MILAN — There aren’t many designers who, once they’ve embraced a very specific aesthetic, are able to constantly evolve it and make it flourish season after season. Rick Owens can definitely be counted as one of the few.
This is highlighted by the “Rick Owens. Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman” exhibition, which opens Friday at Milan’s Triennale design museum. Designed and curated by Owens himself, the impressive retrospective, housed in a curved room on the first floor of the Thirties museum, offers an extensive summary of the designer’s 20-year oeuvre, which actually spans from fashion to art and design.
Along with highlighting key pieces of his fashion collections, the exhibition, which welcomes visitors through a theatrical fog-like haze, also displays the designer’s interior design pieces, such as a range of wooden chairs covered with supersoft camel hair in a sophisticated and warm amber tone, and features videos of his runway shows. While clothes are displayed on mannequins located on podiums, a stunning suspended organic sculpture made by Owens guides visitors through the exhibit’s entire path.
In conjunction with the opening of the retrospective, Owens also unveiled a special box catalogue, published by Electa, which is available in a limited number of 1,000 copies. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s boîte-en-valise, the boxed set contains several books and photo publications, as well as a piece of the exhibition’s display fabric, a reproduction of a head by late Italian artist Thayaht and a vial of Owens’ personal fragrance.
Here, a very relaxed and open Owens discusses the making of the exhibition, the meaning of his work, friendship and being in the comfort zone.
WWD: Let’s start from the beginning: How did you approach the development of this exhibition?
Rick Owens: People keep asking if there is anything sequential, or if there is a storyline. And I say, “Not really.” There was no logic, it was actually primal, instinctive logic. It was all based on instinct. There was absolutely no narrative. I didn’t start that way. What is really important to me is that, at the end of my life, everything I have made relates to each other, that there are no surprises or weird departures. That’s why everything is mixed together. It’s one big thing. It’s one big statement, one big gesture. There is no narrative.
WWD: How did you select the pieces within your archives, which I imagine are quite extensive?
R.O.: I don’t have a major archive. No, I don’t. That’s kind of crazy. I looked around in our archives and I realized we had really resold everything. I got mad with everyone. I was like, “Didn’t you think that we were going to need it? Didn’t you think that we were going to survive?” It was really fun, because I realized that when I started out I wasn’t even thinking about shows or anything. It’s not like I started my company thinking about legacy…a lot of people do it now, a lot of young designers. But that just wasn’t part of the story, so when the time came it was kind of funny. I was wondering, “Didn’t I have the self-confidence to think about the future like that? Did I have no self-esteem that I just didn’t even consider it?” At that time, it was about survival.
WWD: So how did you manage to put together the selection for the exhibition?
R.O.: We had to re-create a lot of things. Maybe 20 percent of the clothes had to be recreated and maybe 30 percent was very recent, so there’s not a lot of really old stuff. There are a lot of recent things, of course, because they were the easiest to get. But there is a good summary of the most recent things and when you have all this stuff put together you definitely have a summary of your life.
WWD: Was there something emotional about doing this journey through your career?
R.O.: It would have been, if I wouldn’t do shows four times a year. It would be emotional if I wasn’t in show mode all the time. I’m always in show mode in a way, it’s always about trying to find the most honest, intimate, most personal expression I can. So I’m kind of used to thinking in that way. It’s not actually taking me by surprise.
WWD: Was it very different from making the edit for a fashion show?
R.O.: It was the same, actually. It was a composition of a lot of elements…the only difference is that with this kind of show, there are a lot of factors that are not as much under my control…I had to give the execution to other people. So following that is different than following a fabric manufacturer. It is a different set of tools. So it made that harder, but it made it fun too.
WWD: Let’s talk about the incredible sculpture you assembled for the exhibition.
R.O.: My favorite artists are usually land artists like Michael Heizer, or Richard Blunt, or Richard Serra and Joseph Beuys. When they gave me a big, beautiful white space the first thing I wanted was to invade it in a very primal, fundamental, primitive way, the brutalist way. And doing a land piece or earth work is what I thought would have looked most beautiful, also considering the space. I thought it needed a brutalist, primal gesture. And I like to keep things kind of simple but big…putting this kind of brutalist earth work in here was kind of sending a message, a very easy, fast message to absorb. It actually represents all the drive that it takes anyone to express anything and the motivations for that drive are ego, reaction, ambition, aspiration, the quest for immortality…There are all these forces which are good or bad and they are all part of the human condition. That is what it really represents — this human drive, the good and the bad. And it also is what my clothes are about…it is always about all the real things we all experience.
