PARIS — Rick Owens likes to be in control. The cult designer, known for his Goth-tinged minimalism, has run his company with the same partners for the better part of two decades, and says compromise is not part of his vocabulary. Just don’t tell his three Bengal cats.
In a recent interview on the terrace of his Paris home and headquarters, a five-story building adjoining the gardens of the Defense Ministry, the younger pair — Hortense and Milo — jumped freely on and off his lap as he spoke. “It’s like a little pack of cheetahs in the house — miniature cheetahs,” Owens said with a smile.
Dotting the outdoor space were several examples of his massive sculptural furniture, the subject of a recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and a book published by Rizzoli. “It’s the same aesthetic applied to everything around me. If I could customize everything on the route between my house and my gym, I would,” he explained.
A few feet away, the designer’s wife and muse, Michèle Lamy, paced back and forth while talking to a seated colleague. Owens holds a majority stake in his company, Owenscorp, with a smaller percentage held by its cofounders and business partners Elsa Lanzo and Luca Ruggeri, who hold the positions of chief executive officer and commercial director, respectively.
The brand registered revenues of around $120 million last year, and although Owens admits he has been tempted to sell it to a larger group, he is grateful it didn’t happen. “If I think of having to explain myself or make committee decisions, it would kill me,” he said.
Even so, he has succeeded in reaching a mass audience, thanks to the sneakers he has designed with Adidas since 2013, and a celebrity fan base that ranges from trendsetters including Kanye West and A$AP Rocky to fellow designers like Donna Karan, Victoria Beckham and Vera Wang.
Back when Owens moved to Paris in 2003, he had just been awarded the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent. At the CFDA Awards on June 5, Lamy is to present him with the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award.
A retrospective at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum, bowing in December, will further seal his cultural moment. Taking stock of his banner year, Owens spoke to WWD about breaking the rules, hitting the red carpet at the Met Ball and his plans for a book about Larry LeGaspi, the costume designer for Kiss.
WWD: Were you always clear that what you wanted to do was fashion, or was it design in a broader sense?
Rick Owens: It was an aesthetic pursuit. I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn’t really confident in my intellectual stamina for it. I was more intimidated by it, and so fashion was kind of the next best thing. It was easier.
Now, I’m a little bit jaded about the intellectual stamina it might have taken to be an artist and I wonder, in a way, if fashion has surpassed art intellectually, because you have to respond quicker. It’s more of a conversation, and artists can indulge in their own personal vision and take a long time about it, and they can milk it, whereas in the design world, you have a system and you have to respond a lot more briskly. I think the fashion world has gotten as sophisticated as the art world ever was.
WWD: Your shows make a powerful statement every season. How do you conceive them?
R.O.: I want to present a fashion show that I want to go see. It’s the most selfish thing, and also it’s a challenge. What I love about being in fashion is that it’s like a puzzle that you have to work out four times a year. I have these resources, I have this amount of time to do it, to execute them in: how do I get a precise, concise, fresh expression executed in that time? I kind of like that puzzle. I guess there’s a certain amount of stress, but I think also when there’s stress, you rise to the occasion and it’s a luxury to have that kind of stress. Being able to express yourself and to be having that forum, who can complain?
WWD: You often address serious issues such as racism and inequality.
R.O.: Talking about beautiful hair and makeup is a little predictable. But being able to talk about beautiful behavior or aspirations or beautiful urges, it’s just other beautiful things to be able to talk about, just beyond the boundaries of conventional beauty.
WWD: I’m intrigued by your vocabulary. In the show notes for your “Glitter” men’s and women’s fall shows, you pit provocative, challenging, underground themes against notions of elegance and community.
R.O.: I’m saying that they can coexist, and I’m saying that they belong together. Humor is a big part of that. Glitter was always about humor to start with. It’s camp and it’s fun, and it’s about not taking yourself seriously. Not taking yourself seriously is one of the most elegant things in the world. Being able to respond well to adversity: that is one of the most graceful things we can do, so I think they all fit together.
