A mesmerising sphinx
Michèle Lamy walks forward to greet me in the foyer of her Parisian townhouse like a tiny woodland creature: inquisitive, glistening, mesmeric— as though she has just burrowed her way through a mound of wet peat and emerged into the sunshine. In that inimitable French way, we embrace like old friends. She studies me carefully, first directly in the eye, and then all over, as if searching for my soul.
Owenscorp is situated in the Palais Bourbon, an impressive 18th century building that also houses the parliamentary Assemble Nationale. It’s said this grand residence used to be the headquarters of the French Communist Party, although Lamy dismisses this out of hand. “It was the French Socialists. Why do journalists always exaggerate?” Politics aside, in its latest incarnation Lamy brings a rough hewn, primordial chic to the space, rendering everything in earthy shades of putty, slate, and a disarming use of brown. Concrete, both industrial and unpolished, forms everything from floor to ceiling, although the finest suede, wood and magnificent displays of flowers soften the brutalist edge. Speared through the ceiling like a giant arrow is the arresting sculpture Bring Me The Head Of Matthew Barney by Barry X Ball. Everywhere you turn there is architecture to digest.
“What would you like to drink?” She drawls in hard to decipher Franglish. “Tea, red wine, champagne?” Within seconds, out comes a magnum of vintage Bordeaux, served by a quiet Columbian intern, a girl who has been loitering in the background preparing plates of smoked mackerel, salmon, and thin, silver sardines. For the record, everything is exquisite, although Lamy doesn’t join me in assiettes froides, or wine, opting instead for endless black tea and a constant stream of expensive cigarettes. She leans in, tucking neat tanned legs forward, a wise, enquiring face framed by fingers that are stained black by her husband’s hair-dye. The eyes again, glinting like coal. “Please, engage me. What shall we talk about?”
For the uninitiated, Lamy has been the wife and business partner of Rick Owens— the avant-garde, post-american fashion designer—for over 27 years. “Rick and I did not get married to make babies,” she admits. “We saw something in each other and went with our instincts. In essence, that is what we have been doing ever since.” Together they have built an obtuse clothing brand that shares little with prescribed notions of fashion, and whose sludge-like colour palette, unflattering shapes and general ‘otherness’ are sought after by both club-kids and fashion mavens alike.
She is as cool as the underside of the pillow— a living, breathing gothic high priestess with more wit, style and imagination than seems plausible for one person. Justifiably, albeit much to her chagrin, she has been branded Owens’ muse, and yet it easy to imagine, from aura alone, that she has clearly navigated her husband’s success. Although it’s his business, it has hugely benefitted from her input. He designs the clothes; she brings the je ne sais quoi. She calls him “my honey”, he once described her as “a mesmerising sphinx— someone who acts completely on instinct and feelings”.
It should be stated from the outset that Lamy is categorically distinctive. Simply looking at her, you know this is a person who is the outward manifestation of everything she believes in. Her singular look stands out even in fashion circles, but she is not part of the silly hat brigade, rather her own wonderful creation— an ever- evolving map of life thus far. Gold teeth are framed by blue tattooed lips, earlobes stretch under the weight of gold, and that trademark voodoo line etched on her forehead—“it keeps me centred”— only highlights the serious eccentricity of it all. “You wouldn’t believe how many people dressed as me for Halloween,” she says without remorse. “I looked on Instagram and laughed so much. I think it’s super funny. They call me ‘the witch’, and I don’t mind that. I am the new witch.”
In London she goes about her business without so much as a backward glance, but in Paris reactions can be extreme. “You know, when I get in a taxi, or go to Le Marais, the people think I am a palm reader. In New York, they stop me in the street and want to talk to me, but not much the French. Perhaps they think I am going to rob them, or cast some kind of spell. I might look like a witch, but come on, I don’t believe in all that stuff.”
She can be admittedly feisty, but her unorthodox appearance, wild, transient life, and predilection for the raw, dark side of culture are no reflection of her personality, which is as warm and buttery as the suede tabard she inhabits this evening.
But who is this 72 year old enigma? And what does she actually do? At turns she is a fashion consultant, a furniture maker, a musician, a mother, a matchmaker, a one-time restaurant owner, and a woman with an extraordinary past. Legend has it (and nothing is completely firm truth-wise in Lamy world) that she is part Algerian Romani, part Russian spy, part extra terrestrial. “My family are French mountain people,” she says, somewhat disappointingly. We come from the Franche- Conté region, Jura, which belonged to Spain for a long time. But we moved about, and I think that made me feel quite worldly. Also, because of what my father did, making accessories for the likes of Paul Poirot, it
gave me an insight into style and into society itself. My father spoke seven languages and was in the resistance during the war. We talked about lots of things— everything from philosophy to Jean Cocteau to Jean-luc Godard. This man has been a huge influence on me. Huge! The style. The smoking— I wonder where I got that from! And his last movie, Goodbye to Language is the most incredible thing ever. Did you see it?”
Perceived notion has it that at the end of the 1960s, after studying Law in Lyon, Lamy moved to Paris and made her way as an erstwhile stripper. Indeed, she was present and active in the riots of 1968, when youthful revolution hit the streets with alarming ferocity. “For me it was like the best party I’ve ever been to,” she says, brightening at the memory. “All the baby boomers came of age after the war. It had been so terrible, and then suddenly there was this joy to be alive. After that Paris was finished for me. I went to London where it was all about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I adored Biba and Portobello Road. More deeply, I thought Winston Churchill was the most amazing person— someone who could keep their head when things got tough, but also someone with an artistic side who appreciated the finer things of life. He was powerful and romantic and I admire that greatly.”
