readymade, the transmogrification of the banal (Marcel Duchamp’s urinal!) – “That kind of stuff makes me go there,” Owens says, pointing at his shoelaces, no longer banal shoelaces, now transmogrified into thick, black, wax-coated worms crawling across the top of his trainers. They’ll be a major feature of his men’s show a few weeks later.
“I think of Picasso a lot,” Owens continues. “I enjoy looking at it so much – the art, the mythology, the asshole-ness. Whenever I’m being a real dick, I think of Picasso and, well, I’m not that bad. The icon of the macho, heroic loner, the artist who mows people down and uses and uses and uses... Right now, I’m enjoying the rapture of it all. Later, I’ll revel in the corruption of it all.”
“I love how fashion is changing, and how I can make it change. It’s still very stimulating. Once you’ve established a platform, it can change into anything, go anywhere at this point” – Rick Owens
Architectural Digest France has just done a story on Owens’ Venetian bolthole. He posed for the accompanying portrait with his shirt off. “I want to be the Iggy Pop of fashion, I want to be the shirtless guy all the time,” he drawls languidly (the languid drawl is an Owens signature – it allows him to say outrageous things in a deceptively mild manner). “It’s a good torso, and I’m not going to have it forever so I want to record it. My body is leaner than it was a year ago. I haven’t changed my diet, I eat just as slutty. I think it’s just an age thing.”
I picture him as someone who has had more than enough time to acquire an appetite for the very finest things in life (everything but alcohol, which never worked for him). Yes, that’s true, he concedes, but he still likes the slutty stuff. Which is why, every time he lands at Charles de Gaulle, he goes straight to Marks & Spencer and buys two boxes of cupcakes. “When I’m tasting those, I’m tasting Hostess Ho Hos.” Like Marcel Proust and his madeleines, one bite and he’s transported to the past, to Porterville, California, where Richard Saturnino Owens was born 57 years ago.
“Blame it on Cecil B DeMille and opera,” Owens says of the immenseness of his work. “Grand emotions, high peaks.” I say blame it on Porterville and the environment his father, John, created. There was Wagner in the basement, Strauss upstairs in the music room. “We didn’t have TV, but Dad had a lot of books on silent movies. I was fixated on Theda Bara. And Gloria Swanson in that movie for Cecil B DeMille where she was filmed with a heavily sedated lion. DeMille’s epics, with all that imagery connected with the idea of morality and exoticism, showed you all the transgressions you had to get through to redemption. The monochrome epic, the Thirties art deco filter, the lurid imagery, the moral ending... Everything I do is that.”
Owens now describes his upbringing as very pure and focused. “But it was an ordeal at the time. Why couldn’t we have a TV so I could watch The Munsters? I had to watch it at a friend’s house, though I think I liked The Addams Family better.” Owens digresses for a moment. “Do you remember Hogan’s Heroes? A sitcom set in a German prisoner-of-war camp?” He lets that notion dangle in the air between us, no comment necessary on the polarities that provide pop culture with its perverse but predictable action/reaction momentum.
Polarities were 16-year-old Owens’ life: at home, listening to Wagner and reading his father’s copy of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature, the origin story of 19th-century decadence; outside, smoking pot and listening to Led Zeppelin with his friends, or hanging out with the lesbian couple in the nearby trailer park (they were the only gay people he could find). And he obsessively collected Architectural Digest and GQ – for the Antonio Lopez illustrations, the Bruce Weber shoots. His mother, Connie, still has them all. “I’m not really sure I had any sense that those magazines would ever be my world. I do remember feelings of frustration and hopelessness. But I was also impatient, so there must have been moments when I thought it was inevitable.” Do they call that manifest destiny? One thing is clear: in Porterville, Owens already knew how to insulate himself using a bubble of his own design.
