Of all the fashion industry’s many colourful characters, it is hard to find a more unique spirit than Rick Owens (born Richard Saturnino Owens on November 18, 1962). Over the course of his 22-year career, the California-born, Paris-based creative has managed to build an ever-flourishing, multi-million-dollar business out of sheer subversion and shrewd know-how, never once sacrificing his desire for independence or compromising his artistic vision. Every part of Owens’ vast empire is constructed in his own, distinct vernacular – from his personal style, to his inimitable design aesthetic centred on draping, texture and silhouette, to his showstopping runway spectacles. Here, on the day of the designer’s AW17 menswear show, we present the dA-Zed guide to his idiosyncratic universe.
A IS FOR ARCHITECTURE
Owens has long acknowledged architecture and its utopian ideals as one of his greatest influences, professing that he looks to “the logic and brutalism” of architects such as Le Corbusier, Carlo Scarpa and Luigi Moretti for inspiration far more frequently than the work of other designers. Many of his ready-to-wear shows have paid tribute to specific buildings, spaces and movements – his AW12 show, for example, saw models don knitted ski masks which the designer dubbed “brutalist veils”, while his AW15 collection was an homage to the Mayan-influenced architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
B IS FOR BEGINNINGS
Owens often talks about the impact that his upbringing – in the conservative, agricultural town of Porterville, California – has had on his path through life. His seamstress mother taught him how to sew; his father’s strict forbidding of television cultivated a lifelong love of books and classical music, and his Catholic education prompted him to rebel (and apparently sparked his enthusiasm for drapery, exposed as he was to countless images of heavily robed saints). “Having an uncomfortable childhood makes for an interesting adulthood, I think,” the designer told Dean Mayo Davies in the spring/summer 2016 issue of Dazed. “What would have happened if I’d had a completely well-adjusted childhood? I wouldn’t have the rage... the vengeance that I feel now.”
C IS FOR COLLABORATIONS
Owens has teamed up with a number of brands over the years, dreaming up limited edition designs for the likes of Eastpak and Italian denim label Meltin’Pot. Most notable of these however, is his ongoing collaboration with adidas which first launched in 2013. Since then the designer has produced an array of different styles for the athletics giant, underscored by his appreciation for monochrome minimalism and striking silhouettes. These range from understated, everyday trainers, identifiable by their sculptural, jutting soles, to statement footwear, such as the knee-high Tech Runner stretch boot.
D IS FOR DUBAI
Dubai is Owens’ favoured holiday destination. He and his wife Michele Lamy enjoy regular trips to the city to revel in its sunny climes and otherworldly strangeness, as well as its prestigious art fairs, where the duo recently showcased their furniture designs. “It’s paradise, warm and beautiful and the water is so clear,” Owens explained to Susannah Frankel in the S/S14 edition of AnOther Magazine. “There’s something eerie about it… They’re building like crazy but half the spaces are empty. There’s a futuristic airport and inside there are people sitting on the floor in robes.” (ICYMI: Lamy allowed Dazed Digital exclusive insight into her Dubai experience via a brilliant photo diary captured for us during her visit there last summer.)
E IS FOR ENERGY
The propagation of positive energy is very important to Owens, who describes his runway shows as a means of expressing “as much positive energy as I can get out there while I’m on Earth.” This entails “looking at different angles of humanity and picking out moments of beauty that might be overlooked,” he explained to Dazed, speaking specifically of his poetic SS16 presentation which saw models wearing other models strapped to their bodies. “I feel like I’m fulfilling a moral responsibility by putting good energy out there. Do I sound like an earnest, new-age hippy? I’m totally a selfish cunt, but I like the idea of trying to be better.”
F IS FOR FURNITURE
Owens had the idea of turning his hand to furniture design after relocating from LA to Paris in 2003. He and Lamy had just bought their vast, five-storey home and studio space in Place du Palais Bourbon and decided that if they couldn’t fill it with “fantastic Jean-Michel Frank chairs,” then their next best bet was to conjure up the furnishings themselves, as Owens revealed to Frankel. And that’s exactly what they did, Owens formally presenting his designs – conceived and created in collaboration with Lamy, who oversees their immaculate, handcrafted production – for the first time in 2010.
