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AnOther Magazine S/S12
AnOther Magazine S/S12Photography by Matthew Stone, Styling by Katie Shillingford

Rick Owens on Controversy and Adolescence

This one-time odd kid invited Susannah Frankel into his alternative universe for AnOther Magazine S/S14

Lead ImageAnOther Magazine S/S12Photography by Matthew Stone, Styling by Katie Shillingford

Rick Owens is dressed in layered black jersey t-shirts, drop crotch shorts and sneakers (unlaced), all of his own making. For the uninitiated the latter are the seven-league boots of high-tops: tall and immense of tongue, they reach to mid calf. The effect is of sportswear pushed to the point where it is heroic: gladiatorial. The designer is looking more bronzed and buff even than is usual, especially given that the location is Paris and it’s late November. He has just returned from a trip to Dubai where he attended an art fair featuring his furniture with Michèle Lamy, his wife and creative collaborator of more than 20 years, and the two took the opportunity to soak up a spot of winter sun while they were there.

“There’s always an excuse to go somewhere with the furniture – it’s always out doing something,” Owens says. The pieces in question – monolithic, in aged metals and woods upholstered in all the shades of grey – have indeed travelled to Frieze in London, Maastricht in Holland and are soon off to Art Basel, Miami. “But Dubai has become kind of our sun place. It’s paradise, warm and beautiful and the water is so clear. We’ve been to Marrakech, we’ve been to Tangier, we’ve seen where it’s crumbling, where the rich Europeans and Americans come in and take advantage of that, and we’re rich. Dubai is different. We’re poor in Dubai. And there’s something eerie about it. You’re on this pristine beach, which is so artificial. They’re building like crazy but half the spaces are empty. There’s a futuristic airport and inside there are people sitting on the floor in robes. It’s like a rocket ship that’s taken off and run out of control. It’s like Star Wars – ancient and futuristic at the same time. And then everything has gold slapped on it. For us, what could be weirder?” 

Owens has long been irresistibly drawn to the weird – it’s well documented that “freak” is his ultimate term of endearment – and to a place that occupies both the ancient and the modern for that matter.

“Yeah, I get called Goth a lot which made me a little nervous to begin with,” he muses. He has an exaggerated LA lilt that might not unreasonably be described as soothing, and which belies the purposefully provocative if predominantly playful nature of much that he says. He’s been living and working in Paris for more than a decade but speaks no French, his wife’s mother tongue. “I’m married to this Frenchwoman who laughs at me when I try to.” In fact, if anything his accent has become more pronounced since he moved to Europe “because I don’t ever want to sound like Madonna”, which is fair enough.

"Goth was always about kids who didn’t fit in and that’s probably been part of the appeal of what I do. What I do is perhaps for people who don’t feel that they fit into the whole fashion thing."

“Goth is a little marginal, a little adolescent,” he continues, “and I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have done if it was purely that.” Given that his company is today estimated to be worth in the region of $100 million, that is certainly the case. “But I will still forever be referred to as the Goth guy. Which is fine. Because you know when you look at the fashion calendar I guess I am that more than most. I get it. It’s okay. And there is that side. There is a kernel of truth there. Goth was always about kids who didn’t fit in and that’s probably been part of the appeal of what I do. 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’. And that’s why the show that I did made sense for a label like mine. It was about not fitting in the way that you’re supposed to fit in. It was a celebration of that.”

Owens’s spring/summer 2014 presentation was a standout even by his own extreme standards. Suffice it to say that it rendered the traditional runway show banal by comparison.

For months, the designer searched America and cast step dancers from four different troupes – Washington Divas, Soul Steppers, Momentums, Zetas – in place of professional models. The show was then choreographed by Lauretta Malloy Noble and her daughter LeeAnet, adding elements of more purely African dance. “Step dancing has such style, it’s so chic on so many levels. It has soul, and that is a huge part of my life. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t listen to Aretha or to Labelle,” Owens says. It would be foolhardy not to believe him. He is nothing if not a creature of habit with a routine so rigid that he himself admits it is “maniacal, fascistic, otherwise I would never get everything done”. He recently outlined a typical 24 hours for British Harper’s Bazaar: granola mid-morning, the gym at lunchtime, a power nap late afternoon, dinner with his wife at 9pm precisely every night, almost invariably a cheeseburger and chocolate cake at the Brasserie Bourbon on the corner. “I don’t observe weekends or holidays,” he wrote.