But he was always going to wander. There’s often been a nomadic essence in his designs. In 2003, Owens took himself from his birthplace to the other side of the Atlantic, to a city where he didn’t speak the language (and still doesn’t). Did he deliberately make himself rootless? “You can’t escape who you fundamentally are. I feel I did the best with what I had, and adjusted what I needed to. It’s very different from trying to be someone who you are not. I wanted to be Halston, for instance, and be more effervescent and embrace superficiality more. But it was an effervescence that would never be part of my world and a superficiality I would never be able to maintain. I probably still want it sometimes. When I go to a party, I think, ‘Oh, Halston would have been here with his Halstonettes. I’m not going far enough.’” But I point out to him that he does have his own Halstonettes – the wonderful Christeene and The Divine David and Kembra Pfahler, and the rest of the coterie that surrounds him, all of them pushing “far enough” beyond any envelope you can imagine – and oh how he laughs, long and hard.
It wasn’t Halston, it was Charles James, the other genius manqué of American fashion, who was more compatible with Owens’ own vision. He speaks freely of his messy years in LA in the Eighties, when he got up to everything that you imagine anyone who looks like Owens would get up to in the environment of total licence that LA in the Eighties promised – “The messiest I ever got was when I was thinking I could be Charles James.” Although he admits Halston still had a place in his heart. “When Halston and Calvin Klein were at their peak, they were really doing something pretty special. It was reductive, and a grand gesture in the simplest way that was very powerful. When you look at Charles James, those dresses are sublime but they’re really pretty ridiculous. They’re sculptures, but as clothes they’re not woman-friendly. They’re overwrought. Though I’m just being nitpicky here, because I love the whole story.”
Owens has never got away from James. His silhouettes have quoted him. His talented intern Sebastian models a James dress in one of the photos that accompany this story, just like Juan Fernandez, an old friend of Owens from LA who was a fit model for James’ evening gowns during the Seventies when the designer was living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Lopez, another Chelsea resident, would sketch the whole process. Owens provided the preface for Charles James: The Couture Secrets of Shape, a recent monograph in which he writes, “James’ clothes were about order, rigour, and discipline… ideas that suggested an elevated code I admired and wanted to align myself with. These clothes could perversely speak about restraint and the joy of sumptuousness at the same time.”
Fernandez is also a focus in another of Owens’ side projects, the book he has curated for Rizzoli about Larry Legaspi, who, as the designer of costumes for Kiss, was unwittingly responsible for introducing teenage Owens to “the glory of lust and vice”. Legaspi designed for all-female funk group Labelle as well, and the spirit of his sci-fi/deco creations resonates in Owens’ work. In his book about Legaspi, especially in his interviews with his widow Valerie, and with Fernandez and the archetypal model/muse Pat Cleveland, his vicarious fascination with their melancholic world – smothered by the Aids-induced loss of so much beauty, youth and talent – is so intense it offers an illuminating insight into his own creative drive. At one point, Fernandez tells Owens, “You have to let go of your ego and just sort of take in everything, because as a designer, your responsibility is to acknowledge your heart and your spirit and your creativity. Then, if you are really clever, you take a look around at what is going on across the planet and you go, ‘Oh.’ Steal love, steal ideas, steal a feeling. That is the renaissance of our art. The moment that we stop doing that, we don’t have anything else to say. And we may as well just be dead.”
In that light, Owens’ work is constantly stealing love, as he is also constantly balancing the theft by giving credit where he feels credit is due. But the love is tainted. “I’m drawn to characters like Charles James and Antonio Lopez and des Esseintes [Jean des Esseintes, the protagonist of Huysmans’ Against Nature]. There was a darkness in des Esseintes, an evil streak. He was so misanthropic and scornful of society when he was building his bubble, and I hate that because I feel my father infected me with that. I roll my eyes sometimes at things and I catch myself afterwards and I think that was not cool. I feel my dad infected me with his judginess. On the other hand I know that’s something I need anyway. I’m judging things all day long, I have to correct and refine everything I’m making, so that’s just part of everything I need to be.”