Owens’ furniture is defined by an angular monumentality and increasingly sculptural form, and, like his garments, draws heavily on architectural influences, including Brutalism and German World War II bunkers. Materials run the gamut from the luxurious (rock crystal, alabaster, Carrara marble) through the everyday (plywood, concrete, fibreglass), often combined to create striking juxtapositions – wooden chairs sprouting moose antlers, for instance. The designer’s creations also populate his worldwide stores; the Hong Kong retail space features startlingly lifelike sculptures of Owens, complete with long flowing mane, which form the base of a table and chair in a playful nod to the work of pop artist Allen Jones.
G IS FOR GARETH PUGH
When Gareth Pugh finished his degree in Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins in 2003, he went to intern for Owens at Parisian furrier Révillon, where the designer had just begun his four-year tenure as creative director. Pugh’s esoteric vision impressed Owens so much that he and Lamy soon took Pugh under their wings, assuming the role of mentors. Thanks to Owens’ support and funding, the talented English designer was able to realise increasingly ambitious designs – from luxury furs to high quality leathers – which helped him to gain early traction within the industry.
H IS FOR HISTORY
When it comes to historical references, Owens is happily indiscriminate, lifting elements from a variety of epochs and genres and adapting them in accordance with his specific vision. Naturally, however, he has his favourites: “I use biblical references a lot,” he informed Frankel. “I like the Egyptian slave silhouette. I love Madame Grès (most recently, a key influence for his SS17 menswear collection). And when I mix that with skateboarder shorts and a big bomber, it crosses the entire spectrum of history.”
I IS FOR INDEPENDENCE
Owens is fearsomely independent when it comes to business: every product sold under his name is designed by him personally, he never reveals any of his collections to anyone in his company until a couple of days before each show, and for AW16 he went as far as to hand-drape every single one of the collection’s pieces himself as a poignant reaction to the increasingly fast fashion industry. But most notable of all Owens’ declarations of independence, perhaps, is his resolution never to sell his brand, and thereby remain his own boss – to this day, 80% of the Owenscorp company is owned by himself, and the other 20% by Owens’ commercial director and CEO, Luca Ruggeri and Elsa Lanzo.
J IS FOR JERA
Owens’ aforementioned championing of an alternative type of beauty is embodied in his refreshingly unorthodox casting choices, which place precedence on the enigmatic and unusual. Big fashion names such as Molly Bair and Grace Bol star alongside street cast models and those represented by independent agencies, like muse Sam Collet. As is so often the case with Owens, when he finds something he likes, he sticks with it, and many of his favourite faces reappear in his shows and lookbooks for multiple seasons. The most famous, or perhaps notorious, of these is German model Jera, whom Owens described as his “male muse” and championed for 12 consecutive years before the pale and chiselled model staged a quasi-political protest during Owens’ SS16 show, sporting a sign that read “PLEASE KILL ANGELA MERKEL...NOT". The designer was, understandably, furious.
K IS FOR KITTEN
Or more specifically Gaia, Owens and Lamy’s beautiful Bengal cat, which the duo initially bought as a mouse catcher but soon fell in love with. She is a regular installment on the @rickowensonline Instagram feed, and as followers will know, gave birth to kittens in November. Animals are another of Owens’ recurring inspirations, as a scroll through the designer’s individually titled collections attests, sparrows, swans and walruses all feature – although no cat as of yet.
L IS FOR LEATHER JACKETS
Perhaps most iconic of all Rick Owens’ designs is his leather biker jacket, complete with angular flaps and an asymmetric zip, and crafted from washed leather so that it clings to the body like a “second skin”. The jacket formed part of Owens’ very first collection, realised while he and Lamy were living in the Chateau Marmont, just down the hall from Helmut Newton. The monochrome collection was inspired by Hollywood decay, and centred around a “languid, draped silhouette”. Owens takes a linear approach to design, using his past collections to inspire each new season, and still sells almost every piece from his debut offering. In an interview with The New York Times in 2015, he described it “as the foundation of everything I do” and the jacket, in particular, as its “DNA and starting point”.
