WWD CEO Summit: Rick Owens on Defiant Shows, Family Values and His Dream Project

“I’ve always said what makes my stuff work is it’s a Californian’s prude and cartoony interpretation of European complexity. I suspect that might sum me up,” Rick Owens said.

Owens is nothing if not deeply reflective. Consider how he responded to the pandemic, one of the few designers to put his models in face masks on the runway, continuing the ceremony of showing collections with only his team and passersby as IRL witnesses.

In those four shows presented on the Lido in Venice in 2020 and 2021, he produced some of the most arresting clothing of his career, which is why he was named WWD’s Women’s Wear Designer of the Year.

“I felt it was my role as part of an aesthetic community to try to present strength and excellence. Instead of shrinking back, it was the time to be defiant in the face of adversity, and present a dynamic energy that was ready to counter any attack,” he said in a conversation with WWD international editor Miles Socha.

The first pandemic-era showing in July 2020 was a video of Owens fitting male muse Tyrone Susman in the studio, just the two of them. “At that moment that seemed tactful,” intuited the designer, who tempered his glam sequins with plenty of slouch wear.

But for the next three shows, being tactful and modest didn’t seem right. “I felt like we needed to rise up,” said Owens, of his livestreamed presentations at locations that had personal and architectural meaning to him, including an ossuary resembling an Art Deco temple and a casino in an imposing Rationalist building.

Even in the face of tragedy, the experience was cathartic.

“They ended up being these personal private ceremonies of beauty with no audience except people passing by. They were intense moments of expression with all our team together producing this with huge music and smoke bombs, then at the end we all hugged, packed up and drove home. There was such a sweetness to it,” he said.

Returning to Paris in October for his spring 2022 women’s show, he wanted to acknowledge what the world had been through. “To act obliviously like nothing had happened was not the right thing to do. We couldn’t go back to the bombast but also, we couldn’t be meek…it was time to go back to work…The way to do that was to be as intensely personal as possible, to make clothes that could not come from anyone else, that were so signature and represent what we’ve done for the past 20 years.

“I wanted it to feel tender, like a logical extension of our Lido shows. We had some figures on the edge of the rooftop throwing jasmine leaves from my Lido apartment onto the models below in a Greek chorus way set to stomp-y dub music and huge fog clouds,” he said. “I asked Michèle [Lamy], who I have always called Hun, to be the first model on the runway to show everyone that our values are the same as they were when we started 25 years ago…Having Michèle lead the models expressed our family values and our aesthetic values….And the clothes that followed were meant to represent the best Rick Owens company we could be.”

Not that the designer has ever wavered. His references have remained the same since he started in his studio apartment in L.A. in 1994, even if it took a while for him to become the runway showman he is today.

“I had doubts my aesthetic would be able to stand up to the spotlight,” he admitted. “Once you start doing runway you have to be dedicated until you die. I knew once I stepped into that system, I would have to come up with stuff for a long time. That was daunting because I wasn’t a runway follower. I was in an alley off Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles and I didn’t know anything about runways or showmanship. I thought I would do delicate subtle clothes…”

American Vogue offered to sponsor his first show for spring 2002. “At the beginning I faltered, then I started understanding what I was doing. And years later, you can’t stop me, you can’t shut me up! I love doing shows. And my gray, subtle delicate little aesthetic has turned into bombastic smoke bombs!”

Owens moved from New York to Paris in 2002 and never looked back.

“If I had stayed in New York doing runway shows, I suspect I might have become a little marginalized for being the fashion week weirdo in New York, or I would have subtly been encouraged to do more streamlined American clothes,” he said. “Being in Europe and Paris especially, there is a perversity in fashion that is Dada, that is poetry, that is symbolism. And I’m much more attracted to that kind of world.”

He carved out his own place in it, doing slow fashion long before it became a buzzy concept.

“There was a moment I was very gratified the fashion world decided to accept my evolution, which was slower than other people’s, but they decided to tolerate that pace because there was something there they accepted. That was very fulfilling to me. In a fast-paced fashion world, they decided they were going to tolerate my pace. And that was great. That is good for everybody.”

In a way, the designer has always craved acceptance.

