Fashion designers had no playbook for pandemics, which raised so many big questions: How to design, produce and present collections during a global health crisis? What kind of clothes will people want to wear in the wake of home working and limited social interaction? Also, does fashion even matter in such a context?
Rick Owens faced these questions head on, and produced some of the most spellbinding work of his career, parading it on a desolate stretch of the Lido beach in Venice, with his Italian team and a few passersby the only IRL witnesses.
“Historically, we’ve seen examples where people under threat, their appetites might grow stronger, and their expressions might grow more extreme, because there is nothing to lose,” the designer explained ahead of his spring 2021 women’s show, where every model wore scarf-like face masks and marched proudly in fierce and flowing outfits. “In the face of adversity, you need to do your very, very best. That’s when all your powers need to come to the forefront and you need to fight the strongest….So the clothes, when I look at them, they’re kind of full-on.”
Indeed, his spring 2021 collection — amid so many escapist themes — felt like the defiant fashion act everyone had been waiting for. Owens called his display “an exaggerated middle finger to doom” expressed with major shoulders, thigh-high boots, lurid colors, crisp tunics, flowing robes and sculptural capes. It felt like he had invented a potent and realistic new brand of glamour.
His fall 2021 collection raised the bar even higher with its gorgeous fishtail gowns, drifting puffer capes, big-shouldered jackets and otherworldly knits swishing down a cement pier under a leaden sky. His couture-like creations seduced with their dignity and their drama, jutting volumes at the hipline or shoulders adding an alien touch.
The designer was also reacting to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building, and other attempts to subvert the U.S. presidential election, and he channeled his repressed rage into the clothes, stacking superhero shoulders onto bomber jackets and tailored coats as a way to mock “male oppressive energy” and conservatism.
“I’m a Scorpio, so I hold grudges,” Owens said at the time of the fall show. “This is about defiance against menace. It was also about mocking convention,” he added, rattling off a few targets: “Our pajama culture, our comfort culture and our entitled culture.”
Owens was one of the few designers in any fashion capital to put face masks on all of his models through the worst of the pandemic, and they added edginess — and a dose of reality — to his grandiose designs.
These are among the reasons he is receiving the WWD Honor for Women’s Wear Designer of the Year.
The soft-spoken American designer never pretends to have all the answers, but he is always mindful of the cultural moment — and true to his dark, industrial-tinged vision. According to him, 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.”
He applied such thinking to his collaboration with Converse, among the side projects over the past year that has kept his name firmly in the fashion spotlight.
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. Under the umbrella of his Drkshdw brand, Owens 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 designer admits he’s a bit of a latecomer to the collaborations game, having also recently teamed up with Moncler, Champion and Birkenstock.
Owens confessed that he had long bristled at the idea of collaborations. “Initially, I would just completely dismiss them as just being some kind of hype exercise that was not part of my world,” he told WWD earlier this year. “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.”
More recently, he created a one-off look as a tribute to the late Alber Elbaz — a hooded cape and dress in washed silk gazar that was one of the standout looks during the AZ Factory “Love Brings Love” that closed the most recent Paris Fashion Week on Oct. 5.
Owens returned to the official Paris calendar for spring 2022 with a live show in the parvis of the Palais de Tokyo, which he adores for its 1930s architecture and raw interiors. He was conflicted about whether to do a modest, restrained presentation, or deliver some of his usual bombast.
“We had to have a little. That’s the great thing about fog — it’s big, cheap and dumb, and it’s not wasteful,” Owens said about the fog machines that erupted at the outset of his display. “In summer, when it looked like things would be opening up and people would be going back to partying and everything, that made me a little uncomfortable.”
For instance: He named his collection Fogachine and the show was meant to mock “that hunger a little bit. It’s a suggestion to be conscious of this pleasure seeking, and this entitlement to pleasure.”
Owens occasionally describes his approach as slow fashion, in so much as he elaborates on a clear and identifiable aesthetic, insists on peerless fabrics and manufacturing, and nudges people to buy less, but better.
“A long time ago, I very glibly said that working out is modern couture, so buy less clothes and work on your body instead,” he recalled. “And it’s still so apt. We need to make beautiful things and so people buy fewer things and appreciate them more.
“We are supposed to represent excellence,” he continued. “I’ve got to make things that people can really appreciate, that are really pretty, really special and uniquely mine that supposedly no one else could come up with.”