WWD: A lot of people have gone down a more obvious route of putting a slogan on a T-shirt. The way you do it requires the viewer to think about it a little more.
R.O.: It’s just more fun, and it’s more mysterious and it’s more magical than just having something broadcast to you. But I get it — I mean, it’s a very busy world and I can understand how somebody wants to make a point. I mean, I love getting to the point, so I don’t disapprove of that kind of stuff. Everybody has their own approach.
WWD: What is your take on the industry’s soul-searching about the role of the fashion show, and the relevance of see-now-buy-now?
R.O.: Do we need to accommodate absolutely every single teenager on the planet? No, I don’t think we do. I think there’s people that can not only tolerate a slower pace, but respect it. The whole fast thing, it’s about making things disposable. That’s a world that has its place, it’s fine. I always hate to sound like I know everything and make judgments about people and systems. I avoid making judgments, but I know the system that I want to follow.
WWD: So do you think the solution is for designers to be more committed to what they stand for?
R.O.: I don’t think there’s a solution. I think everybody has to do it their own way. You know, I respect designers who orchestrate these huge things, these huge forces. I think that’s of great value too, economically and even aesthetically.
I don’t think that there’s a right way or a wrong way, but I think it’s a different set of skills, and there’s a set of skills there that I don’t have. I wouldn’t be able to do that. So it’s painting with a different brush. It’s expressionism versus cubism.
WWD: How has social media changed fashion?
R.O.: Obviously, it’s turned it into a big orgy, but you know, who doesn’t love an orgy, so is that a bad thing? It’s evolution, and to disapprove of that kind of thing is just silly. It’s fascinating. Who would have expected this? Who would have expected fashion to turn into this? But there’s ebbs and flows to these kinds of things. It’s exciting when things accelerate and there’s an element of risk and there’s the thrill of crashing. So all of that’s there, and that makes it really interesting.
WWD: When you design, do you think about how it’s going to play on Instagram?
R.O.: I’m not that much of an Instagram person, so it’s not my comfort level, really. But I know that after a while, I could understand it so much better when I took a picture of it and analyzed the picture, and I could understand what worked. And I could make an adjustment to a toile, compare it to the picture before and it made it a lot more understandable for me. But I’ve always worked in black and white.
I like being able to see the lines and the volumes and the silhouette more clearly, and homogenizing all of the images so that they go together.
WWD: I read that when you started making sneakers, you also did it in an experimental, instinctive way. And now, of course, you’re the king of sneakers. How did that evolve?
R.O.: The funny thing is when I started with the sneakers, I couldn’t stand sneakers. I thought sneakers were the most banal, common, conventional thing. They irritated me. And then I started going to the gym a lot, and it was silly going in my big, black boots — which I did for years — so my original sneakers actually were a bit of a parody. I wanted to exaggerate them and make them over-the-top so that they could kind of fit into my more theatrical world. I did them, and I didn’t expect much of a response.
I learned how a somewhat effortless move could introduce me to a very big audience. Is a bigger audience automatically better? I’m not exactly sure, but I do know I have been extremely satisfied with the products we have made together.
WWD: What does it mean to you to receive the CFDA’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award? The last time you received an award from them, it was the Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent in 2002. Does this mean you are joining the pantheon of the establishment?
R.O.: I would have had a wonderful life without it — I mean, I’m very grateful for everything that I have — but it is very validating, having that kind of recognition, and I love being part of aesthetic history. That sounds really lofty, and I don’t mean it like that.
It’s about being part of civilization, it’s about being part of the times that we live in, having fully participated in culture, being recognized for being a significant participant. I mean, that’s pretty up there.
WWD: It’s interesting that you’re sensitive to that, because you also have a strong taste for provocation. Do you intentionally position yourself on the fringe?
R.O.: No, no. I just question a lot of things. I love aesthetics but sometimes, the margins and the parameters of aesthetics can be so strict and kind of severely policed by people who might not have the authority or the kindness to enforce those rules, so I resent that.