With its roots in African American culture, stepping, a collection of rhythms using both hands and feet, rose to prominence in the 60s and 70s when black men and women were integrated into universities in the US for the first time. It is hardly complacent fashion fodder, not least because deciding on this approach automatically entailed turning the usual – and heavily scrutinised – ratio of black to white models on its head. If ever proof were needed that Owens’s ambitions are on a grand scale – and at the same time a very human one – then it came here.

“We’re going to have to talk about race at some point. And how does someone like me do that without sounding completely condescending?” he wonders. “I don’t know; it’s a delicate thing. Stepping had a rap element to it even before rap was invented.” Hip-hop culture permeates his aesthetic also – hence those dropped crotches and high-tops.

“It’s part of that thread and, to me, that thread is a response to adversity. For example, the chain at the end of the show was originally a line the black students would form to get through white rioters. It’s part of the history of empowerment.”

The effect of this, the finale, was especially impactful – both joyful and ferocious in equal parts. “The dancers were pressed up so tightly against each other, you couldn’t get closer to another person unless you were fucking them,” is how Owens puts it. “There was something very moving about that, about that primal instinct to link up, to become part of humanity, to become one in response to conflict or aggression… To me that was an important thing to honour. I mean, who doesn’t identify with that? I didn’t create it. It’s part of what they do. I didn’t really interfere very much at all.” He did, however, introduce a Byetone electronic soundtrack to the mix that only added to the unorthodox and all-encompassing energy of it.

“I knew that, at the first level doing the show in that way was cool and that at the second level it was not something I’m supposed to mess with”

It almost goes without saying that Owens was aware he was treading on potentially dangerous ground. “I knew that, at the first level doing the show in that way was cool and that at the second level it was not something I’m supposed to mess with,” he says. “If I had been thinking about what was politically correct, I would have left it alone. I wasn’t presenting black women as Naomi Campbell. They weren’t glamazons. I was presenting them as tough and strong. They weren’t wearing beautiful make-up. They weren’t wearing pretty things. They were wearing athletic clothes, even aggressive ones. You know my thing about miniskirts. I hate miniskirts, that thing where you have to cross your legs wherever you are when you wear them. You’re in this super-high miniskirt and high, high heels and you’re tottering along on cobblestones in Paris… I mean, why not just put restraints on the girls and then blindfold them?”

And so Owens’s signature draping, wrapping and folding was slashed, spliced and laced to allow maximum movement. The collection was this time, as always, emancipated in the truest sense of the word but always tough, functional and forceful in a manner that ensures no one would ever want to mess with the wearer – unless the wearer wanted to be messed with, that is.

“I can see that the show was not necessarily what the black community was looking for,” the man behind it concludes. “It could have been seen as offensive. It could have been seen as insensitive. Or it could be so insensitive that it was like a big ‘fuck you’ to everything, like, ‘we’re just doing this because we want to’. And that’s basically what it was. To me, the dancers looked sexy, totally juicy – wonderful. I wasn’t so nervous about a negative response. I never really am.”

We are talking in Owens’s five-storey studio and home on Place du Palais Bourbon, situated in the shadow of the Ministry of Defence. When dignitaries are visiting it is not uncommon for him to look out of his window and see them in the garden. His own residence was once the headquarters of the French Socialist Party. François Mitterrand had an office here. 

“It was hideous,” Owens says of the warren of bureaucratic cubicles it comprised when he first saw it. “When we bought it, it was all wallpapered and carpeted with lowered ceilings and acoustic tiles. I don’t know how people worked here because everything was small, tight and oppressed.”

