AUTEURS: RICK OWENS
Aformer outcast in nearly all aspects, Rick Owens is a designer concerned with the "other." His conceptual design language has become immediately recognizable within the industry. Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that we are living in the era of Rick Owens, whose triumph in fashion, artistry, and culture spans wide and far beyond the catwalk. Instead Owens is propelling culture not only through his design but the lifestyle associated with the universe he’s created. Owens’ Avant-Garde designs have evolved over the years into the perfect mutation of masculine and feminine, aggressive and austere, sculptural, and flowing. A paradox on nearly all fronts. His influence reigns dominion in the high-art world, furniture design, as well as mainstream fashion retailers like Zara and H&M.
A California native, Owens is of half-Mexican ancestry and was raised in Portersville, a town known more for its agriculture rather than burgeoning Avant-Garde designers. Rick Owens was brought up in a traditionally conservative household and attended Catholic private school, where he was chastised and misunderstood by his peers. One can see the pivotal role this had in developing his independent nature and self-expressionist attitude.
The designers' early years in Los Angeles consisted of fraternizing with punks and derelicts on Sunset Boulevard in the local Hollywood music scene. After a brief stint at Otis College, he dropped out of the art school to attend L.A. Trade-Technical College where he learned the basics of pattern making and design. It was also here that he met his former boss, mentor, muse, and lifelong partner, Michelle Lamy. A decadent French woman and socialite who owned an affordable sportswear brand, “Lamy”. Michelle was an unabashed party-goer and her eccentric nature would rub off on Owens who was employed at her company as a lead pattern maker. After some time together, the two ended their previous relationships and eventually married. It was during this period that the two delved into the excesses of prolonged drug and alcohol usage. This brief span of benders and revelry inevitably became the catalyst for Owens to straighten his act and dive deep into a stoic routine.
In the mid-90s, having had enough of his secure day-to-day lifestyle and pattern making trade, Rick decided to take steps to launch his clothing line. The pursuit of an ideal was alive and well in the now 40-year-old Owens. His sense of discipline had been largely cultivated by this point, and while he had no lofty ambitions in regards to designing, nor visions of future wealth he took the steps necessary to create without the burden of finance.
In 1994 Owens began selling his garments at Charles Gallay. At the time, Gallay’s boutique was one of the only L.A. retailers willing to carry risky, Avant-Garde designers. Owens’ pieces were displayed proudly in his store and the owner readily paid Rick in advance. This was how the world viewed most of Owens’ first collections, through boutiques and private clientele in Los Angeles. Through this, he had developed a steady patronage of women who were passionate about his designs.
From the onset, Rick Owens has been concerned with the “other” in every sense of the word. The evocative shapes he designs posit the question, is there more to beauty than what we are being fed? Rick answers with a triumphant "yes" and showcases his pieces as an alternative to convention, not a replacement for it. Those who are on board with Rick’s vision are usually proud devotees, confident enough to wear his experimental garments and buy his lavish brutalist furniture. His first collections would foreshadow the glamorous goth aesthetic Owens would cultivate later on into the early 2000s.
Spring Summer 1998’s collection “Monsters” featured elegant draping techniques. The way the dresses would billow out onto the floor like the libidinal shape of a petal alludes to Mapplethorpe’s tulips. Flamboyant and bestial items like “monkey-fur” leather jackets that on one hand recall King-Kong and on the other, extravagant evening-wear. Owens was also among the first to feature trans sex workers for his presentations, early images of the collection showcased, “Goddess Bunny”, an initial employee of Rick’s who served as his fit model in his Los Angeles studio during the late 90s. This mysterious sense of “other” would be further explored in his later work, though the foundation is set beautifully with these original themes, personalities, and pieces.
In a career-defining moment, a photo of Kate Moss in one of Owens' leather jackets ended up on the pages of Vogue Paris. Corrine Day, the photographer responsible for the image with Moss at the time generated some well-deserved buzz in the fashion community. A year later, Owens was sponsored by Vogue America to present his first runway collection for New York Fashion Week.
Unsure if the mainstream fashion crowd would tolerate a “slower” designer, Owens expressed some trepidation in the wake of his first runway show. Sponsored by American Vogue, Rick reluctantly agreed to present his 2002 Fall collection “Sparrows”. Critics immediately saw potential in Owens' work, with some pointing out that the American designer had already established a cult following amongst his female clientele.
A subdued debut, the collection was mute of color, favoring earth tones, blacks, and grays. Devoid of the spectacle and high production value of today's Rick Owens presentations, "Sparrow" showcased Rick at his most bare and vulnerable. His famed treated leather jackets, still appearing primal and futuristic were a highlight, paired with dresses and corduroy tailored trousers. The extra draping fabric would extend to hoods and balaclavas, giving the models a pure yet ephemeral air to them.
A year following the show, Owens and Michele would permanently relocate to Paris. The abrupt move was due in part to an armed mugging that took place in L.A., no longer feeling safe, Owens moved their entire studio and living situations to Paris. He continues to live and operate in Paris where the majority of his collections are shown to this day.
Aside from his mainline contributions, Owens was also developing another brand under the "Slab" moniker. The now-defunct label focused on everyday pieces like trucker jackets, hoodies, and t-shirts. From 2005, the label has since evolved into Rick's Avant-Garde athleisure-wear line "DRKSHDW". More than a mere diffusion line, DRKSHDW serves as Owens vehicle to explore more everyday designs. The brands logo is inspired by a lat pull-down machine, referencing the labels gym heritage. Putting aside the lavish and sometimes jarring patterns of the mainline, most DRKSHDW pieces are constructed out of cotton. The versatile and durable nature of the fabrication means the line can coincide well with other Rick Owens pieces from the mainline. Denim, shorts, hoodies, and leather outerwear are seasonless standouts in the DRKSHDW line and are more readily accessible staples than mainline items. Standout pieces include the "Aircut" style jeans, double-layered denim with multiple pockets and a zipper closure that conceals the inside layer. Robust offerings like these highlight the designer's concern with futuristic cuts and longevity.
