This brutal world
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.