This bru­tal world

Neue Luxury - - News - By Paul Tier­ney

The ex­te­rior of Rick Owens’ Vene­tian apart­ment looks, at first glance, de­cid­edly un-rick Owens. Perched on the beach­front of Lido, in a quiet area south of the main tourist hub, the pis­ta­chio façade of the build­ing gives noth­ing away. There is no bell, just sus­pi­cious neigh­bours. So when I call Rick to an­nounce my ar­rival, he bounds down­stairs bare­foot— dis­tinctly out of place in this mod­est en­clave— to much twitch­ing of cur­tains.

Here he is, poised and ath­letic; long dark hair graz­ing mus­cled shoul­ders the colour of pol­ished ma­hogany. At 53 he ap­pears younger, although it’s clearly taken ef­fort to look this ef­fort­less. A sculpted body lends him the sup­ple­ness of a supremely com­posed Taek­wondo coach, while his dyed raven locks (“I’m ac­tu­ally white un­der this”) and match­ing sun­tan per­son­ify the oxy­moronic ‘Health Goth’. He is clad to­day in some­thing of his own de­sign, a trade­mark jersey ensem­ble that could be shorts and a t-shirt, but then again might also be a care­fully draped sam­ple he’s been work­ing on this af­ter­noon. “I wear a vari­a­tion on a theme,” he smiles, “it’s just eas­ier that way.” With his Ital­ian roots, large Ro­man nose and thigh skim­ming out­fit, the look is glad­i­a­to­rial and un­apolo­getic. It suits him.

A neighbour sweeps her yard, trans­fixed at the sight of this bur­nished stal­lion, yet Owens seems obliv­i­ous to any­thing other than his own fab­u­lous aura. “Isn’t this kinda strange?” he drawls, ges­tur­ing to the sur­round­ings. “Like a cross be­tween Le Cor­bus­ier and Mus­solini. Quick, let’s go in­side be­fore some­one gets their cam­era out.”

The top floor apart­ment, nav­i­gated by way of a tiny lift, is a rev­e­la­tion— a cool, smooth, ex­pan­sive space that pro­vides sum­mer sanc­tu­ary away from his Paris head­quar­ters, or the stores of Man­hat­tan. There is pol­ished con­crete (an Owens trade­mark) ev­ery­where, tem­pered by putty coloured mar­ble and strate­gi­cally placed mir­rors. A pha­lanx of white leather so­fas line one wall, on which fur throws are ca­su­ally strewn like props from a Fellini movie. At a large cen­tral ta­ble sits his wife and busi­ness part­ner, Michèle Lamy, work­ing on de­signs for the Owens fur­ni­ture line. This vis­ually cap­ti­vat­ing woman— part voodoo priest­ess, part cult leader—is Owens’ muse and con­fi­dante, and some­one for whom the term pri­mor­dial chic could well have been in­vented.

An out­door ter­race pro­vides panoramic views of San Marco and be­yond. To the east, look­ing out onto the Adri­atic Sea, he points out the Grand Ho­tel des Bains, the lo­ca­tion for Vis­conti’s ele­giac mas­ter­piece, Death In Venice. “It’s why I’m here,” he says, mes­merised by the thought. “It’s one of the most glam­orous places in the world, and that scene, where Dirk Bog­a­rde sits on the beach with make-up melt­ing down his face? Wow. That’s how I’m go­ing to go. That’s my plan.”

Rick Owens is one of the world’s most in­trigu­ing, not to men­tion suc­cess­ful, fash­ion de­sign­ers: a be­he­moth of in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ing, all the more wor­thy when you con­sider how niche his out­put is. The stealth wealthy, the se­ri­ously hip and the sar­to­ri­ally out­cast (“my beau­ti­ful freaks”), all buy into his sin­gu­lar aes­thetic— a col­li­sion of glam­our and grunge that’s so­lid­i­fied by ex­quis­ite leather jack­ets, geo­met­ric dress­ing, and an ir­reg­u­lar take on the con­cept of sports­wear. The pal­ette is earthy, al­most pu­ri­tan­i­cal, the fabrics tac­tile and tech­ni­cal. Fans lap up the ar­chi­tec­tural ref­er­ences, the ob­tuse shapes and low-key sen­si­bil­ity, all clam­our­ing to sign up to the cult of Owens. They are an art­ful bri­gade, in thrall of their leader and his icon­o­clas­tic vi­sion. They know what they value and are will­ing to pay for this time­less, lux­u­ri­ous style.

