Fashion designers are often accused of living in ivory towers, but few – if any – admit it. Yet that’s exactly how Rick Owens describes his apartment on the Venice Lido, perched atop an incongruously brutalist 1950s building in the suburbs, about a five-minute walk from the fantasia Scheherazade of the Excelsior hotel.
“You can see how I live,” says Owens. And his life is buried in white Sardinian stone and mirror, with a gym instead of a kitchen and felt military blankets stuck to the floor instead of rugs. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows there is a panorama of the Laguna di Venezia.
Owens is a designer whose clothes have reshaped the way people dress on almost every level. His business is privately held – ‘I could just burn this whole fucking place down,’ he once told me happily – and hasn’t disclosed his earnings since 2017, when they broke up. amounted to approximately $140 million. It’s a fraction of the sales made by conglomerate-backed rivals, but its creative impact is seismic, greater than that of many fashion behemoths.
Dripping silhouettes and Owens’ signature fabrics – boiled or ribbed cashmeres, washed leathers – are ubiquitous in the style of Gabrielle Chanel’s tweed suits in the 1960s. Rick’s ripoffs proliferate on the high street and in high fashion and had been for around 20 years – about a decade after Owens started his business in 1994. He was working in Los Angeles at the time – it was there that he met his wife, Michèle Lamy, a Frenchwoman at the extraordinary allure he calls Hun (as in Attila) and who is now working on various aspects of his business, including his furniture line and his own jewelry line, Hunrod. Her clothes retain a sense of city casualness at their core.
Owens was born in 1961 in Porterville, California, a small town about 160 miles north of Los Angeles. His American accent is strong, ideologically and literally, despite having lived and worked in Europe since 2003. It’s there in his daily wardrobe – usually baggy black shorts and vests, Californian stoner clothes meet high sewing. Yet it is also evident when he designs an undulating evening dress, a feathered tulle cape or an iridescent fishskin waistcoat. They are always grounded in reality.
This is why the ivory tower is ironic. Although Owens’ work and world can sometimes seem strange and distant, it is actually rooted in a sense of the here and now, witness to his times. His fall/winter 2022 fashion show, presented in March in Paris, is an example of this: Owens closed it with a pair of dresses in the colors of the Ukrainian flag having, at the last moment, swapped a cacophonous, even aggressive sound atmosphere —” that sounds a bit like machine gun fire” — for the plaintive tones of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Which, yes, was used in Death in Venice. It sounds like small gestures, but in an industry that was largely unaware of the ongoing conflict, they felt human and caring.
Owens also smothered this show in fog – models carried moving fog machines that belched smoke at the audience, with photographers screaming as the mist wiped out entire outfits. “It was intrusive,” admits Owens. “Like that moment of thinking ‘a war, now, nowadays, after everything we’ve learned? How is that part of our world? That’s kind of how I felt the fog, too. And it’s ubiquitous.”
There is undeniably a darkness in Rick Owens. Her father, a social service worker, was a strict and conservative disciplinarian. He refused to allow a television in the house until Owens was 16 and forced his son to read the classics and listen to classical music – references to Huysmans, Wagner and Proust proliferate in his designs . So, however, give a nod to Iggy Pop and the Ramones. His father was not entirely successful in warding off the evils of the modern world from his son.
“I always thought my dad was a misanthrope, and I always felt like he infected me with it,” Owens says today. “And so I end up overcorrecting and then not making up my mind at all, because everything is fine. Everyone behaves in their own way and you have to respect that. Anyway, when I make clothes, I think what I do has always been an expression of that, of my experience of being judged and mocked, and that feeling of disgust that I felt in a conservative city.
The influence of religion also made its mark: Owens went to a Catholic school, which explains his obsession with trailing dresses, with belts and stoles and large fabric gestures. He even combined his fog machines with brutalist incense burners. Owens renounced religion for himself, albeit quietly, without violent rejection. “I appreciate it for what it is,” he says. “I see it as a system that people have developed to help each other, which I think is a beautiful thing.”
Nevertheless, recently Owens has been toying with the pentagram, the five-pointed star often seen as a symbol of the occult. He crisscrossed laces into his shape in a collaborative sneaker with Converse, and slapped it on the crotch of a white skintight brief. Even writing this expresses Owens’ wry sense of humor, but not everyone sees it that way. Father Vincent Lampert, a priest and, incidentally, the appointed exorcist of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, denounced Owens’ Converse. He said the drawings “create a fascination with evil”.
Owens rolls his eyes a little when I mention it. “I sometimes feel that some people think I take it very seriously. It’s not, it’s camp,” he says. “This pentagram is my camp symbol of rejection of moralism and judgment. Nobody gets it. I don’t believe in Satan. Come on!” Owens rips out the last syllable, in disbelief.
Owens started his business with no formal training in fashion design – he studied fine art at the Otis Art Institute at Parsons School of Design, Los Angeles. He did, however, study pattern cutting at trade school and then began working for the city’s counterfeit merchants, cutting copies of designer clothing patterns from cheaper fabrics.
Owens is still working on his clothes, draping and cutting, designing silhouettes and shapes. Few designers have the simple technical skills to do this, and it gives Owens a remarkable level of control. You feel it in all of his company, which includes pre-collections and all-important release lines Lilies and DRKSHDW, as well as a bunch of incredible and horribly expensive monolithic furniture. The latter includes an alabaster bed that required a client to reinforce the floor of his house to support his two-ton weight, and a rock crystal toilet. Prices for both are only available on request, but a rock crystal chalice costs $6,000. He sold out.
Commercial is not a dirty word for Owens. “I like things to sell,” he says. “I want it to sell, because it means people understand it and respond to it, and the message makes sense.” Nonetheless, Owens also understands the importance of not just selling schmattes, but also selling the dream. “We want aesthetic excellence,” he says.
Owens’ perceptions can be misleading. Her clothes are often described as gothic, sectarian, with a sense of restlessness and disorder – perhaps you can blame those campy pentagrams and trailing dresses. Indeed, his color palettes are often delicate, multicolored; his models may be shod in boots that look like stage costumes for Kiss, but the clothes clash with glam rock with artful references to the interwar couture of Charles James, Madeleine Vionnet and Alix. Sandstone. They are exquisitely made.
And while Owens himself may seem tough and unapproachable, in person he’s warm, unassuming, humorous and sincere about his love for what he does. “I think fundamentally the essence is that it’s always been about suggesting options to a very narrow, bigoted perception of what’s beautiful,” he says of his work. “I just want to go a little further.”
And sometimes “further” means a pentagram, on the crotch of a panty. “Come on,” Owens said again, laughing unexpectedly. “It’s hilarious.”