The same could never be said of the magnificent, bare-boned, predominantly nineteenth-century interior that it is today. Wires are left exposed throughout, floors are raw concrete but there’s a sable thrown across a day bed as if it were a rag here, an installation by Barry X Ball suspended from the ceiling, or a human skull on a vast stone-coloured table there. Owens has in the past spoken of “the luxury of not caring” and the precious nature of the artefacts gathered under this historic but still largely unfinished roof is surely the ultimate expression of that.

A whistle-stop tour reveals the couple’s sleeping quarters dominated by a bed designed by Owens and based on the one they shared back in Los Angeles. It could comfortably sleep an army. Owens built a limited edition of two of these in alabaster, at which point they weighed a full two tonnes apiece and sold for $180,000. One lucky recipient was reportedly obliged to reinforce his floor to accommodate his purchase. Then there’s his wife’s “hammam”, crowded with lotions and potions and Owens’s own bathroom, which is currently being renovated but will be more brutal as befits the nature of the man who will perform his ablutions therein. “I’ll tell you what it is. It’s a marble toilet,” Owens says coming as close as he ever might to a certain sense of pride. Then: “I know it sounds grand but it’s just an experiment really.”

On a separate floor, are the workrooms for the Rick Owens fur collection – it’s called Hun, which is Owens’s not quite benign nickname for Lamy – and is designed by him and realised by her. The furniture is conceived here too and is also principally Lamy’s domain. “I’m not really allowed in here,” Owens whispers as he pokes his head into this room. “It’s kind of like a gypsy trying to organise a war with a Nazi,” is how he described their professional relationship when we first met. “Michèle’s world is always going to be more attractive than mine,” he says now. “Her chaos is full of warmth and my environment would be much more rigid and cold without her. The furniture was born because we needed things for the house and if we weren’t able to buy fantastic Jean-Michel Frank chairs, say, then we thought, ‘Let’s just make it ourselves.’”

“The dealings Michèle has with these people are magical,” says Owens. “She cajoles them, pushes them to do something special for her. She bewitches them, I swear to you she does. I’ve gone with her a couple of times and she’s there with all the bracelets on, and the furs, and she’s walking in and ashing all over the place and these guys are just entranced by her.”

The process involved in so doing calls for patience that, Owens says, is not his greatest strength. The master craftsmen who produce this work are rare and collaborating with them is necessarily complex and time-consuming. “The dealings Michèle has with these people are magical,” says Owens. “She cajoles them, pushes them to do something special for her. She bewitches them, I swear to you she does. I’ve gone with her a couple of times and she’s there with all the bracelets on, and the furs, and she’s walking in and ashing all over the place and these guys are just entranced by her.” He pauses for thought. “Michèle is like Christmas.”

Owens was born in Porterville, an agricultural town not far from Los Angeles, in 1961. An only child, his father is a retired social worker, his mother formerly a schoolteacher and an expert seamstress who took great pains to dress her son in hand-crafted tailoring when he was young. Owens attended the local Catholic school where, as “a very sheltered, very thin-skinned, super-sensitive little boy, it was hard, it was very hard. I mean, the other kids were vicious, like animals. It still makes me angry thinking of this nice little kid going into that environment. I was a total sissy, very quiet, very passive, very scared”. He once told me cheerfully: “I could totally have gone Columbine there.”

Any differences between himself and his classmates were only exacerbated by the fact that his father refused to allow a television into the house until his son was 16. Up till then he listened to classical music – Wagner, Mahler, both of which are still favourites – and to read prolifically and precociously.

After school, Owens went to the Otis College of Art and Design in LA but dropped out after two years. He claims not to have had the intellectual stamina to survive in such a milieu, although that seems doubtful. Instead, he ended up studying pattern cutting at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College “with all these Korean ladies – not glamorous”, and later worked for “knock-off companies in LA. I knocked off patterns for years”.