M IS FOR MICHELE LAMY
Owens and his wife and creative collaborator of over 20 years – whom he refers to affectionately, and somewhat teasingly, as ‘hun’ – are the dream team. To hear Owens talk about his “personal, beautiful witch” could melt even the coldest of hearts; she is often referred to as his muse, but he prefers to introduce her as his “better half”. “She’s the most punk-rock element that we’ve got,” he told Davies, “she cannot be tamed.” The pair met in the heady environs of 90s LA, where Lamy, an early supporter of Owens’ designs (see “O”), owned and ran the famed nightspot Café des Artistes. They lived together in the city for many years – at first in a bohemian, Baudelaire inspired haze, thereafter as successful, clean-living partners of the burgeoning Rick Owens label – before relocating to Paris in the early 00s when Owens secured his title at Révillon.
N IS FOR NO ADVERTISING
The designer famously eschews traditional advertising strategies, declaring that “(it) pulls you more deeply into the fashion system than I'm willing to go.” Instead carefully curated branding is his modus operandi, extending from his immediately recognisable house imagery, shot by photographer Luke Mayes, through his distinctively “Rick Owens” diffusion lines (Rick Owens Lilies, DRKSHDW and Rick Owens Hun) and even his own personal uniform. “It’s about committing yourself completely to an aesthetic,” Owens explained to Davies for Dazed spring/summer 2016, “throwing yourself into it and not looking back. In all facets of your life, if you’re going to do it, go all the way.”
O IS FOR OTIS-PARSONS
Otis-Parsons is the art school that Owens attended in his late teens with the dream of becoming a painter. He later changed tack, dropping out to attend a pattern-cutting course instead and honing his skills at a knock-off designer clothing company in LA. He soon began drawing up his own designs, coining the term “glunge” (a portmanteau of ‘glamour’ and ‘grunge’) to define his luxe-casual style. He started his eponymous clothing label in 1994, designing first for women and expanding into menswear in 2002. For the first few years he continued to design and hand-sew each garment from home, before driving them around to show to influential fashion figures. His first US stockist was Charles Gallay – incidentally the man who placed the biggest order of Martin Margiela’s first season.
P IS FOR PARIS
Owens loves life as an American in Paris, having constructed what he dubs “a lovely bubble” within which to exist. This consists of his luxurious home and studio, filled with his and Lamy’s aforementioned furniture designs as well as Owens’ treasured art collection, his gym L’Usine and a number of neighbourhood restaurants, his favourite being one on the corner of his street where, accompanied by Lamy, he enjoys a hamburger and chocolate cake most nights. He holds the majority of his shows in the cavernous basement of the Palais de Tokyo, his favourite building in the city, and occasionally in the frescoed interior of the Théâtre National de Chaillot close to his store on the Place du Trocadéro. Despite his best attempts, however, Owens has never managed to learn French.
Q IS FOR QUEEN
Over the years, Owens has often been referred to as a goth, on account of his long dark locks and penchant for black. The designer shuns this term, however, instead describing himself as a drama queen. “I am a middle-aged opera queen in loafers that makes out I am a 16 year old death metal skater… ” he declared in AnOthermag.com. “It’s all fake! My hair is fake, my body is fake and my teeth are kind of fake.” Owens has long fostered an appreciation for the camp. When he was a teenager, he saw the party scene in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and “physically ached to be part of that group of cheerfully degenerate weirdos,” as he described in his interview with Dazed; while as a young man living in Hollywood, he spent most of his time in “tranny hustler bars”, which “fit into (his) aesthetic of broken idealism”.
R IS FOR RICK CASTRO
Feted S&M photographer Rick Castro is responsible not only for introducing Rick Owens and Michèle Lamy back when they “were all very young and running around Hollywood,” as he revealed in an interview with Dazed Digital, but also for lensing one of Owens’ most memorable lookbooks. The beautifully brooding shoot, for Rick Owens AW14 moody menswear, features four older men between the ages of 60 and 93 (one of whom is Castro’s father). It proves a powerful critique of society’s obsession with youth, and the concept that sexuality and attractiveness have an expiration date; as Castro expanded, “Rick wanted to (capture) these everyday, older people (to create) different images that are against beauty and fashion.”
S IS FOR SPECTACULAR SHOWS
In spite of garnering a loyal following in the five years that preceded it, Owens avoided making his runway debut until AW02 at New York Fashion Week. It was an ethereal affair, set in a stark, raw space to the sounds of Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop. Today, Owens’ shows have become one of the most anticipated moments of Paris Fashion Week, thanks to the designer’s devotion to creating a memorable, and meaningful experience (see “E”). Whether strapping models onto the backs of other models (SS16), sending a troupe of athletic step dancers down the runway to the sounds of a live Estonian metal band, who would later appear suspended upside-down for the grand finale (SS14), or setting his shows against backdrops of blazing fire (AW12) or a flowing wall of bubble bath foam (SS13), no one subverts catwalk traditions quite like he does.