“I love the fact that’s what peo­ple get from me, but my own take on lux­ury is some­what dif­fer­ent,” he ex­plains. “Time, space and free­dom are the three things I value most; but I won­der how many of us are re­ally free? When you have kids you are no longer free. I sus­pect that if I ever had kids I would get very in­tense. I would hover and over­pro­tect and not have the pa­tience. Chil­dren are what make you im­mor­tal, and I can un­der­stand that urge. But all the de­sire I’ve ever had, I put into what I make. Those are my chil­dren. That’s where I put my en­ergy.”

Lamy is a fab­u­lous host with ex­quis­ite taste in ev­ery­thing, and although nei­ther of them drink, she brings out a bot­tle of some­thing white, chilled and ex­pen­sive. “I’m pretty re­pressed,” says Owens, eye­ing the wine with a com­plete lack of in­ter­est. “I don’t re­mem­ber crav­ing any­thing for a long time. I used to be a rag­ing al­co­holic, but I no longer have those crav­ings. That pe­riod was about self- de­struc­tion, and now it’s about con­trol and ex­e­cut­ing things. Both those things are great, but I have other ap­petites. De­sign­ing and cre­at­ing are the best things I can be do­ing with my time. In an ex­ag­ger­ated way I could say that I love to in­fect the world with a lit­tle bit of my stuff. Mod­est state­ments that go out there with in­tegrity.”

I get the sense Owens would be happy to talk about any­thing. He is ob­vi­ously in thrall to the idea of de­sign, but clothes as such are not to be taken that se­ri­ously. “I don’t be­lieve in ex­plain­ing your work, it ei­ther speaks to you or it doesn’t. I hate art that has to be ex­plained to you—you have to be able to see it or feel it. If it has to be ex­plained, then fuck it.” He laughs at the ab­sur­dity of the sit­u­a­tion, how sit­ting here, mus­ing on suc­cess and his place in the grand

fir­ma­ment could come across as vain, but seems to revel in the in­ter­view process none­the­less. He is ver­bose, in­tro­spec­tive, and a highly tuned in­di­vid­ual, equally at ease dis­cussing rad­i­cal drag as he is high art. We talk off the record about his friend­ships with Cher and Liza Min­nelli (“I love them both, they’re my kind of women”), the rel­a­tive mer­its of Cait­lyn Jen­ner (“Michèle and I Iove that show, it’s com­pul­sive view­ing”) and the in­her­ent power of Lon­don’s Bar­bican Cen­tre (“it’s just a fan­tas­tic build­ing, I can’t say enough nice things about it”). He is clearly a man with dis­parate taste, but some­how, when chan­nelled through his in­tel­lec­tual de­signs, or talked up in charis­matic style, it all starts to make sense. “I feel like I’m the best ex­am­ple of me” he says with­out apol­ogy. “I feel like I can sum­marise my whole world pretty well. I re­ally like do­ing one- on- one in­ter­views, be­cause it’s my chance to ex­plain what I do and why I do it. But I can get a bit a lit­tle self-ab­sorbed. I think partly it’s van­ity. I mean, nice peo­ple ask­ing me ques­tions about my­self? What’s not to like? And I’m ter­ri­bly ashamed of that in a way. I’m hor­ri­fied that I like the sound of my voice.”