WWD: What is the sculpture made of?
R.O.: It’s made of concrete and I put lilies in it, crushed lilies. I’ve lived in Venice [for] half a year and so it also has Adriatic sand from the beach because I plan to be buried in Venice and so it’s kind of my home sand and it has my hair, like out of my brush. My hair, you know, over the years has been falling out. I used to have very thick, beautiful hair; now it’s thin and sleazy, which I love, too. Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of hair, and it’s weird, I wanted to save for something and this came up…just perfect. So there’s my hair in that.
WWD: What will you do with the sculpture when the exhibition will be over [on March 25]?
R.O.: We won’t throw it away. We’ll keep it in our showroom in Paris.
WWD: Are you already planning to bring this exhibition somewhere else?
R.O.: No plans. If it is the only retrospective that I’ll ever do in my life, it’s totally fine. I mean, you know, I’m only 56 so I guess that if I can keep making things maybe someone will have another one. But it’s very fulfilling to be able to write your own story, instead of have it interpreted by someone else. If someone says, “We will have a show but it will be curated by someone,” I would not do that. To be able to define what I’ve done on my own sets a standard. So I have been able to set a standard with this. Anything that happens after this will be an interpretation that is un-definitive…which is good, I like that. I was able to do it in my own way and after this it doesn’t matter.
WWD: How do you expect the public to react to the exhibition, which is definitely pretty intense and different from what they are used to seeing in Milan?
R.O.: I don’t care, actually. It is what it is and people can interpret in the way they need it and they want to. I don’t need to direct everything. It’s all just a proposal. It’s a gentle proposal. In everything I have ever done, I never wanted to say, “My way is the only way” and that my aesthetic is the only way, because that’s what I have resisted my whole life. This is actually what I’ve always done – [my work is] a reaction to an aesthetic world, a specific sort of aesthetic I was forced to adapt when I was young. I was raised in a very conservative area, it was very restrictive and very oppressive. [It was all about] aesthetic rules and behaviors… My reaction was to propose other options and, when I propose other options, I don’t propose them as alternatives, I propose them as options. Also, I’m saying “the rules are very rigid, what about some flexibility?” And I suggest way to be flexible and that’s what my work is about… it’s about flexibility, it’s about empathy, it’s about tolerance and it’s about kindness. I know that in my work people see a lot of darkness, post apocalyptic…but I actually feel more utopian than post-apocalyptic. But I get it…it’s easy to see the drama and you know, I love drama. And we are in Milan, the city of opera and what’s more dramatic than opera? Who can respond better? Milan is a tough audience, I mean for fashion…So to be accepted in Milan is pretty flattering.
WWD: Do you like Milan?
R.O.: I love Milan. Everything everybody criticizes Milan for, the grayness and the severity, is definitely what I love about it. And, for example, all of the plants hanging off the balconies, they do it in such a different way than Paris, it has a kind of shaggy quality that I love.
WWD: Are you expecting friends to come and celebrate the opening with you?
R.O.: I don’t have many friends in Milan. I don’t have many friends period. I’m a terrible friend, I’m not very attentive, I don’t remember anybody’s birthday.[…]I’m not on Facebook, I don’t follow anyone on Instagram. I just believe in being polite, I believe in being kind in everything, but I think I’m very reclusive. I’m more comfortable by myself. I’m very focused and I have a lot to do, I have Michelle [his wife]. I really don’t need a lot, I don’t need a lot of stimulation. So yes, I’m a terrible friend. I don’t really nurture relationships very well. But you know, I learnt that that’s OK. I was thinking about something this morning…the idea of, “You need to get out of your comfort zone.” And I say, “Why?” But I do realize in my personal life that I protect my comfort zone because I push myself so much in my professional life. I’m so self-critical in my professional life that I always say to myself, “You have to learn more, you have to go further, you have to take more risks.” And actually I want to go as deep as possible in what I do, I want to go to the other side.