“There’s a little bit of me that’s avoided coming back to L.A. because it’s kind of like looking at pictures of yourself with bad bangs or something, you remember an unfinished, not fully formed you,” says Rick Owens of returning after 16 years to the place where he started his label in 1994. “Also, I knew I was going to get sucked in.”
When Owens left, Los Angeles still had a reputation as a second city — it was before Hedi Slimane, Tom Ford and Maria Grazia Chiuri rolled out their runways here, and before the city became as well-known for art and food as for entertainment. Back then, Owens was fresh out of small town Porterville, Calif., a young, hard-partying fashion upstart newly in love with his French muse Michèle Lamy. A designer in her own right, she also ran the Nineties Hollywood hot spot Les Deux Cafés, where Al Pacino, Nicole Kidman, David Lynch and many more came to drink and dine in a neighborhood that was still so rough, Lamy had to have a security guard walk her across the street to their apartment after closing.
“It’s smaller than it used to be,” says Owens of the city that helped shape his gritty, glam aesthetic. Or maybe it’s just that he’s bigger, being driven from place to place in a chauffeured black van with Michele — or Hun as he calls her — and the young entourage of kids who work for them seeing their old and new haunts for the first time.
“We are staying at the Chateau, where we used to live 20 years ago, when it was kind of rundown,” Owens says, recalling how they moved into the hotel the moment they got held up at gunpoint in their Los Feliz home. They stayed for a year. “We had the cheapest room in the back over the kitchen. The room we have now is a couple of floors above. When we arrived, walking through that familiar configuration, opening the terrace and getting the smell of those plants over that alley, it was amazing. You hear about these experiences where you get a sudden rush of memory, and I always thought it was a romanticized thing, but it was that experience.”
He’s certainly been making the most of every L.A. minute, including blowing out birthday candles with Demi Moore, Jeremy Scott and Gucci Ghost on Friday night at a dinner party hosted by costume designer Arianne Phillips (“He is the new gold standard,” Phillips says of his success without the backing of a luxury conglomerate). He partied with Susanne Bartsch at the club in Ian Schrager’s new Edition hotel Saturday night; hit the Broad, the Hammer, Hauser and Wirth, and Back at the Beach for breakfast for old time’s sake, and took WWD on a drive through Hollywood on Sunday, before capping it all off with a signing of his new photography and Larry Legaspi books at his store on Monday, his actual birthday.
He’s turning 58, 18 years sober, tanned and gym-toned as ever. Age doesn’t faze him. After going to watch the daredevils at the skate park on Venice Beach, he’s thinking he might actually take it up, “because I never did and why not?”
It may be a long time since he’s set foot here, but Owens’ legacy still resonates. “He was a guy who thought bigger than L.A. It’s had a huge impact on me,” says Mike Amiri, who only felt like he’d arrived as a designer when his photo was pinned next to Owens’ on the wall of the downtown fabric store Ragfinders.
Owens left in 2003. After showing in New York twice, he was worried he would end up being “the weirdo niche guy” in a sportswear market. He figured he might as well give Paris a try, and be closer to his new manufacturing in Italy, where he slept on the factory floor for a while to adapt to the workers and the pace.
It wasn’t nostalgia, but an invitation from the land artist Michael Heizer that persuaded him to overcome an aversion to long flights and come back. And as soon as Owens landed last Tuesday, he boarded a black tour bus with sleeping bunks bound for the Nevada desert to visit Heizer’s still-unfinished, 47-years-in-the-making opus land sculpture, “City,” which will no doubt inspire a future runway collection. While in the middle of nowhere, Owens, Lamy and their team decided they’d also venture to find Heizer’s “Double Negative.” Except that didn’t go according to plan; they had to call a helicopter to rescue them when their GPS failed and the road “disappeared.”
”It was epic,” he says of what sounds like a scene from a Mad Max movie, especially considering the futuristic looks you know they were all rocking.