I like the sound of his voice too. The Cal­i­for­nian lilt with its ris­ing in­flec­tions isn’t ev­ery­one’s favourite ac­cent, but Owens is so calm, so man­nered, and so ob­vi­ously in­tel­li­gent, he can lull you into be­liev­ing any­thing. His dis­arm­ing frank­ness is also re­fresh­ing in an in­dus­try known for plat­i­tudes and sound­bites. “And you have to be en­ter­tain­ers now too. I’m su­per lucky be­cause I’m kind of an es­tab­lish­ment. I’ve been around long enough that peo­ple know what I do and who I am, so that gives me a cer­tain kind of se­nior­ity I sup­pose. Es­pe­cially now, when de­sign­ers are so dis­pos­able. Some­one like me, I al­most gain more cred­i­bil­ity. Who said that line; ‘be­ing a le­gend isn’t dif­fi­cult, you just have to last a long time’? Not that I‘m sub­scrib­ing to that, but hav­ing done it for over 20 years now, suc­cess is some­thing you ap­pre­ci­ate. I don’t an­a­lyse it too much oth­er­wise I start get­ting too re­spon­si­ble. It re­ally only works if it’s a com­pletely self­ish ges­ture. The fact is, I don’t re­ally have any­thing else in my life, Paul. I don’t so­cialise. I don’t re­ally have a lot of friends. I don’t pur­sue a so­cial life, so I’m very de­voted to what I do. It’s the kind of life I’m com­fort­able with and I don’t know any other way.”

In 1994, af­ter years in the LA wilder­ness, Amer­i­can Vogue took note of Owens’ nascent tal­ent and spon­sored his first ma­jor catwalk show. In part, the pow­ers that be were in­ex­orably drawn to what has be­come an en­dur­ing look: stark, off-kil­ter, an­drog­y­nous and as­sem­bled with min­i­mum froth and fancy. The clothes al­ways start from an ar­chi­tec­tural ref­er­ence point. His trade­mark sil­hou­ette—lean, geo­met­ric and stri­dent— stems from a photo he once saw of a sec­tion of wall in Ber­lin, a sym­bol of Bru­tal­ist utopia that he has sought to cap­ture ever since; “I am cer­tainly drawn to bru­tal­ism,” he says, warm­ing to the sub­ject. “It’s about re­duc­tivism— tak­ing ev­ery­thing we’ve got and sim­pli­fy­ing it and re­duc­ing it. There is a con­fi­dence and a si­lence in that kind of re­duc­tivism which I think is very mod­est and tact­ful and dis­creet. With bru­tal­ism there’s a cer­tain flam­boy­ance in just the grandeur of it.”

Owens’ over­ar­ch­ing aes­thetic seems to draw par­al­lels with this of­ten ma­ligned ar­chi­tec­tural style. A self- con­fessed fan (“although I’m cer­tainly no ex­pert. I don’t know dates or the names of build­ings”), it’s a niche he feels nat­u­rally in league with. “It’s not for ev­ery­body, I get that, but I can’t get enough. It’s un­sen­ti­men­tal, that’s the other thing I like about it. When you see a build­ing with a lot of dec­o­ra­tion, it can be com­fort­ing and charm­ing, but it’s kind of sen­ti­men­tal. There’s a no­ble di­rect­ness to bru­tal­ism— it’s cal­cu­lated and thought through and de­lib­er­ate. And there’s no fluff. Re­mem­ber Thierry Mu­gler in the 1980s, be­fore he went all ‘va va voom’, and did clothes that were se­vere and more mil­i­tary? That’s prob­a­bly the ker­nel of what I do now.”

Is that where his line comes from, that sense of pared down util­ity? “No, it comes from Bi­b­li­cal epics, those black and white Ce­cil B Demille movies I used to watch when I lived on Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard in my 20s, amongst all that dan­ger and sleaze: the Adrian cos­tumes, Mar­lene Di­et­rich, Claudette Col­bert. I’ve al­ways liked monochro­matic sculp­tures too. The world is very clut­tered, very busy, and when you’re walk­ing down the street, who cares how art­fully your shoelaces are tied? It’s all about hold­ing your­self high, be­ing on the pedestal, stand­ing like the stem of a strong flower. That idea, that pow­er­ful line, is just great to me.”