By this time, Owens had developed a sincere love for fitness in the form of weight training. He believes that cultivating one's body can help inspire more confidence than any piece of clothing ever could. Much like Nietzsche, Owens' love for fitness comes from a place of discipline coupled with vanity. Though he's stated that this form of release has replaced the mosh pits of his younger days. One can see just how much his design sensibilities have been formed by gym aesthetics and the sportswear garments that are part and parcel with the lifestyle. Unlike most gym rats though, Owens reinterprets the classic shorts and t-shirt uniform for the contemporary goths he caters to.
Rick Owens blew the lid off at Pitti Uomo for his 2006 “Dustulator” presentation. Made for the catwalk, was a life-size edifice of Owens relieving himself on the floor. This was also one of the first displays of his furniture offerings among other post-apocalyptic spectacles. The show centered around the theme of “Dust”, showcasing Owens' unconventional models decked out in what appeared as futuristic military garments. White, grey, and black dominated the majority of the show, sparing the “colorful” knitwear of course. The garments this season appeared much more wearable than previous offerings, though at times cartoonish on the level of a KISS uniform, (Owens' long time hero Larry Legaspi would be proud).
This was also Owens’ first foray into sneaker design with the “Dustulator Dunks”. A seamless blend of Nike, Adidas, and futuristic moon-boot workwear silhouettes, the “Dunk” was Owens' take on a classic sneaker. The first iteration featured the classic “swoosh” on the profile, leading to a swift cease-and-desist letter from Nike. All following versions of the Geobasket have been devoid of the familiar “swoosh”, with each subsequent collection featuring an array of color variations, treated leathers, and technical-fabrication.
Owens once said he doesn’t believe in elaborately embroidered dresses that are worn a single time to a Gala and then left to rot in storage. The designer views his furniture line as his true contribution to couture. His pieces, while costly, are each handcrafted by artisans in France, providing new growth to manufacturers who had seen a reduction of clientele.
His first home collection featured pieces made of alabaster, marble, fur, concrete, and various stalwart materials. The work is concerned with geometry, minimalism, and the dichotomy between forms and the materials used. The pieces, while remaining functional everyday items, can also be seen separately from their intended function as surreal sculptural pieces. Most of the exotic and industrial materials being sourced by his now spouse, Michele Lamy. From rare marble in Abu Dhabi to pre-cut elm and Indonesian basalt, Lamy has been at the forefront of gathering the precious materials necessary for Owens’ design.
If one were to enlarge any of these pieces to just a few times their size, they would be beholding a monolithic structure. The brutalist austerity of these forms is not without their touch of playfulness though, fur-covered chairs and marbled platform beds suggest a space designed for a lavish orgiastic congregation.
Owens' most recent works have developed so much, his catwalks have become the highlight of the Paris fashion week season. The last decade has seen his presentations evolve into a crossbreed of performance art and installations.
Collections like Spring Summer 2014 "Vicious" showed Owens doing away with conventional models completely. Working closely with choreographer Lauretta Malloy Noble and sororities to create a "Step" routine that was all at once primal, confrontational, and empowering. The models wore hiked up skirts, zippers and sleeveless tops for maximum mobility. A stark contrast to Owens usually disquieting drapey dresses. The dancers wore a tight, powerful scowl, “grit-face” which was intended to intimidate the audience members and exhibit a sense of power and defiance. Presentations like these would foreshadow the performance art aspect of later contemporary Rick Owens shows, with nearly each collection becoming more and more of a spectacle.
While some influences like Legaspi are more overt, other artists have influenced Rick in more furtive ways. For his Spring Summer 2015 collection "Faun", Owens was mesmerized by the late Vaslav Nijinsky ballet, "L'Après-midi d'un faune". The scandalously choreographed performance for the ballet russes featured the Faun chasing a group of nymphs and flirting with them before picking up one of their fallen veils and masturbating into it.
This blend of high-culture and sexual subversion are themes that Owens continuously likes to play on. His models wore suggestively primitive loincloth garments on their waists and scarf-like sashes over their torsos reminiscent of the faun's likeness. The Adidas spring-blade footwear appeared as if hooves on the models. This was also one of the most colorful Rick Owens collections to date, filled with dusty pinks, sages, and deep brown tones. The show closed off with another nod to one of Owens' heroes, Jean-Michel Frank, the early twentieth-century interior designer. Owens made a double-breasted long coat in his memory, the only outerwear piece devoid of archaic symbolism.
Owens' design continues to explore themes of individualism, sex, androgyny, futurism, and austerity. Before anyone knew, Owens' work had evolved into a goth universe, with interwoven narratives sometimes contradictory, sometimes allusive. The core of his work is still focused on the "other" and a new declaration of beauty brought about by this spirit of the counterculture.
While many designers try to reconcile their work within the art sphere, Owens is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest living artists of our time. Though several in the industry remain stagnant or hit a creative wall, Rick Owens' work is still evolving, far from reaching any sort of plateau. Where the old world Maisons have all the funding, mainstream appeal, and endorsements, Rick has managed to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation. To diminish the work of his contemporaries would be a disservice, though unlike the creatives being promoted to manage old fashion houses, Rick Owens seems to sit on a throne of his own creation.