T IS FOR TRIBE
Over the years Owens and Lamy have expanded their family into what is now a sizable tribe, each decked almost all of the time in head-to-toe Rick Owens. This ranges from actual family in the form of Lamy’s daughter, the artist Scarlett Rouge, to the Rick Owens store directors and heads of collections to models such as Rory O’Hara and Vanya Polunin who have gone on to work for the designer. In the May 2013 issue of Dazed, Gareth McConnell captured one of the four yearly gatherings of the clique at the Place du Palais Bourbon for Owens’ unveiling of his new collection. “It’s a working family holiday,” Owens explained to Dean Mayo Davies for the accompanying interview. “An open spirit is desirable; not knowing French and Italian is a deal breaker.”
U IS FOR UPPERCASE
Any text transmitted from Owens HQ – via the website, social media feeds or his personal email correspondence – is all transacted in capital letters. “I like how things almost come out like a proclamation,” the designer disclosed to Dazed of his insistence upon the uppercase. “I might have it completely wrong because I know to some people it’s just shouting, but to me it’s kind of a cheerful proclamation. Everything I say is kind of like, a little artificial and happy. Almost like a child speaking too loudly in church.”
V IS FOR VENICE
Owens splits his time between Paris and Italy. The Owenscorp factories are situated outside Bologna, and Owens spends many of his weekends designing there in solitude. He and Lamy also make regular trips to Venice where they recently purchased what the wry-humoured designer described in a recent interview as “a butt-ugly rooftop condo on the Lido Beach”. The plus-side? “A 360° view with the Adriatic Sea on one side and Piazza San Marco… on the other. (And) being seconds away from major art is pretty great.”
W IS FOR WOMEN
Owens is openly fascinated by women. While he declares that his menswear shows are a reflection of himself – “they are always about self-loathing; how petty, how selfish, how vain I am,” he told Jo-Ann Furniss for AnOthermag.com – his womenswear shows celebrate female “mystery and strength”. Rather than send frail models teetering vulnerably along the runway in too-high heels, Owens prefers to show women at their most empowered. His human-backpack-punctuated SS16 show, for example, centred around ideas of “nourishment, sisterhood, motherhood and regeneration”, the designer told Dazed. “Women raising women, women becoming women, and women supporting women.”
X IS FOR X-RATED
It is no secret that Owens is the king of kink, taking great pleasure in shocking his audience because he himself likes to be shocked, as he revealed in a Tumblr Q&A for Dazed Digital. His SS15 menswear show paid tribute to a scene in Nijinsky's 1912 ballet "Afternoon of a Faun", whereby said faun masturbates over a nymph’s scarf, while perhaps his most notable act of provocation in recent years was his AW15 menswear show, which saw models’ penises exposed through peep holes in their flowing garments.
Y IS FOR YELLOW
For most of his career, Owens has famously stuck to a monochrome palette – featuring every shade of black imaginable, offset against greys and whites – in line with his belief that texture and silhouette should be the primary focus. But despite being a stickler for routine, he’s not averse to introducing change every now and then. For SS17, for instance, he took a daring and unexpected plunge into the colour spectrum, employing soft shades of yellow, mauve, rust and blue in “frothy” fabrics to surprisingly light and airy effect. “It took me a while to become confident with colour,” the designer disclosed backstage, “but then I thought if you’re gonna do colours, you better do them full on.” Who knows, perhaps he’ll be re-crowned the king of colour before long.
Z IS FOR ZEBRA KATZ
Owens frequently uses his sublimely soundtracked runway shows and social media channels as a chance to support the work of lesser-known musicians. He enlisted South London singer Eska to sing at his SS16 show, for instance, and just a couple of months ago, he urged his Instagram followers to check out the ‘smackwave’ sounds of Melbourne-based singer Spike Fuck, while the inclusion of US rapper Zebra Katz’s now-iconic track “Ima Read” during Owens’ AW12 show saw Katz propelled to fame almost immediately. (See what happened when Dazed flew Katz to Paris to meet Owens here.)
Follow Daisy Woodward on Twitter here @DaisyAECW