“I’m conscious of apologising, because I think people apologise too much.” Now we’re talking about the hot-ticket issue of appropriation. “I totally borrowed from hip-hop. The big baskets at the beginning were about Run DMC and The Fat Boys. The big, baggy clothes, the T-shirts, the wholegang thing wasn’t black, that was the Mexican culture in Porterville, from the people I was working with at Taco Bell. They’d give me rides home in their lowriders.” Owens is acutely conscious of the speed of change. He feels he wouldn’t now be able to do a show like his Spring/Summer 2014 spectacle, which was performed by step teams from sororities at four African-American colleges. “I was watching the Beyoncé at Coachella movie [Homecoming],” he adds. “She could do it.”
“My opulence is very controlled, very artificial, a very deliberate and specific thing. The pacing is very anti-gluttony, sumptuous but modest” – Rick Owens
I’m curious. Has the flagrantly fearless Owens become newly sensitised to his environment? “No more than before,” he says, the drawl never more pointed. “I’ve shown guys with their dicks out, women carrying each other on their backs, steppers, stompers... I kind of live in a bubble, but everyone has to be aware of what’s around them. I don’t really follow the news on TV that much, but I have a general sense of discomfort in certain areas. I feel like I’m trying to put in my little note, to try to balance things out because every little voice helps. I’m commenting on the way I feel about things. I don’t have any solutions, I feel like I’m speaking to concerns we’re all feeling collectively.” His commentary finds emotional voice in his men’s show a few weeks later, when his Mexican heritage is very much on his mind. The wall that Donald Trump is so intent on building would separate his mother, now 85 years old, from her family in Mexico, at a time when she needs them more than ever. I feel her story infuses her son’s presentation. He names it Tecuatl, his grandmother’s Mixtec maiden name, and invites four Danza Azteca musicians from Mexico to accompany the show with ceremonial sounds.
All of which runs counter to Owens’ declaration that he is more insulated now than he ever was in Porterville. Same thing when he reflects on fashion’s efforts to accommodate the tyranny of social media. “A magpie sensibility, everything all together, all the time, no loyalty to any brand, everything thrown together in your own style.” After listing this litany of chaos, he pauses for dramatic effect (have I ever mentioned what a great actor he would make?). “People overestimate their own sense of style. That’s what designers are for. I always talk about the lowest common denominator. There’s that world and I’m the opposite of it, and I probably stand out because if you’re not into it, I’m one of the few other options that’s not that. People recognise me because I’m more focused.”
He ponders a while longer. “For a company to survive, it’s in constant competition with Instagram imagery. There will be a reaction to that but I don’t know if it’s going to be fashion. Maybe more about ecological pursuits. Maybe it’s more about survival now, and sustainability. Maybe people should put more energy into that. Fashion might become obsolete, as well maybe it should.” Still, there is nothing else he sees himself doing. “I love how fashion is changing, and how I can make it change. It’s still very stimulating. Once you’ve established a platform, it can change into anything, go anywhere at this point.”
Owens compares what he does to a tea ceremony. “My opulence is very controlled, very artificial, a very deliberate and specific thing. The pacing is very anti-gluttony, sumptuous but modest. You’re appreciating it in a modest, thoughtful way.” We’re talking about Beyoncé again (that movie really stayed with him). “You live your life through your art,” Owens muses. “Not everyone can do that, but it’s kind of thrilling when you do it right. I think Michèle and I are representative of that kind of thing. Our relationship does represent things to people.”
Almost 20 years older than Owens, with every one of those years testament to an extraordinary life that has taken her from being a lawyer in Lyon to the Chelsea Hotel in New York to being a designer/restaurateur in LA and then an artist in Paris, Lamy has had an inestimable influence on Owens’ life. “I think she’s a great trainer to encourage me to go further,” he says. “She doesn’t have limits or much filter. She responds to things in a very emotional, instinctive way that is very stimulating to me. There’s a lot of id in her.” If she’s id, is he ego, I wonder. “Oh God, yes!”