I completely respect history, and I respect classicism. If you really look at my clothes, it’s very classical elements, so I’m promoting classical beauty as much as I’m questioning it. What I’m questioning are contemporary rules.
I like questioning them, but hopefully not in an angry way. I always want it to be gentle teasing, and I want to be playful about it.
WWD: Maybe this award is proof — if any were needed — that you can do things on your own terms and set your own parameters and still gain the highest level of respect and acceptance.
R.O.: Am I promoting anarchy and the complete downfall of civilization [laughs]? “No rules for anybody!” I mean, there’s a lot of rules that I respect and that I follow and that I really believe in, but then there’s some rules that just seem a little silly sometimes, or predictable. So in a show, instead of putting women in precarious high heels, instead of making that physical statement, I have strong women carrying each other. That’s another physical statement that we can make. It doesn’t have to be about making the heels higher — which I’ve done. I mean, any time I make some kind of proclamation, I’ve already contradicted myself somewhere. That’s part of life. So I’m just kind of looking for the answers too, but I feel like I’m trying to look for positive answers and I’m trying to put positive energy out there.
WWD: You attended the Met Ball for the first time this year. What was that like?
R.O.: I was delighted to go. When I talk about the history of civilization and aesthetics, this is one of our contemporary ceremonies. I respect that.
That’s another example of participating as fully as I can in the aesthetic culture of our generation. I appreciate being included in that. I know I’m supposed to sneer, or people would expect me to sneer, but no, nothing of that. It was lovely and I was happy to be invited, especially for [featured designer Rei Kawakubo.]
If I was going to go to a Met Costume Institute thing once in my life, it would be for that — because that is an example of unpredictable aesthetics getting their due.
WWD: Are you influenced by Rei Kawakubo or any other designers?
R.O.: Sure. I love her, I love Paul Poiret, I love Mariano Fortuny, I love Adrian from Hollywood, I love Bob Mackie. I think he was every bit as talented as Adrian, and he’s kind of an unsung hero. I’m actually about to do a book about Larry LeGaspi. Larry LeGaspi in the Seventies did the costumes for Labelle and for Kiss and for Divine. First of all, I listen to Labelle almost every day. I used to listen to Kiss every day. The phenomenon of Kiss’ outfits and that whole testosterone-on-heels thing, that was a huge inspiration. And then Divine — my favorite quote: “Advocate cannibalism!”
WWD: How do you feel about the appropriation of your aesthetic by the current generation of entertainers like Kanye West and Justin Bieber?
R.O.: When you have what you consider a good idea, you put it out there and if you think it’s a good idea and other people do too, how can you be surprised if it spreads? What kind of control is appropriate? Am I supposed to get money for it? If I didn’t get a bit of authorship from it, then that would be uncomfortable. But I get as much credit as I need.
It’s nothing I can hold onto forever, anyway. I mean, how can I repeat all of that stuff over and over for the rest of my life? To a certain extent I do, but I also have to move on. So I set it free and it’s growing up on its own, like you want your babies to do.
WWD: Do you feel that you have reached this cultural relevance recently?
R.O.: I’m probably right on the other side of the peak, because once you get that kind of recognition, you can’t sustain something forever. It would be great if I could, but everything is a cycle. I mean, I had a great ride, and it’s not like I’m giving up, but if this is as far as it went — god, it’s amazing.
WWD: Yet you are embarking on a whole new chapter with your furniture line, which is expanding.
R.O.: I shouldn’t sound so melancholy. I have more motivation and vigor and maybe more rage than I ever did, and I want to burn things down as much as I ever did, if not more.
With the furniture, I was very influenced by anthroposophical furniture. It was Viennese, and it was kind of anti-Bauhaus furniture. In Dornach in Switzerland, there is the Goetheanum, a building devoted to Goethe and the pursuit of his philosophy. I love how it was kind of cultish. It was aesthetics combined with aspirational behavior.
And the furniture that they were producing, their aesthetic was Art Nouveau, but with a brutalist interpretation which is right up my alley.