La Brea Store
“Epic” is also what the designer says, walking into his store for the first time since it opened four years ago, on a stretch of La Brea that still has a lot of grit.
Striding on 6-inch platform boots into the 5,200-square-foot former ribbon factory he designed to rival a Cecil B. DeMille set, Owens marvels at the soaring ceilings, the James Turrell-like outdoor skylight, and the dressing room ottoman supported by the legs of his own life-size wax figure. “Look how much thicker my hair was then,” he deadpans.
When the fog machine is turned on and a wall-sized glass tank starts filling with tendrils of smoke, he lets out a content, “Ohhh!!!,” before poking fun at himself: “Shameless theatrics.”
Outside, he walks past kids picking through piles of vintage clothing on the sidewalk at Jet Rag’s $1 sale, and shakes hands with a guy who wants him to come into his coffee shop/skate art gallery.
“C’Mon Hun, you can sit next to me,” he says, boarding the van and giving his iPhone to the driver to play party tunes. Heading east on Sunset Boulevard, en route to their first studio at 1641 North Las Palmas, Owens and Lamy start talking about the early days — when they lived in his studio across from Les Deux Cafés, and eventually at her home in Los Feliz, with her daughter from her first marriage, Scarlett Rouge, who is now an artist.
“When I was going to Otis Parsons, I didn’t explore, circulate or go to Hollywood for a couple of years. I didn’t have a lot of initiative or imagination,” Owens remembers. “Then I met Michele when I was 25. At first I lived on Grace Avenue in the Wilcox, that was crack corner, but I had the most beautiful apartment there, a Spanish colonial one bedroom. It was all very dark and I hung the walls with black-and-gold moire brocade I got downtown from jobbers. But looking back, it was really good brocade.”
Then, the two let loose one of the more mind-blowing factoids of the day: Lamy’s daughter went to elementary school with Meghan Markle, who used to come swim at their pool — and ride on a giant black dildo.
“By that point, I had moved in,” Owens explains. “We redecorated this loft room overlooking the pool. I had bought this big black dildo for my desk. And Scarlett, though she loathed me, would come in and say, ‘Can we play with your big black thing?’ She and the other eight-year-old girls would jump in the pool and ride it, and maybe one of those girls was Meghan Markle. That’s a scoop, Meghan Markle and the big black dildo!”
1641 Las Palmas
The van pulls up to the curb on Las Palmas, and the van crew start cheering when they see Owens and Lamy walking up to the storefronts where it all began. “This was my showroom, that was my workroom, and across the street, Michele was there, those were the doors to the back cabaret,” Owens says. “At the end of the night, she’d be singing while I was going to sleep, and I could hear her.”
That’s if they weren’t having friends over. “We’d have people over for after-drinks on the roof. The Egyptian [Theatre] was under construction and sometimes we’d go exploring the construction site. They were redoing the whole thing so you could go in and see the 1920s original painting when it was kind of collapsing. It was really beautiful,” he says, hinting at the origins of his grandiose-decrepit style. “Hun, let’s go look in the alley,” he motions to Lamy. “Our morning glories are still here. We planted those,” he says. “And our backdoor still has the anarchy sign on it.”
Les Deux Cafes (Liaison)
Across the street, Lamy presided over the coolest club in town in the Nineties, with a Provencal-style outdoor garden restaurant serving French fare, and an indoor cabaret. “I have a medal from the Chamber of Commerce for reinvigorating Hollywood,” she says. What’s left is just a façade and a private events space, gearing up for what looks like a wedding party, with a manager who is not feeling particularly generous about having goth former owners take a walk down memory lane.
They walk anyway, looking at what’s now almost an entirely indoor space without one iota of charm. Only the bathrooms are the same. “You cannot be inside, we aren’t even open yet. You have to leave,” the guy behind the bar says.
“It’s horrible,” Lamy says, shaking her head.
