It hardly feels like the center of Paris, sitting in Rick Owens’ quiet terrace as the rustling leaves make the dappled sunlight dance on the pale floors and walls of the all-concrete space. Calm as it is—even his usually playful kitten Gaia is lulled into a nap—Owens insists that despite its apparent austerity, his live/work space is a bit chaotic. “This house is always under construction,” he laughs. “Michele [his wife] and I used to argue about it because it drove me crazy, but then I realized that she loves the process. So I decided that I should just relax and appreciate the ride.”
And what a ride it continues to be for Owens, who over the last few decades has constructed a creative universe—the center of which is the five-story home in the 7th arrondissement where he and wife Michele Lamy live, work, create, and collaborate. Owens refers to it as a “creative commune,” spearheaded by his captivating wife. “I have enough control over certain areas, so I have to accept the wonderful chaos at home,” he muses.
The control he’s referring to is his namesake line, which launched in 1994 and has grown into a global business while remaining independent—something of a rarity in today’s fashion climate. With autonomy comes a candid creativity seen in all facets of the business. Just days before our meeting, we attended the Rick Owens Spring 2016 show, where women walked the runway with other women strapped to their bodies in strenuous, acrobatic positions.
“I know there’s a level of absurdity in what I did ,” Owens says, with his typical relaxed California inflection. “Fashion, to me, isn’t really fun unless there’s something a little bonkers about it.” His unconventional approach has earned him a tribe of devotees, and while they include major influencers like A$AP Rocky and Carine Roitfeld, fringe culture remains close to his heart. Hence, he only gifts to a select few, including performance artists Christeene Vale and David Hoyle—“two of the most extreme creatures I know…my Beyoncé and Rihanna.”
Below, Owens discusses the expression of beauty, his reputation as the “goth designer,” and his “supernatural” wife. Just don’t call her a muse.
The Window: Your shows tend to make a lasting impression. Tell me about the concept behind your Spring/Summer 2016 presentation.
Rick Owens: It surprises me that people are so surprised! This is a sophisticated audience, so it truly surprises me when I can still shock. Somebody said in their review of the show how uncomfortable it was watching womens’ faces turn red while upside down. I totally get it. That was a big concern of mine. I hate it when designers make women do stuff on stage that looks uncomfortable, like extreme shoes or holding something awkward. So, I was very conscious of that, as well as of the objectification of women that some people could accuse me of, which to me is funny. People are so squeamish and politically correct that it’s fun to push those buttons. Anybody that has followed what I’ve done knows that anything that I do is sincerely respectful of women. I can’t help but tease people when they get a little too prudish.
And these women were professionals…
There was a certain amount of physical exertion, but, yes, we were doing this with women who were professional athletes. Beauty is about exertion sometimes. Let’s take the callouses on ballet dancer’s feet—is it okay for them to exert all that beauty as long as we don’t have to see the suffering? That’s an interesting question. So, is exertion behind the expression of beauty supposed to be invisible? That review made me think about that.
Business of Fashion said the show challenged fashion orthodoxy. Is that something you sought to do?
I did. I am trying to create an inclusive world. I have the opportunity to say: look there are so many different ways of expressing beauty, and so many different compositions that we can create. I think the fashion world can be so strict and narrow sometimes, and I have the opportunity to make other proposals. They aren’t manifestos—I’m not saying, ‘you’re wrong, I’m right.’ I’m saying, ‘here’s another option.’
Do you think that your message changes season to season, or is there a larger message you seek to communicate?
I think the main message is that I’m making compositions that I think are poetic, and I hope you do too. It’s variations on the same theme, which is about the human condition. It’s emotions that we can all connect to and relate to. Anyone who creates sometimes is creating compositions of what’s recognizable, just in a new way. I always think of haiku—a simple combination of three elements that, when combined, says something new. The elements themselves aren’t new, just the combination. Sometimes I hit the target, and sometimes I don’t. My goal every season is to create a new composition with the things I love and appreciate. It’s also about putting something positive out into the world. For instance, with this show, there’s a certain amount of ridicule, and people are unsure—but it got people talking about this message of women supporting women. That’s part of the conversation that I wanted to start with my show, rather than just what a cute short skirt and bomber jacket.
Would you describe yourself as a conceptual designer or practical designer?
Well, everything’s for sale. I’m not making stuff for runway only. Everything we do is a proposal for the real world. Don’t get me started—I always resented about fashion these men creating these floats for women to come out in on the runway, and then they come out in jeans and T-shirt at the end. I feel like it’s ridiculous to create this fantasy of a woman that clearly doesn’t exist if they don’t believe in it. That makes me crazy. Everything I propose is for real life. Don’t get me wrong, I understand fantasy—but we can make that fantasy an everyday thing. I do my best to make them meet.
You’re a California native but have been working from Paris for 14 years now. How has that changed things?
