Never say Rick Owens isn’t a romantic. True, it’s not romance as we’re used to seeing it, but dissect the elements of his latest Spring/Summer 2022 show – his self-proclaimed bombastic return to Paris – and they’re practically Barbara Cartland. First off, there was the fuzz of delicate grey fog shrouding the sandstone parvis of the Palais de Tokyo, with its fountain (albeit drained) and reclining female statues. Then there were the tumbling jasmine leaves, collected from Owens’ terrace on the Venezia Lido, his base during the pandemic lockdowns, and hurled from the rooftop by Owens-clad figures. And then there was Michèle Lamy, Owens’ wife and muse, opening the show – the first time she has done so, to my memory. “There’s a brisk logic to the pursuit of beauty that has always appealed to me,” Owens wrote in his show notes. “And the endless honing and refining of creative signatures in those I have always admired. Focussing on that seemed like the right move.”
Beauty was the word for Owens’ clothes this time around, sometimes with the strangeness Francis Bacon espoused as essential to their proportion and which Owens has made his leitmotif – a New Yorker profile dubbed his women “Elegant Monsters”, and wasn’t wrong. Yet, stranger still at Owens, much was unabashedly, unadulteratedly lovely. A grey-blue dress draped sensuously against the body was reminiscent of Alix Grès, the couturier who softly sculpted plissé jersey into art forms of fabric and whose work Owens has always admired. Endless honing and refining perfectly encapsulates her work: Grès began working with her Grecian-inspired pleats and gathers in the 1930s, creating a body of truly timeless work – her clothes from that decade can sit easily alongside those produced just before her death in 1990.
Charles James is another Owens fixation – the sculpted shoulders of this collection recalled his work, which Owens collects and has published a book around. James, famously, never considered dresses finished, demanding clients return them to him after they were delivered – often already years later than their original deadlines – for him to rework with a new innovation, to better refine their form. There was a hint of James’ 1930s work – Owens’ favourite decade, in case you didn’t gather that – to gowns in silk mousseline in shades of rust orange or turmeric yellow bleaching at the hem to bone, were cut to flare from the knee and skim the floor; sometimes presented with opera gloves zippered to free the hands. They were as light as the fog Owens titled the collection after, and continued to belch from machines to give the figures the misty air of Impressionist paintings. Of course, they also resembled a seedy nightclub. Both are pretty Rick Owens.
And, of course, in his hands elegance and delicacy were never straightforward. Those chiffon dresses were presented alongside monastic robes, denims created in Japan on vintage shuttle looms, or created by factories in Italy with their roots in the 16th century. Pockets in the opera gloves were devised to carry personal non-toxic fog machines (what else?!) – they were proposed in three sizes, suited to all your needs. And the ateliers of Goossens, who created costume jewellery for Gabrielle Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga in the 50s and sixties, were commissioned to create Owens’ Brutalist chokers. “I think my gimmick is always an American’s blunt interpretation of European complexity,” Owens told me earlier this summer. “From my perspective from Porterville, California looking at 30s European glamour, I absorbed that and then I reinterpreted it – in a direct, simplified cartoon version. I want to be the Donald Judd of fashion.”
Many of those ideas have been ongoing Owens obsessions – his admiration for and knowledge of couture has been something of a hidden secret, its handwriting always present but frequently overshadowed by some of his darker urges. Here, his models stomped in his signature platform boots under those fragile dresses, a marriage of fragility and strength. An iron fist, in a chiffon glove. As a vision, it was compelling – in a season where designers have often seemed to thrash around to divine exactly what the world will want from them at a moment profoundly confused and confusing, Owens simply reasoned that beauty would do. He was right.