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Meeting the Tribe – the devotees who only wear Rick Owens

It’s a lifestyle, not a look

Today, Rick Owens’ retrospective exhibition SUBHUMAN INHUMAN SUPERHUMAN opens in Milan, we’re celebrating with a trio of stories about the designer. Head here for an interview with the man himself, and here to revisit ten of his most memorable shows.

It’s one thing to craft an identity for a fashion label, but it’s another thing entirely to craft the customer. Every designer aspires to create a collection in which people can immerse themselves; a brand that they can truly live and breathe. But in the real world, people mix and blend, bringing various labels together to craft their own unique personal style.

There are exceptions, of course, and the followers of Rick Owens are one of them. In fact, few dive headfirst into the world of a designer the way his supporters do. Known both formally and informally as the “Tribe”, these are the people for whom wearing Rick Owens’ clothing is a lifestyle, something which truly resonates with who they are. In fact, they have fallen so hard for Owens’ aesthetic that it’s difficult for them to imagine wearing anything other than his unorthodox designs. And they all have their own way of expressing the personal connection they feel to his clothes.

For Bryan Black, better known as Black Asteroid, and one half of the industrial techno duo MOTOR, his first encounter with Rick Owens was an unexpected but personal one. “I remember watching his SS12 presentation on YouTube in 2011, and to my surprise, it was my music on the catwalk,” he explains. “I wrote to his press agent to thank them for using my music, and the next day I got an email from Rick himself. I flew to Paris and we immediately became friends. I got sucked into the crazy, wonderful world of Rick and Michele (Lamy, Owens’ wife and creative partner).”

It was a similar experience for Christeene, the Austin-based performance artist who describes Owens’ clothing as “pyjama-soft shapes for deep sea creatures”. Allegedly one of Rick’s former muses, their first encounter with the designer was being personally flown out to Paris with some friends for a night at his Spotlight Club in 2013. “I like to make most of my own shit, but sweet Rick picked me outta the pound and lets me tear his shit up for my needs. I fell full force in love with them both. Unstoppable love. Their friendship and generosity fills my tank like no other.”

For another Tribe member, Lala, the encounter was much more cosmic. “I’ve been wearing Rick for 12 years now. I guess you could say I chose the brand, and the brand chose me.” Since then, the connection she’s felt to Rick Owens’ collections has only grown stronger. It’s the same for everyone in the group – they aren’t just buying clothes they think look good; the connection is deeper. A real admiration of Owens and Lamy is at the core of it. “I think of each thread of Rick’s work as a cable full of that man’s creative current,” Christeene explains. “When you sit at Rick’s table, you’re gonna eat some unknown fruit, but that fruit is gonna be pure as fuck. He serves it right from the source, from his hands to yours.”

“When you sit at Rick’s table, you’re gonna eat some unknown fruit, but that fruit is gonna be pure as fuck. He serves it right from the source, from his hands to yours” – Christeene

“Rick is a mythical creature,” adds Black. “He has long silky black hair, he’s ripped like a boardwalk freak from Venice Beach, and he’s always dressed in the nicest threads. He pulls it all off, and it’s amazing. Everyone wants to know what makes him tick because he’s on his own path, a true innovator. As for Michele, she’s something other-worldly. The cocktail of those two together is something truly special.”

“Rick and Michele are the same breed,” Lala weighs in. “Two people that truly understand art and its power, not only in the moment, but as part of a deeper ambition. And Michele, as someone who really understands the history of art, its importance, is a literal force within Rick’s work. She’s the one who delivers their shared vision.”

Walfrido Lima, better known as @monsterlocaiton on Instagram (or simply Monster among the Tribe) is another self-proclaimed devotee. “After all these years, I really can’t imagine wearing another designer, another aesthetic,” he says. It’s easy for him to sum up the Rick Look: “...the leather jackets with tight sleeves and asymmetrical zippers, and the big, chunky sneakers” – but he thinks the resulting image is one that speaks to real individuality. “When all those different parts come together, it creates this edgy, fierce character; someone who’s unafraid of innovation.” Black makes it clear there’s far more to Owens than a few staples. “He might be best known for leather jackets and chunky basketball shoes, but his blazers are really something special. People forget that Rick is a master tailor.”

And though his label has its signatures, and exists within the same industry structure of seasonal collections and passing trends as every other designer, it’s obvious that Rick Owens’ followers see something permanent and holistic within his work. “The language of Rick is clear,” says Lala. “but it operates on a number of levels, and it’s possible to enter on every level. That’s the true beauty of what he does. I have no problem with people being into a brand for one or two seasons. That’s how fashion works. But the Rick Owens universe is much deeper and more diverse.” Lima puts it this way: “To wear his clothes is to join his world.”

That notion of a Rick Owens universe is difficult to ignore in the context of his theatrical, and often politically-charged presentations. (“The most important element is the performance; when he creates his clothing, he’s telling a story, and that’s the most crucial part to me,” says Black). Owens has always made larger-than-life runway shows a vital component in his storytelling, and over the years he’s confronted race, gender, sexuality and more in his own inimitable way. “I loved his SS14 women’s presentation,” Lima says. “Because of how confrontational it was. He literally threw typical beauty standards and aesthetics out the window. And his SS16 women’s presentation was unforgettable. To send women down the runway, carrying other women on their backs, really showed us how strong and powerful his idea of womanhood is.”

Naturally, during our conversations, the designer’s recent popularity in mainstream circles came up. You might be familiar with the “health goth” trend of a few years back, of which his signature drop-crotch shorts and extended tank tops were unquestionably defining elements. Name-checks from A$AP Rocky and others certainly made Rick Owens one of the hottest designers around amongst trendsetters and social media elites a few years back. But how did this go down with the Tribe?

“I guess everyone is in it for different reasons, aren’t they?” says Black. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting hooked on a couple of pieces. Trends come and go, after all. But for many of us, Rick is something more. It’s always refreshing to see people wearing Rick differently, and I think Rick enjoys pushing men to rethink what is possible. But you can’t just wear Rick Owens. It’s about how you wear it.”

Christeene captures the mood best. “I don’t think it’s wrong to sniff something out for a bit, but if you’re getting into something just because it’s trendy – especially something as mysterious as a Rick frock – then you should expect that frock to eat you up. And spit you out on the floor when it’s done.”

SUBHUMAN INHUMAN SUPERHUMAN will be open from December 15 2017 to March 25 2018 at Triennale di Milano.