Paris remains an underwhelming experience. “I don’t feel it here at the moment. Everything seems so reserved. When I go to London, or especially when I arrive in New York, I suddenly feel alive. New Yorkers are so inquisitive, and the streets of London, with that incredible mix of personalities and looks. Wow. Paris is where all the important fashion shows are, and there are art fairs, but whatever ‘it’ is, it isn’t here. In London you are, how you say, eclectic? And you have the Queen. It was Rick who wanted to move to Paris. He loves the city and likes the order of society. But to me he will always remain Californian. He is much more Hollywood Boulevard than the Champs Elysees.”
In 1979, Lamy travelled to America in search of Bob Dylan (“the voice, the poetry, the life”) and ended up living in New York’s Chelsea Hotel. “But my brother suggested I should move to LA, so I went there without even visiting beforehand. At first I felt that nothing was right in LA— it wasn’t London, it wasn’t the Riviera. I certainly needed something to wear. Everything was too dressy or too t-shirty, so I opened a store and designed accessories and sunglasses like I had been doing in France.” At the time she was also running Les Deux Café, one of Hollywood’s true insider spots, based behind an unmarked door in a car park. “I was always doing different things at once. With the clothes, I wanted to hire someone in particular to help me, but he said he wouldn’t come unless he brought this brilliant pattern cutter with him. And that was Rick. I think I’d seen him in the street before this. He looked the same as he does now, but perhaps his look was a little more fierce. He stuck out. I don’t know what I was feeling, and bear in mind that we came from completely different places in so many ways.”
While her husband remodels fashion to his own ‘sports goth’ aesthetic, dressing moneyed yoga buffs and rich, layer-happy musicians, Lamy is more inclined to socialise and engage with the clientele. She has made videos with FKA Twigs, and recorded with rapper and poet A$AP Rocky. “He’s someone I admire greatly, and he is so charming. And we can talk to each other— he’s young and he’s from another planet, but we are in the same world at the same time and that’s a beautiful thing.“
Internationalist in outlook, Lamy is also drawn to the thin white boys of northern England. “All the good people I meet are from the north,” she declares, championing the likes of artist Matthew Stone, magazine editor Richard Mortimer, and perhaps most famously the British fashion star Gareth Pugh. “When I met Gareth he was living in a squat. He sent me an email, wanting to be a fur intern, and it was so charming and so well written that I felt compelled to call him and invite him to Paris. Rick was laughing, saying, what do you imagine he is going to be like? He couldn’t believe that I was asking him to come to Paris, this little British refugee! Anyway, when he arrived, he knocked at the door wearing the longest, most pointiest shoes I have ever seen in my whole life, and a beautiful jacket with a Chanel-like bow that he had made himself. And he’s from Sunderland!. Anyway, I love that guy.”
She has been adept at discovering designers and nurturing their talent, has she not? “Well they arrive to win, to be successful,” she reasons, “and I can see that. I am an entrepreneur, and I have a good eye, and I like to oversee and advise. For instance, with my furniture I love to work with the artisans that bring it all together—that melding of ideas, and seeing the execution come from such talented hands. Perhaps I am a conduit for all that?” “She simply connects to the pre- existent creative spark deep inside each of her protégés,” says Matthew Stone. “She sends them onward as larger versions of themselves.”
To a greater degree, Lamy is constantly broadening her own horizons and reimagining her creative vision. One only has to look at the bespoke furniture she creates under Owens’ name— bold, challenging, often unyielding pieces that explore the interface between art and sofa. “We were always making our own furniture, and then somebody from a gallery saw it and declared that it could be art. There were not many people doing furniture in the contemporary art world, and it was not obvious that Rick should go there, because essentially he’s a clothing designer, but that’s what we did. With the furniture it’s labour intensive, stationary, and a little bit eternal. Our chairs are like sculpture. It’s a chair, but it’s also something you want to look at.”
Lamy knows she is difficult to categorise. “Well, thank God. We are living in the age of Instagram, where everything demands to be put in a category. Things get easier as you age. It feels great to do whatever you want to do without overthinking it, as you might do when you are younger. My mind wanders; it is in many different places at once. In that sense I am quite restless. The furniture takes most of my time, but it is people that interest me, and stories, and of course, music.”
She moves from area to area with such consummate ease, one wonders about her modus operandi? “I guess it’s what you might call schizophrenia. The most depressing thing for me— even if it was successful—would be to be stuck on one thing. I am curious; I like to do many things. I also want to meet people and I do come into contact with lots of talented people who I feel like I want to organise in some way. It’s never a plan. I meet these individuals for some reason, or they meet me, but I’m not looking for it. It’s all about feeling the moment when it arrives.”
Lamy’s passion for art and artists is unyielding. In a bid to bring the two together she has created Bargenale— the occasional gatherings of allies and co- conspirators, on an industrial barge, held in a bid to make something— anything—happen. No one—from UNKLE’S James Lavelle, recording live music in the basement, through to those sharing quixotic food on deck—know what’s going on. But to Michele’s eyes it simply feels right, and that’s what she is good at: feeling right about things. “On the barge you can be together, dine together, sing together, this is what I like. I see myself through my guests, whether it’s Gareth or Matthew, or my darling Rick. I am part of them and they are part of me.”