In 1994, he started his own company, in the first place making clothes for himself and his friends. He was by this point an integral part of LA subculture and with substance abuse issues to match. Still, he made a washed leather jacket with ultra-long, skinny sleeves, a biascut skirt with raw edges and a long asymmetric train, and narrow, fine jersey t-shirts in sludgy shades. Lamy, who at that point owned and fronted Café des Artistes, a celebrated nightspot, wore his clothes. Courtney Love was also an early adopter. Owens named the look “glunge” – a hybrid of glamour and grunge. He made his clothes at home and then drove around selling them himself to Charles Gallay and Tommy Perse in LA, Joyce Marr in Hong Kong, Maria Luisa in Paris, and Joan Burstein in London. Slowly but surely the collection grew. Lamy, meanwhile, bought a second café and the two moved in together in a drug-fuelled, decadent haze inspired, Owens said in the New Yorker in 2008, by Baudelaire, Tennessee Williams and “just the whole idea of excess and the phrase ‘A candle that burns at both ends might burn shorter, but it burns brighter’”.

“My business plan was to be Charles James,” he told me not long after. “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.”

“My business plan was to be Charles James,” he told me not long after. “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.”

Fortune favours the brave and when in 2001 (Owens and Lamy by then clean and serene), US Vogue featured Kate Moss in one of the aforementioned jackets, the designer came to the attention of Anna Wintour, who sponsored his first show in New York. Owens had backing courtesy of Italian sales agency EBA, distributors of European designers including Olivier Theyskens and Ann Demeulemeester. That company’s president Luca Ruggeri and his sister-in-law Elsa Lanzo are now Owens’s commercial director and “glamorous” CEO respectively. That same year he was appointed Creative Director of Parisian fur house, Revillon, and Owens, Lamy and their increasingly successful but still comparatively small company moved to Paris.

While Rick Owens had long been the label of choice for a highly specific, discerning and very loyal customer – a woman, or indeed man, who enjoyed the peculiarly luxurious nature of the most high-end fabrics handled with a nonchalance that studiously undermined their expense – who ensured growth, the designer himself says that, until relatively recently, he has never quite felt master of his craft and of the Paris fashion show circuit in particular. 

“When I first moved here I felt I had to start paying attention to what was happening in fashion and to move things to a different place,” he says. “I was much more selfconscious and started performing a bit. I thought, ‘I guess I need help’ and hired this bunch of young people who were cute and creative. I thought, ‘a smart person knows how to cultivate ideas, how to draw things out of a team, how to get the best out of everyone’. I thought, ‘they’re clever and if they like it, I’m sure other people will like it too’. I didn’t know how to do it at all. I was trying to be world stage and it just made me feel like a social climber. So then I knew I just had to eliminate that. I realised that I’m the one with the ideas and what I actually need is for other people to execute them for me.”

Owens now has a skeleton creative team – one pattern cutter for womenswear, one for menswear, two people making shoes, another bags – and he works on collections in splendid isolation in the Italian factories outside Bologna where his clothes are made and where he spends weekends alone re-working old patterns, always starting with those and developing the new season’s designs from there.

“I don’t feel that horrible pressure that people talk about,” he says, “but I don’t work for a big company that I have to answer to either. I mean, I don’t know how those people do it. If I had to explain myself every day it would kill me. I don’t really talk about my collections with anyone. No one in the company even knows what they look like until a few days before they are shown. Of course, it is a conversation but, on a very instinctive level, it’s a conversation I’m having with the world. I think that for everybody, the main thing in life is to be listened to. To be listened to by someone who loves you, to be listened to by a lover, to be listened to by children who you want to teach. You want to express yourself and for people to respond. And I get to do that. I’m in this great situation. It’s very satisfying.” 

Two years ago, Owens moved his showroom to the other side of Paris and here, with his first men’s pre-collection on display, it is possible to see the extent of his fashion empire, 80 per cent of which is still owned by him personally, the remaining 20 per cent by Ruggeri and Lanzo between them. The polished wood floors and aluminium fixtures and fittings are “a little slick for my liking but it works”, Owens says. “I did this talk for a fashion school, it was a Skype talk and one of the students asked me, Mr Owens, what do you do about sustainability? And I go, I’m the opposite of sustainability. It’s all about selling more and more clothes that nobody needs. Polluting more rivers with my black dye. Poisoning the planet,” he laughs. “But I like these clothes. I like how you could wear them to do the gardening, to dance, to go to the gym or to the opera. They’re not appropriate for any of those things exactly so that makes them appropriate for everything.”