When I look at my furniture, I’m realizing, god, I just totally lifted from that. I’m completely ripping off that aesthetic. And when I rip stuff off, I’m happy to acknowledge it. And I rip stuff off all the time — we all do.
WWD: Are the sculptures meant to be functional?
R.O.: When I first started doing furniture, my statement of intent was a fur on a rock next to a fire in a cave. I wanted it to be about reductivism and about simplicity and about essentials. This [points to a concrete bench end] became my symbol of a rock, and it’s a faceted rock. It’s faceted in my personal language, a personal language that was fed by brutalism, by World War II Army bunkers, by monumentalism, by land art, by Brâncuși. All of the influences that I’ve ever had are kind of summarized in this shape that I obsessed over.
Michèle encouraged that because — and this is kind of a lesson in life — when your personal needs are met, you’re able to express yourself. When you have shelter and food and protection, then comes the joy of expression. And that’s how the furniture was, because essentially, it started with furnishing our lives.
Now we’re able to abstract it, and we’re able to push it somewhere else. I don’t have the balls to call it art yet, but I’ve always been interested in art, so if it was going in that direction, it wouldn’t be a surprise that I would want it to. But for now, this is Michèle and me playing together. We’ve been together 27 years, and it’s lovely to have a new way of playing. Play is important.
I was an only child, and I was fearful of people, so I never developed that sense of play that I think that Michèle did, because she went to boarding school all her life, so she learned how you negotiate things.
WWD: Do you have clearly defined roles, or do you ping-pong ideas?
R.O.: It’s pretty clearly defined. I usually come up with the initial shapes, and Michèle executes them. But execution is a very creative, specific thing.
The execution influences the original inspiration and it becomes a very essential element of it. I think that’s what happens here. Also, Michèle is incredibly mercurial and impossible to pin down and I’m very pedantic.
I can’t steer her, I can’t influence her, she just executes it, but it always turns out great. I trust her, and I trust her more than I trust anyone on the planet. That wasn’t easy, because I’m very skeptical and I’m very mistrustful. I’m fairly cynical, so trust is not my comfort zone.
WWD: What are you planning for the Triennale show?
R.O.: It’s going to be a mix, and I’m not going to get too abstract. I like history and I like being able to rewrite history, and that’s what something like this allows you to do. You’re able to quietly sweep away all your mistakes, just celebrate all the things that you consider successful and just paint yourself in a whole pretty picture. So I’m very hands-on.
My strength, and my problem, is that I usually know exactly what I want, which is this amazing gift, or a huge ego problem. It’s both, I’m sure, and I forgive myself if it’s an ego problem. I’ve learned how to do that. So it’s not like I invite people to interpret my work. I hate that — hate it! Being able to do it all on my own, I’m able to set a standard.
That’s very satisfying. I mean, talking about legacy sounds really pompous, but it is nice after executing a lot of years of work to think that you’ll be able to tell your story in the way that you want it to be told.
WWD: Is that also why it’s important for you to have so much input into your store design?
R.O.: I put a lot of effort into it and it’s a very personal thing. I’m just not good at sharing. I always like knowing that something I’m interested in was not a committee decision, that it was one person’s ferocity and drive and determination and inspiration that made that happen. That’s what I’m looking for, so that’s what I want to be. I don’t want to hear about compromise.
WWD: It sounds as though you wouldn’t be open to selling your company.
R.O.: I’m burning it down. I’m taking it with me [laughs].
WWD: Is it hard to be an independent designer?
R.O.: I don’t know if I’ve ever had difficulties — I’ve been so protected by my partners. I’m sensible. I’m not an indulgent child that just selfishly wants everything to be cake all the time. I mean, I have a sense of responsibility toward making a business work, but I don’t really ever feel like I had to make compromises. I don’t have to sell stuff I don’t like. Even our cheapest T-shirt, I love and I’m proud of. I love the commercial side. I love thinking of things that make sense. I love simple design. I never really had that much discomfort. Now, I don’t believe in a sense of entitlement either, so it’s not like I felt that I was entitled to a lot. I feel like we’re kind of lucky for anything we get.
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