The world according to Rick Owens — punk brat of Porterville, California, turned health-goth of Paris — is at once brutal and beautiful. His clothes (like his Mad Max leather jackets and clomping megasneakers) and his stores (like the one in Paris that famously features a sculpture of the man himself urinating) have always insisted on it; it’s the world that has caught up. Now, at 57, the designer has a strong claim to be one of fashion’s éminences grises, bottle-black locks notwithstanding. But as a rare independent in an ever more corporatized fashion world, Owens is far from going gentle into that good night: After winning the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, he was named its Menswear Designer of the Year in 2019. For the Cut’s new interview series with fashion’s most formative voices, Owens spoke about aging, pleasure, and the radical power of ’70s shock rock.
Am I catching you at a good time?
I just got up. We went to the House of Yes in Brooklyn. Have you been there? It was really cute. It was a voguing ball.
You are one of the few successful fashion designers to have remained independent all these years. You’re just about the only one.
I don’t know how that happened — actually, I do know how that happened. I had fantastic partners who allowed me to develop my voice longer than the three seasons they usually give designers. I always joke with them that they could have done this with anybody. Being able to get stuff — I don’t mean to be crass — at the right price at the right place at the right time, that’s the trick. It’s not the concept so much, though that helps. Getting it executed is what it’s all about. It doesn’t sound that poetic, but it can be.
But the cycle just goes faster and faster, and people want more and more.
I have only four collections a year, four runways on which I’m judged. I have a very different perception of the speed than guys that work at those houses do. I don’t have it that hard at all. There is a certain amount of pressure, but what else would I be doing with my life? It keeps you on your toes. And stimulated. And it gives this brand a sense of purpose, which everybody could use.
Many of your colleagues are reconsidering if runway shows are the best way to show fashion at the moment. Are you committed to them?
Absolutely. They were the last thing I ever dreamed of when I started doing clothes. I never even considered coming out for a bow at the end of a runway show, which is the motivation for a lot of people when they start thinking of being a designer. It took me a minute to find my voice, to allow people to register me and decide that they were going to tolerate somebody that made slow movements. When I started out, the movements were a lot slower, and now the gestures are a lot grander and a lot more dramatic, but I didn’t really realize that I was going to enjoy it that much, the theater of it. The opportunity to be able to talk about things other than just clothes. That’s a gift, being able to have a platform to explore different types of beauty in a more behavioral-social way.
You’ve helped change the way we see beauty.
I think it’s just a primal thing. People are always going to want ceremonies; they’re always going to gather together to experience something moving as a community. It’s Druid ceremonies, it’s church, it’s voguing balls. And there needs to be a sense of risk, that sense of competition, and that’s what runway shows can be. It’s seeing somebody take a risk and make a leap. We will forever be looking for that thrill. Especially now, with Instagram, runway shows are more relevant than ever. People can communicate about them in a more speedy way than they could before. I was going to say the right voices are going to end up being heard, but we’ve seen what happened. The loudest voices are the ones that get heard. But I don’t know if that’s going to last forever.
The loudest often wins.
What’s interesting now is that whole bourgeois thing, which Riccardo Tisci started doing at Burberry and Hedi Slimane is doing at Celine. There’s a big Celine billboard in Place de la Concorde that I pass every day. A pleated tweed culotte skirt and a Peter Pan collar trimmed in lace, pearls or something — it’s this huge billboard. I know that it’s supposed to be provocative, and it is, because it kind of stuns me every time I see it. That this sensibility is aspirational for a young audience that never really experienced that, I suppose? All of their parents are wearing my clothes! I can see how that generation is reacting against me. I take it very personally. With a giggle.
I do appreciate that there’s a subtlety to it, that it’s a reaction to the flash that we’ve been seeing for a while. I was just telling somebody that I don’t really go to shows when I come to New York, but the ones that I would have gone to, I would have gone to see the Row. They’ve really maintained a consistently pure aesthetic that I’m always going to look at. It’s the antithesis of all the other runway shows in New York. I admire what they’re doing. There’s that other brand, CDLM; I liked what I saw that they were doing. But I’m sure there are others. Those were the ones that I really took note of, but I’m sure there are others.
You’re so engaged!
Oh, sure, I’m a fashion fan. I like to see what’s happening around. I’m not a snob — well, I am a snob, I guess.