Rick Owens doesn’t do sexy, not in the tra­di­tional sense any­way. “There’s some­thing at­trac­tive about oblit­er­at­ing any ef­fort at sex­ual allure,” he says. “On one end of the spec­trum there’s some­thing that’s push­ing tits and asses up, and then on the other there’s some­thing monas­tic cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing up. I think there’s some­thing sexy about not need­ing to look so sexy. Be­ing in­de­pen­dent— it’s not like I’m forced to do any­thing. I get to put out stuff that I am gen­uinely happy with. And I get to be flam­boy­ant, and play­ful and fun and do ridicu­lous things that I love too. When I say ridicu­lous, I mean that in a very lov­ing way. I like fash­ion that bor­ders on grotesque or wrong. I like also play­ing with the def­i­ni­tion of stan­dards of beauty. What are the rules on what’s sup­posed to be beau­ti­ful? I like defin­ing those rules. I like talk­ing about dif­fer­ent kinds of beauty.”

Sub­jec­tive beauty has paid off for this un­com­pro­mis­ing de­signer, although it hasn’t made him blink­ered. Men­tion­ing no names, he talks about de­sign­ers who have sold out and lost their way through li­cens­ing, and seems adamant not to follow suit. “I could never do that,” he says, fur­row­ing his brow, “it just isn’t me. Although I was of­fered a lot of money once.” He also takes great de­light in a spot of in­tel­lec­tual gos­sip about the in­dus­try’s lat­est up­starts. “I mean, I saw the Vete­ments show, and it looked great and ev­ery­thing, but I’m think­ing, is this be­cause there’s a whole gen­er­a­tion who didn’t live through Margiela and now wants to? Or is this a com­bi­na­tion of some kind of Pin­ter­est men­tal­ity? There’s low ar­ti­fice and high ar­ti­fice. Kabuki theatre is high ar­ti­fice. Juicy Cou­ture velour track­suits, how­ever ironic, are low ar­ti­fice.”

I liken this new gen­er­a­tion to chil­dren break­ing into a sweet shop and gorg­ing on their spoils. “But is that wrong?” he ques­tions. “It’s evo­lu­tion. Ev­ery­thing’s been done be­fore. What’s hap­pen­ing now is sim­i­lar to the 1940s when Wal­lis Simp­son was wear­ing very se­vere things with some­thing re­ally weird. I’m think­ing there’s an aes­thetic com­ing that’s very cal­cu­lated, very sim­ple, and very hard. And I’m look­ing for­ward to that.”

With im­pec­ca­ble tim­ing, a bolt of light­ning punc­tures the fad­ing sky, a sign for Owens that we should stop for din­ner. On our way out, we glance at de­signs for the fur­ni­ture-as-art pieces, which com­pli­ment his cloth­ing in their sever­ity and prac­ti­cal flair. “We’ve al­ways de­signed and made our own fur­ni­ture,” he com­ments, “so it seemed nat­u­ral to do some­thing for the wider pub­lic. Ac­tu­ally, I would never have thought of it, it’s all Michèle’s do­ing. She’s all about fur and con­crete and raw ma­te­ri­als. I’m way too av­er­age in that re­spect. I like to de­sign and she likes to as­sem­ble. She’s the re­bel­lious teenager and I’m the fuddy duddy fa­ther. She wants to stay out all night par­ty­ing and I’m happy to be at home. I couldn’t stay up all night with­out do­ing coke or some­thing, and who does drugs any­more? I wish I could. I will in later life … That’s how I’m go­ing out.”

Not on the beach, make-up melt­ing down your face? “Well, you know, ei­ther sce­nario would do me fine.”

Walk­ing to the res­tau­rant, the pair draw ter­ri­fied looks from on- com­ing cy­clists, un­sure whether to brake or scream. From an ig­no­rant per­spec­tive, Lamy’s oc­cult savoir faire and Owens’ no­ble stance— call it heavy metal Zen— is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of ec­cen­tric fash­ion: car­toon­ish, ir­rev­er­ent and cer­tainly ahead of their time. The world is catch­ing up with Owens, but he re­mains way out in front.

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