As the van turns onto Hollywood Boulevard, more memories flood back. “Michele had a little sandwich shop called The Ritz over there where Scarlett made bio sandwiches,” Owens remembers. “It was the wrong crowd but a valiant attempt. I was the main customer and I had a discount.”
If Owens lacked curiosity about L.A. when he was younger, he’s making up for it now. “I never really studied Frank Lloyd Wright when I lived here, but after we moved, I couldn’t believe I’d never been to the Hollyhock House,” he says, directing the driver east to Barnsdall Art Park, where the house built for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall in 1919 is a UNESCO World Heritage site perched on a 36-acre hilltop. With its Mayan Revival style, Aztec, Asian and Egyptian design touches, it’s easy to see the appeal for Owens, who takes a seat on a bench outside to slip shoe covers over his ginormous platform boots before the house tour. “I’m not giving them back,” he says, smitten by the white cloth shooties.
Before he’s even crossed the threshold, he’s already let out another “Ohhhhh…” of delight, just seeing the architect’s textile block motif on hardware. Inside, Owens, whose own furniture business is booming, inspects the dining table with high-back chairs, geometric living room seating and the fireplace originally designed with a water moat around it.
A fellow house visitor is onto Owens. “These are yours,” he says, showing off his Drkshdw sneakers.
“Where did you buy those? And what do they say on the back?” the designer asks, seeming genuinely interested. “I’m praying to the Aliens. That’s right, that’s from an old Gary Numan song, one of my favorites when I was a kid.”
The tour guide is onto him, too, and offers the group a private tour of rooms not open to the public, including the master bedroom, another “oooh” with higher ceilings than the rest of the house, and a geometric stained glass sunroom. Owens seems just as taken with the offbeat story of the house’s owner, Barnsdall, a single mother with a daughter named “Sugar Top,” who fired the famed architect when he failed to build her the bohemian artists’ compound she wanted.
He asks about the origin of Wright’s Mayan Revival style, and the tour guide offers info about a Mayan exhibition held in San Diego in the 1910s as the possible source. “He thought this was more indigenous to California than what he called tawdry Spanish colonial.”
“Tawdry, that’s a word we don’t use often enough,” says Owens. Before leaving, he takes a selfie and signs a book for the tour guide’s son, who is a rapper in Beirut. “What’s not to love?” Owens says of the house. “Maybe double the proportion…it would be epic if it was higher.”
Santa Monica Boulevard
Back in the van, we’re cruising west on Santa Monica: “I’m enjoying remembering where I bought crack,” Owens says, looking out the window at the sketchy blocks east of Vine. (Not sure if he’s kidding.) “Do you remember Ports? It was a little tiny bar, it had a restaurant, and a woman named Micaela who used to run it.…Martinis at Ports, lots of martinis at Ports.”
Crossing Cahuenga: “I used to work out a lot at Gold’s, I’d wear leather jeans with biker boots with army surplus shorts over the leather pants and sweatshirts.” So you would sweat more? “No, I was working a look. I don’t sweat.”
The kids in the back, including the store manager and the Owenscorp p.r., are worried about the book signing. There was a line around the block in New York. L.A. will be bigger, they think. Owens has been asked to sign everything, well, almost everything.
“I’ve never done a penis yet, I hope it’s L.A.” he says. “My favorite, though, is I get this paternal rush when guys have the label tattooed on the back of their neck.”
To his right, pulling into traffic, is a burgundy Cadillac convertible with a pair of crystal studded guitars in the back. The kids have their heads in their phones and don’t notice. “He is taking his guitars out for a drive. He is sunning them,” Owens laughs.
He and Hun want to go to the Getty Museum, but aren’t sure they’ll have time before dinner at artist Thomas Houseago’s studio in Frogtown. Then there’s Kanye’s Sunday service next weekend. Lamy is a regular, and she wants Owens to stay for it. He can’t, but he’ll be back, maybe even for his own runway show one day.
“It would be a really fun thing to do and I’m sure at some point I will,” he says. “Maybe for my 60th, which is right around the corner.“