In the past 18 months, Owens has produced an accessories look book photographed by Paul Kooiker featuring fulsome pale naked women in various stiffened poses – principally prostrate – with covered heads and with the product lying around them as if merely incidental. It blows every trace of that medium’s normally polite and blatantly commercial protocol out of the water. “Wasn’t that great?” he says. He threw a party at the Backstreet bar, the oldest fetish club in east London, hosted by James Jeanette, to celebrate the opening of a pop up shop for his secondary line DRKSHDW last September.

“It was super filthy but it was perfect,” he remembers. “So sweet. I’ve always loved a bit of sleaze. That used to be our life and I miss that. I enjoy the romance, the poignant element of that attraction to self-destruction and decay, to imperilled beauty. I mean, what could be more fascinating than some pretty young actress with a drug problem on the cover of a magazine? I like it when you cut through the shit and just say what you want. Life really is about sex and death and everybody poops. No matter how expensive your Gucci outfit is, you’re going to have to take a dump some day.” His spring/ summer menswear show, meanwhile, was as outrageous as his women’s presentation was stirring, and presided over by Estonian Eurovision Song Contest hopefuls for 2013, Winny Puhh: “I mean, drummers revolving on a plinth, how often do you see that?” Owens asks. “And then you sling some guys up in the air. It was just beyond what you expect and it was excessive in a physical way. I first came across them on this weird blog. What can I say? There’s some seriously sick shit out there.”

However far Owens might push at the boundaries, however, there is always a tenderness at the heart of everything he does and therein, perhaps, lies the key to its appeal. “My idea of transgression is always affectionate,” he confirms. “People can be so strict and there are so many rules. It’s fun to maybe just tease a bit. That’s what I’m doing. It’s not anger at all. When I do a picture of me peeing into my own mouth – I mean, come on, it’s a little funny, don’t you think? You can’t think it’s that serious. The fact that it makes someone who’s conservative turn white, that’s what I’m doing it for.”

Now more than adept at simply being himself and trusting his razor-sharp instincts, he has inspiration images on his phone but even these are mostly of his own work. There’s not an art book or mood board – the usual staples of the design atelier – in sight.

“I hate mood boards. In fact, I condemn mood boards. They’re just so corny – my inspirations are private.”

“I hate mood boards,” says Owens. “In fact, I condemn mood boards. They’re just so corny – my inspirations are private.” That is not to say that they are anything but expansive or that his use of them is any less refined, running the gamut from the everyday to the eternal, from the visceral to the ivory-towered. When pushed, Owens cites Jugendstil, 30s architecture, Robert Mallet-Stevens and Frank Lloyd Wright as influential. He is also indebted to the work of Claude Montana (“He was lunar when I was young and I would never even have imagined visiting France. It’s funny how things turned out”) and Thierry Mugler, “the early, grey, military stuff. I remember seeing that in my mother’s magazines when I was a child. You don’t see them that much any more.

“I use biblical references a lot. I like the Egyptian slave silhouette. I love Madame Grès. And when I mix that with skateboarder shorts and a big bomber, it crosses the entire spectrum of history”.

Rick Owens is embracing both the futuristic and the ancient, then. As he says, “that is so big, it is bigger than we are. It’s like with the shows. I want the elements to be bigger than the actual stage. I want the foam to come down and actually come into the audience, I want the fire to be as big as possible. It’s about the idea of seeing ourselves in perspective and that’s also why I do a lot of monochrome in my clothes. I like seeing a head on top of a column of colour. If there’s too much fussiness, it’s just too anal and it’s not thinking of yourself as a participant in a wider story. It’s taking yourself a little too seriously.

“When I’m talking about scale and about putting the things that I do into a monumental empty space, it’s both to isolate them and frame them, to make them more special but also to show that all of us are very small elements of something very big”.