Interview by Stephen Heyman
Portrait by Danielle Levitt
There’s no dearth of adjectives or portmanteaus that have been used to describe American fashion designer Rick Owens’s now-iconic aesthetic: “gothic,” “brooding,” “raw-edged,” “crypt chic” (or is it “brutal chic”?), a practitioner of “perfect imperfection,” whose palette is “the color of a dying bird.” The best, perhaps coined by the man himself: “glunge”—a hybrid of glamor and grunge. The ineffability of his work has not prevented others from trying to copy it. The New York Times once called Owens “fashion’s most imitated designer.” His clothes—especially his asymmetrical T-shirts and angular leather jackets distressed to the point that they feel like an expensively lived-in second skin—are echoed in every rung of fashion, from haute couture to High Street. But Owens has managed always to stay a step ahead of his copyists. Today his privately held business—an outré empire trading in everything from jeans to mink stoles to furniture made of 500,000-year-old fossilized bark—is reputed to be worth
upwards of $100 million.
Owens began his fashion career in the 1990s, hand-stitching jackets and selling them himself to store buyers in their offices. Courtney Love and a few other celebrities were photographed wearing his designs, starting a buzz that quickly turned into a sensation. In 2002, Vogue invited him to do a runway show in New York, launching his career. He moved to Paris in 2003, and ever since he has cultivated an exceedingly eccentric existence with his wife, Michèle Lamy, a wizened, gold-toothed Frenchwoman with sorceress airs, whom he calls his muse and who leads the furniture, fine jewelry, and fur sides of his business.
Despite his hard-edged appearance, Owens, 52, is exceedingly kind in person and disarmingly eloquent for a fashion designer. He avoids eye contact when speaking, as if reading aloud from invisible teleprompter. This could be a kind of vestigial shyness. He grew up in a conservative yet bookish family in a suburb of Los Angeles. “I had a very bullied childhood. I was called ‘faggot’ and ‘weird.’ I was passive, mild, very quiet, effeminate, delicate,” he says. “So I had to toughen up.”
Surface sat down with Owens in the garden patio of his five-story mansion in Place du Palais Bourbon, a building in one of the snootier parts of the Rive Gauche that was once the headquarters of French Socialist Party leaders like François Mitterand. It has been completely renovated into a kind of evil-genius lair, complete with a fur atelier containing the pelts of a vast array of exotic mammals. Owens had recently held his spring men’s show, and we began our conversation discussing a minor scandal that surrounded it. A German model known as Jera pulled a stunt, unfurling a banner that read “Please Kill Angela Merkel—Not.” Owens is known for his runway provocations, but this one he didn’t sanction and was furious about, apparently punching the model when he walked backstage, and then emphasizing the point in an interview with WWD: “Please say that I punched him.”
Why did you react so intensely to the guerilla protest at your last men’s show?
I was pissed at that moment. I thought, “Hey, this is my spotlight, and you fucked it up.” The whole reason I hit the guy was I knew if I didn’t react very strongly it might get out that this was some stunt that I had planned. Everybody had to know how strongly I disagreed with this. I don’t mind drama, but
I don’t like death threats.
Have you spoken to the model who held the sign?
No, and I won’t. I wonder if he has dementia or something. He’s always been a heavy drinker, and a little erratic, which was adorable. But what he did was just so illogical. He was very accepted here and embraced by a community of people who were very affectionate toward him—a group that now feels more hostility toward him than I do because they feel protective of me. It was really a self-destructive gesture.
This protest was obviously different from some of the other provocations at your runway shows because it had nothing to do with your vision.
That was my biggest problem—that it was a negative gesture. Whenever I do provocation, I’m always doing something that I feel is based on warmth and kindness and love.
Even when you send out models wearing tunics exposing their penises?
Even when I do the penises. That was really about: Let’s consider a world where there’s no shame. Why did your parents teach you that your penis is ugly? All the most conservative or vehement reactions were: “How disgusting! Why would anyone want to show a shriveled up nutsack like that?” And: “Why was it so small?” It was amazing that the second thing was why was it so small? Like, Who taught you as a child that it was supposed to be bigger? And that it was ugly?
You’ve also challenged the fashion status quo in terms of race and body size, replacing runway models in one of your recent women’s collections with mostly black, plus-size members of a step-dance team.
That was just glorious! It touched that need for unity that we all feel deep inside. And also showed that we don’t accept a rigid idea of beauty. When those women were on the runway doing what they did, they were absolutely convincing. They belonged there. And there was something important in the fact that they didn’t look ridiculous. Maybe seeing that, other women would say to themselves, “If I had confidence, if I fixed myself up a little bit, and if I wore a Rick Owens outfit, I would be beautiful, too…” [Laughs] I don’t mean that last part about my outfit.
Do you like talking about your work?
I’m afraid I do too much. I’m horrified that I might seem like someone who loves the sound of his own voice. And the other thing I hate is I always sound opinionated, like I know everything. I always want people to know that I can be completely hypocritical. I can say something that will contradict something I said a year ago.
How do you design your collections?
The collections are a rolling process that begins with notes that I write for myself at the gym every day. I don’t do sketches, really. The notes will just be a few words, like “exploding pyramid.” And I know what that means and what silhouette that looks like. So there’s just an accumulation of lists and lists and lists. And when it comes time to get to the factory, I look at the lists and pick out the stuff that sounds right and just make my composition there.
Whom do you design for?
Me. The only way this thing stays pure is if I isolate what I really like and what is a personal expression. As soon as I start considering other people and what they might like, I kind of get lost. I’m proud of this, and I’m ashamed of it at the same time.
