“I was never a sneaker person, and it’s ironic that’s how I ended up,” Rick Owens said in an exclusive interview to discuss his new collaboration with Converse, unveiled today at his fall 2021 men’s show in Venice, Italy.
Indeed, although he is partial to platform boots for strolling around Paris and taking his runway bow, Owens has become a guru for sneakerheads and hype beasts, who collect his Geobaskets and Runners and have gone bananas for his collaborations with the likes of Adidas and Veja.
Not bad for a guy who fastidiously avoided sneakers when he was growing up in Porterville, Calif., and would hit the gym for weightlifting wearing a black sweatshirt or hoodie, army-surplus cutoffs layered over leather jeans — and biker boots. “I was very dramatic in those days. It was in Hollywood,” he demurred, also noting, “I don’t perspire that much.”
Growing up, “I just hated the informal and suburban ethos of sneakers,” he confessed.
And then came The Ramones, the American punk rock band whose shaggy hair, biker jackets, beat-up jeans and sneakers convulsed the music scene in the Seventies and Eighties and captivated Owens, who so adored their graphic style that he once named a shoe after them, prompting a cease and desist order.
“They wore Chuck Taylors and that was my Converse image,” Owens said over Zoom last week from his minimalist, travertine-lined apartment on the Lido.
“I’ve been referencing [Converse] for years, so when they suggested a collaboration, it seemed like a good, natural thing to do,” the designer said matter-of-factly. “And it kind of closed this poetic circle since I’ve been referencing them for so long and they were cool with it.”
Not that Owens would ever use the word poetic to describe his interpretation of Converse classics.
Exaggerated, bombastic and “a little grotesque” are some of the adjectives he threw out to describe his approach to sneaker design.
“I always think of it as kind of corrupting something that exists. And I don’t mean that in an aggressive way,” he said, explaining that his “aesthetic gesture has always been about promoting the idea that perfect or traditional beauty can be very strict and cruel” and that pushing the boundaries “signifies tolerance for other ideas.”
The approach also yields some seriously cool kicks.
“I’ve had a cap-toed sneaker in my collection forever, which is an exaggerated parody of a sneaker,” Owens said. “There was some kind of tipping point and they just took off.”
For his Converse collaboration, under the umbrella of Owen’s Drkshdw brand, the designer gave Brutalist airs to Chuck Taylors, adding three toe caps and two layers of rubber outsole, giving the shoe heft and the look of bumper cars.
The pentagram, a recurring symbol of Drkshdw, replaces the star on another style that he described as “mega chunky.” Owens characterizes Drkshdw as “a little bit rougher,” darker and younger than his signature label. “It’s like a Ramones’ song,” he concluded.
Owens first put sneakers on the runway as a guest of the Pitti Immagine trade fair in 2006.
“I never thought it was much of a statement or anything,” he said. “They referenced all of the classic sneakers I’d ever seen. I reduced the detail and simplified them and kind of created my cartoon version of sneakers.”
“Fearless” is how Brandis Russell, global vice president of footwear at Converse, described Owens’ provocative approach.
“Breaking convention to advance fit, form and function” is the goal of collaborations at Converse and “Rick is the master of doing this,” she told WWD. “He’s defined an aesthetic around provocative form and distortion of shape and had referenced our footwear within this approach.”
Russell noted this collaboration marks the first time Converse has introduced a square toe in a century of existence.
The Converse x Drkshdw line is unisex in a full size range, with the initial offering priced at $165 to $170. It includes two TurboDrk Chuck 70s, initially in black, with lily white to follow.
“Rick Owens will continue to reimagine and re-articulate classic Converse sneakers in 2021 through his Drkshdw line,” Russell said. “We’ll continue to work together, and to push the boundaries of our footwear together.”
Asked about the role of collaborations, Russell called them “incredibly important” and “as a brand, we look at the long-term impact of a collaboration and to continue to invest in partners that can mutually evolve with our brand.”
Ongoing collaborators at Converse include Comme des Garçons Play, A-Cold-Wall, Feng Chen Wang, Off-White and Tyler, the Creator. Among newer names to the fold are Telfar Clemens, Chinatown Market and Kim Jones, who has a preppy-tinged range releasing this spring, Russell noted.
In the interview, Owens confessed that he had long bristled at the idea of collaborations, his initial thinking being, “I don’t like too many cooks in the kitchen, and I don’t like committee decisions.”
“Initially, I would just completely dismiss them as just being some kind of hype exercise that was not part of my world,” he said. “But on the other side, I came to realize that it’s a great way to meet new people, and see how other people do things.…And it’s kind of fun working with different teams, and it’s stimulating, it kind of forces me to think of challenges and new ways to approach things. So it’s kind of a healthy thing to do.”
Last year, Owens unveiled collaborations with Birkenstock, Moncler and Champion. He said he chooses collaborations that are meaningful for him “and that have some kind of logic.”
“Opening the doors to collaborations came very, very gradually and very, very late,” he said, adding with a wink and a chuckle: “I’m a lot friendlier than I used to be.”
WATCH: Rick Owens Men’s Fall 2021 Show: