Hubert Burda Media

The Cult of Rick Owens

The most famous American in Paris, at least in fashion circles, Rick Owens talks religion, sex and ageless appeal.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that fashion is all about change: new collections, new collaborations, new ideas, new products. Satiating the hunger of a very demanding and over-stimulated consumer means that brands must come up with new gimmicks season after season in order to create buzz and turn that buzz into demand for their creations.

Not everyone, however, adheres to this notion. Rick Owens, the California-born and Paris-based designer known for his gothic grunge-meets-glam aesthetic, has made consistency his raison d’être. His collections vary little from season to season, offering his loyal clientele beautifully made and flattering clothes in an often-monochrome palette. 

While to a superficial observer Owens’ Paris shows may appear conceptual and even avant-garde, if you look closely at the pieces that stock his boutiques, you’ll soon realise he has a knack for constructing extremely easy-to-wear garments that softly conform to their wearers’ bodies and instantly create a look that’s distinctively Rick Owens. A seemingly at-odds juxtaposition of dark edge and Zen poise is at the heart of his vision: depending on your personality and your attitude, when clad in one of Owens’ looks you can either appear as an urban warrior ready to take on the harsh reality of modern-day city life or a spiritual soul awakening from an intense meditation session.

Meeting Owens, whose ripped body, long hair and tanned skin remind one of Steven Meisel the fashion photographer in his younger days, or of a tribal shaman, you get the sense of talking to someone whose tough demeanour hides a gentle soul. He ponders at length over every word he speaks, displaying the equanimity and hieratic countenance that has been immortalised in the life-size likenesses that can be found in his boutiques, including at his On Lan Street store in Hong Kong, where we met three weeks after his spring/summer 2017 women’s show in Paris.

Owens, 55, who grew up in a relatively conservative California suburb, has lived in Paris for 15 years and is now fully integrated in the very French calendar of Paris Fashion Week. In spite of his name, you almost don’t think of him as an American designer showing in Paris, the way you do with someone like Thom Browne, who shows his menswear in the French capital. In the eyes of many industry insiders, Owens is a European designer, or at least someone whose vision doesn’t fit the mould of casual luxury typical of the US. He operates out of a beautiful building in one of Paris’s most stunning squares, Place du Palais-Bourbon, on the Left Bank, where he also lives with his companion of many years, Michele Lamy, a fabulous French septuagenarian he first met while living in Los Angeles. 

“If I was a young designer trying to find myself, like I was at one time, Paris would be extremely difficult. But if you arrive established, it’s great,” says Owens, when asked about his decision to base his label in the city. “I’ve been there for 15 years, and at the very beginning I wasn’t very established. But you know what made a difference? When I moved to Paris and started showing there, I was working for Revillon, the furrier, and although it was a very small company with nothing really behind it, I didn’t do it the way people are doing it now, for more exposure, because I was actually making more money on my own than at Revillon. I did it purely as an aesthetic adventure, for the authentic connection to the turn-of-the-century Parisian culture that I was fascinated with. 

“I was in love with the idea of working with fur. I love working with leather, so it was logical for me to do fur. The whole experience was a delicious, beautiful dream to do something with that kind of legendary name. Then it wasn’t like now: young people joining heritage brands and staying for three years. It wasn’t that dramatic. But what I didn’t realise was that it gave me a credibility that I wouldn’t have had if I was just an American designer showing in Paris. Once people knew that I worked for Revillon, it gave me a certain amount of status, even though I thought, ‘You guys don’t know that this company has no money and is not important or anything,’ but it was a prestige thing and it made life easier.”

Life in Paris for Owens, who also has a place in Venice (his clothes are made in Italy, near Modena, where he travels regularly to oversee production), is definitely easier than in his early days as a fledgling designer with no formal training in Los Angeles. His big break came when American Vogue offered to sponsor his first runway show in New York. It was a rare opportunity that he obviously didn’t turn down, in spite of his ambivalence about staging a show for clothes that he felt didn’t lend themselves to that kind of format. 