What do you say to men who would not be interested in an asymmetrical collar or a drop-crotch pant?
I’d say wear something else. Maybe fashion isn’t your thing—who cares? I realize it’s a niche. Not everybody’s interested in it, not everybody has to be. And I’m not saying that like I’m dismissing people. I’m saying, “Stuff that fits into my world might not make sense in your world. But the stuff that I make works perfectly for my world.”
What makes you want to go on designing?
I wonder sometimes. Sometimes I think it’s just vanity. Why do I insist on being listened to? But I think it’s that everybody wants to be listened to. I think it’s one of our main universal motivations. And having a conversation—that’s what connects you to the world. I say some things, people respond, I listen, and then respond again. This conversation is kind of addictive. I love feeling like I’ve thrown myself into this mosh pit and I’m engaged and I’m rubbing sweaty shoulders with all these different people and I’m connecting. I know that that’s a little bit disingenuous. I do all the talking and people respond by buying things. But it’s still a conversation.
Why did you move to Paris from L.A.?
I work in Europe. That’s where the factories are, that’s where fashion is. I tried to do
it from L.A. But I was going back and forth constantly, and I need to live where I work. >
I hear you still struggle with French?
No, I don’t. I just gave up. I just decided that it was exotic not to speak French. It keeps it romantic, a little bit hazy. I’m a little wary of Paris. I’m judged in Paris. I have to perform in Paris. I might love it more than it loves me. It’s not as warm and cozy as other places in the world. I like a little bit of chill, of formality. But when I go to London, I practically kiss taxi drivers because they’re so sweet.
You’re about to open a store in Los Angeles, where you began your career. How does it feel?
I think maybe I’m suppressing emotions because I don’t have many feelings about it. I’m not there, and I’m not going to go. I’ll probably go in a year after it’s settled in, but I would feel kind of obnoxious going like this is some kind of Cleopatra’s Barge.
It’s no accident that you’re opening up in La Brea.
I have affection for that area. It’s close to Hollywood, where I lived. But I have to admit that I had reservations about going back.
I haven’t been there for 14 years. I was very messy in Los Angeles—falling apart everywhere. I have unpleasant memories of being a drunken slob. There’s something about it that makes me cringe a little bit.
Still, you’ve taken great care in terms of the design of the store. In your notes about it, you mentioned how it’s an homage to Cecile B. Demille, complete with a special glass wall that releases an “ejaculation of fog” every five minutes.
Ah yes, my giddy little notes. I write all my own press releases. Sometimes I forget how unusual that probably is. Nobody does that. I realize that’s one of our assets: The fact that it’s a real personal expression. We don’t do committee things and we don’t have PR people that are kind of creating this false illusion. Everything is really authentically true. I just spout off anything that comes into my head. I forget sometimes how uptight the world can be.
Your store is located down the street from the Plaza Salon, a Mexican drag bar where you apparently spent some interesting evenings. What was it like?
Oh, it was just a Mexican drag bar. It’s in the middle of La Brea, but it seems like it should be in Tijuana. It was just raucous fun. Michèle had a restaurant up the street. Sometimes, after it closed, we’d go have a last drink and a dance. One weeknight, the place was empty, we’re on the dance floor, and there was this shriveled up little guy, and it was Iggy Pop. And that’s the only time I ever met Iggy Pop. He was dancing with some Asian girl, and I was dancing with Michèle. I said something to him like, “Hey, nice to see you.” And that was it.
An understated reaction to one of your personal heroes. You were too cool to play fanboy?
No, I was too drunk. I didn’t want to say something too stupid.
What role does your Michèle play creatively for you?
She has a very strong personality. We butt heads when we work too closely together. And it becomes personal. Her emotions are more on the surface than mine are, and I take her emotions too seriously and get distracted by that. I get kind of sensitive, and I get
a little tense and that makes her tense. We
both totally recognize it. We can objectively see what’s happening but somehow keep repeating it.
So you don’t work together too closely?
We’ve learned how to compartmentalize. We found how to define our areas. It has taken a long time, and we haven’t perfected it. There’s a world I call “Lamyland” that I’m not allowed into, or that I don’t try to trespass on. I don’t understand her completely. She’s mercurial and unpredictable. But that’s
Your company is already worth upward of $100 million. Do you feel pressure to keep performing and growing financially?
We got so far beyond where I ever thought we would be. If this falls apart tomorrow, I still won. I’m not really nervous about that. And you know I’ve invested enough so that if everything falls apart I’m going to be okay. But I’m very conscious when I see designers who had a moment where they were so relevant and they made sense for the moment and then they just stay there and they don’t move on. It just freaks me the fuck out.
The idea that it could happen to you?
I mean, I feel like it’s almost inevitable. I do see some designers that last and maintain their vision. But when I see stuff out on the street that looks like what I’m doing, I think there’s got to be a backlash coming. I don’t know when it’s coming, or if it’s happening right this minute. But I think I’m such a prime target for that.
Is that a creative concern or a business concern? These days, do you feel more like a merchant or an artist?
I kind of feel like both. I hesitate to say “artist.” The art world doesn’t have the same mystique it did when I wanted to be an artist when I was younger. When I was learning about art, going to art school, it seemed really complicated and intellectually rigorous. There was abstract theory and all of this stuff I just couldn’t follow. When I got older, I realized that’s not the only way to make art or express yourself. Now I wonder if fashion has kind of met art or surpassed art. It can push a lot of the same buttons. The other thing is, I’m able to make a more profound difference than having something beautiful that’s hanging on a wall. I’m touching people every day. The idea that I’ve done my tiny bit to exoticize that, or make it more theatrical, and it spread—that’s hardcore.