Let’s talk about Larry LeGaspi, the ’70s costume designer who worked with Kiss and Labelle. You channeled him for a 2019 collection and wrote a book about his work. Why him?
When I started that book, I knew it was going to be an autobiography explaining how my aesthetic developed — through him, in a way. When I was 13 and Kiss exploded, it was kind of unprecedented. There had been the New York Dolls and glitter rock, but this one was so bombastic and with such full-on testosterone, with the vomiting of blood and the pyrotechnics and fog and the vitality of these men in these heels and black. And then it was very much more black leather. Later on, it became black spandex. But then it was more sinister and more depraved and more menacing — authentically menacing from my perspective as a 13-year-old. That was supposed to impress, and it did.
There was a melancholy side of this too; it’s a lost generation. It expressed this utopian, idyllic, innocent world — and the thrill is that this kind of camp sensibility became part of the black soul culture in America and then became part of stadium rock, middle-American culture. This camp sensibility from a gay man [LeGaspi] became a huge influence. That’s my DNA. That gender fluidity but with a vitality. Swagger. That primal male swagger mixed with makeup and heels. And with menace. With aggression. That recipe is kind of my perception of masculinity in a way, my personal perception.
This was your primal scene.
And knowing that there was some place to go and be that — that it was a possibility. That hadn’t occurred to me. That I could be this guy spewing blood in makeup and heels doing a guitar solo. In fog. That’s who I wanted to be.
Yes! And laying waste.
Do you think you’ve achieved that?
To a certain extent, I suppose I have! I’ve always been very honest about it all being self-invention, and if I can do it, anybody can do it. It’s all about figuring out who you are. That’s something I’ve always tried to say through clothes, too. Figuring out what’s wrong with you and letting it go and working on it but not killing yourself over it. Just working with what you’ve got. I’m very honest about it all being complete artifice, but that’s fine. That’s all it needs to be.
That sensibility in your work seemed to emerge fully formed — that dark aesthetic, the scary power of it.
I don’t know. I was a pretty fey kid, pretty fragile. It was a pretty long road; it took a long time. There’s definitely a lot of fragility there sometimes. It’s still very much a work-in-progress — as we all are.
In recent collections, your pieces have seemed as much architecture as fashion.
When I started, it was a very languid, drippy silhouette. As I learned how to execute things more precisely, it started engorging. It started getting stiffer and more sculptural. You can see this arc of somebody learning how to have some fun. At the peak of your life, I suppose in theory, the ideal scenario is you gradually reach some kind of level of serenity and self-awareness. And my serenity … My father was so interested in self-awareness and learning. As he got older, though, he just became more frustrated and more bitter and the opposite of serene. I don’t know if that’s because physically there’s a deterioration that makes you fearful and reactionary and if that’s inevitable. But I’ve also seen older people who get to a place of peace that I admire. Maybe by that time, I’ll just have grandkids and kittens.
Your wife, Michèle Lamy, is a muse and your collaborator. How does your relationship work?
Michèle is almost all id. There are times when I’m just not ready for her and I have to remind myself to open up to her in a different way. A lot of my life is just thinking logically how to get from point A to point B in the straightest line. If I’m in that kind of mood, I have to change my brain to have a conversation with Michèle. She is going to get completely abstract. She is pure poetry. Sometimes I just have to remind myself, Get out of your uptightness and listen to this, get into this mood. This mood is essential. She reminds me to not be so rigid. She pushes me around in different ways that somehow I had the good sense enough to see I needed to have to normalize me. It’s hard to quantify what influence she has, but I trust her. And somewhere deeply I know it gives me some kind of sense of balance. Otherwise, I would just get too uptight.
I’ve got to ask: How do I get the Rick Owens body?
I work out almost every day. And you do have to do sit-ups, at least 100 sit-ups a day. You just have to. It’s like brushing your teeth. It becomes something you do. It’s just vanity. It’s not that much about health. That’s what I do. What I do is all about aesthetics, so I’m going to do whatever I can to make everything around me look as good as it can. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. But I’m somebody who loves routine, so for me, repetition is therapeutic and fun. But I’m really, really lucky. I smoke a lot and I eat cake.
*A version of this article appears in the December 9, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!