I think there’s an American sleaze that I bring to Paris that kind of works for me. There’s a sense of ease in California. In the U.S., everything is quite straightforward, whereas Europe is about layers and layers of history. You can even see it in the language—the way you form a sentence in French versus the way you form a sentence in English. Americans will always find the straightest line from point A to point B, which can be quite blunt—especially to Europeans sometimes. I’ve brought a fascination with European complexity to an American bluntness, and it’s kind of my shtick. Regarding L.A., I really think about the expanse of space. When you’re born with those proportions, you carry that with you. As for Paris, I love it—although I don’t always feel totally welcome. It can be a bit aloof here, which is fine because I am not that gregarious, so I don’t need to be friends with everybody. Just recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about environment, and would my collections be different if I had, say, a Rothko in my office? Really it’s just about excellence and having really refined excellence around you all the time. When I was starting out, I was on Hollywood Boulevard, and my references were much more raw.
Are you still connected to the fringe culture you were a part of in L.A.?
I do still speak to a lot of those people. The artists that I appreciate the most are the most fringe that I can find. There’s this performance artist from Texas called Christeene Vale and then there’s David Hoyle based in London—they are the most extreme creatures that I know. They aren’t huge mega stars, but they’re extreme artists and I want to support that transgressive energy. When I look at the arts these days, I’m thinking, you kids are supposed to be horrifying me and shocking me, and you’re not! Step it up!
People consider you quite gothic and dark, but you often describe yourself as camp, or I even once read you said, a “teenage angst without the angst.” How do the darkness and the campiness fit together?
I think the goth thing is more about the art nouveau influence, but it’s just an easy thing to say. I mean I get it—the long, black hair! I was goth when I was a kid, a lot of people were. There is an adolescent side to it that isn’t flattering when you’re a 52-year old man, but I guess I brought that on myself! I think if I was just a ‘goth designer,’ I wouldn’t have lasted this long, but people know that. If anything, maybe I’ve changed the perception of goth and made it more glamorous or sophisticated.
Tell us about Michele. Do you consider her your muse?
Michele is a formidable creature. She hates being called a muse, because it makes her seem kind of superfluous, and she’s not. She gets bored being my muse! She has no patience with a lot of things. She has genuine emotional urgency. Recently, she’s been creating these events on barges where she hosts various creative people. It’s basically these salons where she cross-pollinates different people—musicians, chefs, artists—and breeds new creativity. I don’t know what the word is for what she does, maybe a hostess. Really it’s more of a salonist—someone who creates an environment for people to connect. Like Gertrude Stein and the cubists—you can’t separate it. As a salonist and a patron, Gertrude Stein had so much influence. Women often play this interesting, secret role. Michele harnesses people and forces people to make something.
Does she do that for you?
Of course, myself included. But Michele wouldn’t have stayed with me if she could manipulate me. We ended up being a good match because we can’t control each other at all. She would have been bored with me in five minutes if she could have controlled me. She is a handful! We both are. She is an amazing, magical creature—there’s almost something supernatural about her. I can’t say enough good things about her.
So how does she influence your work?
She’s a huge bullshit detector, and the great thing about her is that she has no filter. I never show her a collection until it’s finished, it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t do it! Her reactions are important to me. I learned a long time ago that I have to focus on exactly what I want to make it work. It’s not an easy process to not think about a staff of 200 people in the showroom – I can’t let that be a factor. Sometimes, I am amazed that all these people are counting on the most fleeting notion of me coming up with the right idea that people will respond well to. It’s such a crazy gamble! If I start thinking about it too much, I’ll get nervous—so, I don’t!
Do you still feel like a small company? Will you remain independent forever?
I totally feel like a small company. There was a time where I worried about this position, but now even if this company falls apart and I start making horrible collections, I don’t think I ever have to sell it. Independence is such an asset. So few are allowed to be anymore. I have fantastic partners—an incredible CEO and Distribution Director. They are so talented that they could have steered anyone right. I’m so thankful to have such a great marriage—because it is like a marriage. Some designers have to go to 20 different houses before they’re in one that clicks.
How does your personal fashion fit into your daily life? Is it something you think about when you wake up and get dressed?
I’m almost more into it now than ever. I feel like as I get older, I’m refining what I do and finding more ways to make myself better. I’m not sure why that’s happening now. There’s a sense of momentum that I’m really enjoying. I don’t have the pressures that other designers do; I don’t have to answer to a board of directors. Our thing is more like being in a band on the road—it really is about fun! It’s the nice response that keeps us going. It motivates me and makes me want to do better. Looking back and seeing that the thread makes sense—the story I’ve been telling all these years. I think about how to keep it going without it getting stale. I look around at some designers who had a moment of glory and who were completely relevant at a certain moment in time, and suddenly things change and they aren’t relevant! So, should I be a slave to people’s response or say fuck it and just do what I want to do?!
I don’t know! People responding well feels good, and it’s addictive. I don’t know how it will feel in 10 years. You need the response and the sales to survive. It may not last forever, but I’ll enjoy it while I can.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I have no clue. I never expected any of this! If I can keep going at this rate, I am so satisfied. I learn every day. I know so much more now than I did 10 years ago, and I’ll know more in 10 years. And there’s always more to learn—it’s so motivating.