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Prince of Light

With his majestic collection, Rick Owens confirms his place as one of the masters of modern fashion.

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Special Issue
WWD Collections issue 11/08/2010

Fashion’s most dedicated outsiders, California native Rick Owens and his eccentric French partner of 21 years, Michele Lamy, have never been more in.

This story first appeared in the November 8, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Ultratrendy French Vogue devotes 10 pages of its November well to Lamy, lensed by Steven Klein. In the black-and-white photos, diamond timepieces and jewelry glimmer in snowy contrast with Lamy’s kohl-rimmed eyes, black tattooed fingertips and gold-capped teeth. Owens’ personal favorite is a shot of her styled to resemble, as he put it, a “300-year-old sphinx with the eyes that see everything.”

Owens, whose languid, Goth-tinged aesthetic has been hijacked by copycats from the catwalk to the high street, has edged further into the fashion spotlight, delivering one of the season’s strongest spring collections.

Owens launched his brand in L.A. in 1994, moving to Paris in 2003, the same year he was appointed creative director of French fur brand Revillon, a post he no longer occupies.

An ace at combining runway drama with what-you-see-is-what-you-get commercial clothes, the Rick Owens spring collection was no exception. Displaying a controlled, couturelike sensibility, Owens focused on stiffer architectural lines. Standouts included cotton gowns with floor-sweeping hemlines, sparse capes and cutaway jackets in rigid silk canvas, some with hoods or jutting collars, which offered a graphic counterpoint to the soft folds of Empire-style skirts. Rolling fog on the runway, alien makeup and hornlike hair combs heightened the otherworldly allure. The effect was haunting and beautiful.

Certain spectators found the collection represented a daring shift for the dark-side designer: a step into the light.

At his stark, bunkerlike headquarters at the Place du Palais Bourbon a couple of weeks after the show, Owens insists there was no deliberate ploy to that effect, though hearing the “dark prince” tag one time too many did push the designer to reflect on ways of stretching himself.

Also coming into play is the fact that, like his customer, Owens is getting older, with his 50th birthday a year away. Time has brought a palpable serenity to Owens who, on top of his characteristic West Coast ease, has something of the unflappable wise owl about him. Having cracked the combination of commercial success (anchored by the brand’s iconic washed leather jackets), and creative liberty, Owens has done it his way.

Lamy, Owens’ wife and muse, kick-started the idea for the collection’s voluminous dresses, when this summer she requested more of the big chiffon cartwheel skirts that he did a while ago. She likes to swim in them at the beach, and watch the fabric cloud around her. At retail, the frocks come in three lengths, with ties to control volume.

Owens says he was also thinking about luxury and glamour: “That kind of opulence—meters and meters of fabric—is the most minimal, simple way to show luxury, like Dior did with the New Look. That was such a great message at that moment,” says the designer. “By just piling on useless meters of fabric, there’s something so wonderfully sumptuous about that. And that’s what I was in the mood for: meters and meters of delicious fabric to spin around in.”

Don’t expect Owens to do a total Avenue Montaigne, however. His take involved austere cotton and silk poplins inspired by functional fabrics of the prison uniform ilk.

“I might have referenced goddesses in the past. Now I’m interested in something more restrained. I like the idea of spirituality and robes—personal discipline. It’s such the opposite of what fashion usually is, the opposite of consumption, and there’s something very appealing in that. But I don’t want to get too lofty about it, either,” he says.

For all his highbrow references (names like Carlo Scarpa and Luigi Moretti and their “futurist, brutalist” architectural shapes, pepper Owens’ conversation), the designer doesn’t like to intellectualize fashion. Fiercely protective of his commercial collection, he’s always liked the idea of “kind of infecting” his aesthetic into everyday life, “infusing very basic things with a hint of [his] aesthetic.”

Owens’ creative range doesn’t stop at the sewing machine, having grown the label to represent an ultraspecific—and occasionally spooky—lifestyle brand with its own mousy greige palette, men’s and women’s clothing lines, the Drkshdw denim range, the Palais Royal fur line, the more accessible Lilies line and a furniture line. With help from Lamy, who spends her days roaming around the outskirts of Paris sourcing artisans, Owens is even developing his own bronze switch plates for lights.

“I think that once you have an aesthetic that starts being satisfied by clothes, you kind of want to go further and anybody who could customize their environment completely, would. And I’m in a spot where I get to do that,” he explains, recalling the first time he went to his friend Michael Chow’s legendary L.A. restaurant, Mr. Chow, and discovered upon flipping the menus that they were by Hermès. “That is opulent, those small details,” Owens says. “You’re not piling things on, but the stuff that you have is just perfect. That’s really appealing to me.”

Ultradisciplined—down to his gym-toned body—and pragmatic, Owens also shuns the usual backstage, preshow chaos. “I’d much rather have it be under control. I’d rather have it come out exactly the way I want it to,” he says.

The word “comfortable” pops up regularly with Owens, who says that over the last two years, he’s reached “a calm place.” The business is on a roll, and the brand on Oct. 29 in Hong Kong opened its sixth store, in partnership with Joyce. Owens is scouting for a boutique in Rome and, for fun, has just started up a Paris nightclub with Lamy and the guys from Club Sandwich, to be held monthly at the underground restaurant, Chez Françoise.

Owens, who is working on a personal, non-commercial perfume project with Francis Kurkdjian (mothball is among the key notes), disclosed part of him likes the idea of taking things to another level with a big-bang perfume.

“If I do a perfume, I want it to really work. It has to be like a [Thierry] Mugler perfume or something and it has to get out there,” says Owens.

Clearly, the designer relishes his independent status, and discloses gratitude that he did not sell a majority stake in the company—a prospect he faced a few years ago, while declining to identify the suitor.

“I was thinking it would just be like painting with a broader brush and I thought it would be exciting to see how far it could go, and when that fell through I was so relieved.…I would totally have gone Columbine on people,” the designer jokes.

Indeed, he seems to be in no hurry to mess with a formula that has brought him to this level of success. “Not in my wildest dreams, I didn’t even have the imagination to think this far,” he muses. “And maybe I don’t have the imagination to think further.”

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