“I grew up in a very intolerant environment,” he said of his childhood in Porterville, Calif. “I was a flamboyant sissy that was really scorned for my creative expression. So being a vengeful Scorpio, I grew up and promised to get back at them. My company is my revenge.”

Presenting alternative forms of beauty has been important since Day One.

“That’s why I did the Larry LeGaspi book,” he said of his 2019 volume about the costume designer. “Growing up like that and seeing the flamboyance and joy and extremity of clothes he made for Kiss and [Patti] LaBelle and David Bowie, like so many sensitive little boys in the world, seeing that kind of flamboyance, I wanted to be that kind of creator who liberated people and said you don’t have to adhere to strict and narrow definitions of beauty. We have other options, we have self-invention and boldness and other tools that can be used. That has been my biggest most urgent expression.”

Owens’ runway designs are similarly extreme, and he has always been committed to selling everything he shows.

“I was not going to do stunt things,” he said, noting that he wears his brand’s best-selling six-inch platform boots every day. “Do you remember the ‘Rocky Horror Picture’ show motto — ‘don’t dream it, be it?’ That really stuck with me,” said Owens.

His more commercial pieces are designed with the same care. “Even our most basic shorts and T-shirts are very thought through, and a lot are from the first collections I did in the beginning,” Owens said. “I love having a big spectrum, I love having extreme things and the perfect T-shirt that you wear every day. And I love we have 80-year-old fashion diva ladies and 12-year-olds wearing our things. And we just did baby Geobasket [sneakers], so now we have toddlers.”

Owens is an outlier in the luxury fashion realm, because he still controls his own company.

“The benefits are I don’t have to listen to anybody. Having to listen to a committee of people, which I assume happens in the big houses, would kill me. I can’t imagine doing that. The disadvantages are our resources are more limited. When you are with a bigger company, they have more vast technical support than we do. As a result, we end up with smaller quantities…Hence our stuff ends up getting really expensive. But that’s the way it is, and it has worked out, thank god,” he said, acknowledging the contributions of his partners — Elsa Lanzo, Luca Ruggeri, and his wife Lamy. “Their talents equal or surpass mine in distribution, production and the emotional ability to keep a family together and nurture. Because there are a lot of personalities when you have this many people and keeping everybody safe and enthusiastic, that’s magic. That is not me, that’s them….What I have contributed is 10 percent.”

Owens’ world has opened up to more customers in recent years through collaborations — with Converse, Moncler, Birkenstock and more. But the designer was late to come around to them.

“I didn’t want to be consumed or overshadowed…But gradually I became more comfortable with our identity being very defined and I felt confident enough we could enter that kind of arena. Also, it was a fun way to meet new people and to see how other systems worked,” he said.

Working with brands that have different infrastructures has also offered a window into innovations in sustainable production.

“I’m not calling ours a sustainable company at all, that would just be wrong. But I love the idea of responsibility coming into the fashion conversation. Because the fashion conversation is usually so much about ego, status and entitlement. Having responsibility in that conversation thrilled me. Because beside physical beauty, I love moral beauty, too,” Owens said.

“I started with a license and eventually took over the factory, so I inherited a system without thinking about ecology or sustainability. They didn’t ignore it, it just wasn’t part of their vocabulary,” he said of his production in Italy. “We’ve had to actively make changes in the system to be more responsible. It’s been gratifying but not easy. We’ve been gradually and delicately doing that because you don’t want to upset the system but you want to improve it. We haven’t achieved complete sustainability by any means, but we are making the movements we can in that direction.”.

Beyond collaborations, there are probably plenty of big fashion houses who would love to have Owens at the helm. He was the artistic director of French fur house Revillon in the early Aughts. Would he ever lead a heritage house again?

“I want to be a big heritage house!” he said.

Owens does have other projects in mind, however.

“No one has approached me to do a hotel and my feelings are very hurt. I’m still waiting…Or maybe a chain of gyms….A beautiful, monastic chain of gyms,” he mused, declining to elaborate on what any of it would look like.

“I’m not going to tell you; it would be a surprise! I don’t want anyone to knock me off before I do it.”

 

 

 

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