“At the beginning I wasn’t planning on doing runway,” Owens explains, “but then American Vogue offered to pay for one in New York, and how do you turn that down? But it made me a little nervous because I was thinking that my aesthetic was so narrow, and I didn’t think I could sustain people’s interest after a few shows because it’s a lot of scrutiny and competition. 

“There was a minute there when people thought that I was just doing the same thing, but I kept going and at a certain point it became all right; people decided to accept me as someone who does a very specific thing and it was OK, and I was happy about that; that I was able to create an identity that people could tolerate; that they could tolerate that kind of pace and approach to fashion. It was a triumph to get people who are very busy and over-stimulated to allow me to do that.”

Before descending into the bowels of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris each season to attend one of Owens’ women’s shows, you sort of know what to expect: the beautiful and often ethereal clothes we’ve become familiar with. But within that consistency is always an aspect of surprise, whether it’s an unexpected decorative element, like the dreamy feather appliqués in his spring/summer 2017 show, or the presentation itself, which may feature strong-bodied women carrying each other on the runway (spring/summer 2016) or a step-team performance with an all-black casting (spring/summer 2014).

“I like to be consistent, but every once in a while you have to punch people in the face,” Owens says. “I’ve always said that runway shows are contemporary rituals, and humanity always needed rituals, and I’m talking about going to temples and stuff like that. Runway shows are an opportunity to gather people to celebrate beauty in a community. It’s an ancient thing, not new, but an ancient urge to connect and feel something beautiful. 

“When I do a show, I think that we can go beyond lipstick and hair and the pretty dress, but think of beautiful morality and gestures; beautiful instincts. The step-team thing was about communities uniting; groups from black American culture. They were about integration into colleges and black communities banding together to protect themselves from resistance from American colleges, so right there it’s already an amazing story about people defying and dealing with adversity, and finding a way to beautifully combat adversity. It was a beautiful gesture.”

Far from the escapist and Instagram-ready extravaganzas that have become de rigueur at fashion week, Owens’ shows are often unsettling experiences. Those lucky enough to witness them are often rattled by either their sense of utter calm or their almost aggressive nature. But it’s not just shock value that Owens is after with his runway presentations. “I almost feel a responsibility because I’ve been given the opportunity to talk to people, so I want it to mean something positive and there could be a contribution,” he says when challenged about this approach. “I’m not saying that it’s charity or that I’m saving the world but I feel that I’m extending as much good energy as I possibly can.”

The feeling of community that Owens keeps going back to is evident in the crowd that attends his shows. Besides the fashion caravan of editors and buyers, his loyal clients, all clad in head-to-toe Rick Owens, are all there to support their master, so to speak, giving the whole thing the vibe of a cult-like tribe coming together to celebrate. 

This goes hand in hand with the extreme loyalty Owens has built through the years, which he attributes to the authenticity behind his work. “It wasn’t deliberate or calculated,” he says. “I’m as surprised as you are by it. I think maybe that’s what appeals to people: that it’s authentically what I believe in because I wear it and it’s me; it’s not contrived but exactly my aesthetic; it’s not a gimmick, but what I believe in.”

While his clothes may be flattering to the wearer, there’s an almost monastic quality to them, with all those drapes and folds enveloping the body, wrapping it in a sort of cocoon. “There’s different ways of being sexy,” he says. “I love seeing guys in tight shirts and pants but I don’t do that look because I’m no longer that young man. My clothes are more for people who have had enough sex. When I see advertising or certain shows nowadays, I think, ‘Why is everybody so horny? Aren’t they getting enough sex?’ I want them to have some sex. So the clothes I do are about what you do after you’ve had all the sex that you need.”

Owens, who laments the extremely politically correct times in which we live, is not the outsider that he’s often made out to be: his beautiful distressed leather jackets and chunky sneakers fly off shelves. And while you may think that his clothes are not for everyone, his creations are in fact equally appropriate on a young girl or a grandmother. “Maybe because I live with a 72-year-old woman who’s timeless and is not going to wear clothes that are too conventional or conservative,” he says when asked about his ageless appeal. “She’s been through the ’60s, through punk rock, through glitter rock. She’s not going to dress in a conservative suit. Sometimes I think, when I look at people in their 70s, ‘You guys went through the Rolling Stones and this is what you look like now?’”