Which makes their relationship an extension of the classic dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus. Owens certainly manifests Apollonian rigour, not only in the controlled opulence of his designs but in his approach to his own body, moulded by gym craft into rubber-band tautness. “But it’s barely covering up the Dionysus underneath,” he insists. “It’s like this film over a throbbing, dripping Dionysian. Though it never really erupts. It’s carefully fed and paced, carefully tended to.” Release comes with the incredible rituals that he makes of his shows. “Thank God I have that,” he adds, tellingly.
He’s talking once more about why poetry is a more natural metier for him than art. “A poet takes everything we know and makes a new composition of words that are lyrical and put us in a mindset that can either make us feel better about ourselves or more connected to the world or more comfortable or more loving. I seem to have a way of doing these compositions, like some florists arrange flowers in a certain way. Larry Legaspi, Mariano Fortuny, Sid Vicious, des Esseintes... they’re part of the compositions I make. And I set out to do them in as focused a way as possible. That’s what you do when you’re on this Earth. You do your best with what you’ve got, until you die.” He sounds like Fernandez.
Once upon a time, Owens told a reporter, “Everything to me boils down to a challenge to mortality. You want to say something that will outlast you, you want to leave something – you want to live forever. It’s the human condition.” When I ask him if that is still the case, his answer is instant. “I still feel that, more than ever.” There is even a subtle metaphor for the Endless/Enduring in his work. Everything he offered in his first, 13-piece collection in 1994 lives on in each pre-collection: the leather jacket with the ribbed inset sleeve, the bias trousers and skirt, the ribbed tank top, all the T-shirts. “I love that it’s still the skeleton of everything we do.”
One final exchange…
Rick Owens: I’m 57 years old and sometimes I feel I go on learning, and other times I surprise myself with how much I haven’t learnt. There’s this whole ugly side of me that I hate and I’m so horrified by it. I get angry and frustrated when people can’t understand how things should be. I know exactly why I feel threatened. I have deadlines and I don’t want to miss a deadline. So I get impatient when I don’t get satisfying answers fast enough. How can I not have erased this by now? Why is it still there? I want to be more serene and understanding and more empathetic and more tolerant, and that’s the opposite of impatience.
Tim Blanks: For what it’s worth, I think serenity is an impossible dream.
RO: I agree with that. I know I’m not going to be perfect and I know I need to relax and not worry about it, but there are certain flaws I think I should have been able to minimise more.
TB: Or just be Picasso and exalt them.
RO: I think about that, too. I look at Picasso and think, “Fuck it, who cares?” Just be a monster, enjoy it.
TB: Maybe that’s sublimated in your work.
RO: I think it is. Working with your flaws, accepting them.
TB: There’s always therapy.
RO: I’ve tried it. But I also feel, “Figure it the fuck out!” And that’s part of life, too – the fun of being able to figure it out.
Rick Owens Photographed by Danielle Levitt and Legaspi: Larry Legaspi, the 70s, and the Future of Fashion, both published by Rizzoli, are out this autumn
All clothing and accessories from the Rick Owens Autumn/Winter 2019 collection
Hair: Damien Boissinot at Art and Commerce. Make-up: Christelle Cocquet at Home Agency using Tata Harper Skincare and Sisley. Models: Nyarach Abouch Ayuel at Girl Management, Veronika Kunz at The Squad Management and Sebastian Owsianka. Casting: Noah Shelley at Streeters. Manicure: Elsa Deslandes at Majeure Prod. Digital tech: Pablo Azevedo. Photographic assistants: Nick Brinley, Nicos Krasznai and Paul Jedwab. Styling assistants: Molly Shillingford, Maria Bonfà, Antoine Caballero and Priyanka Makwana. Hair assistant: Kyoko Kishita. Make-up assistant: Aya Murai. Production: North6. Post-production: Gloss Studio
This story originally featured in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale internationally from 12 September 2019.