I put in a press release that it was one of the best times of my life, and my press office told me, ‘Well, you’d better not say that,’” Rick Owens told me. “You have to be so careful about everything you say now, and I’ve always been so unfiltered, and I’ve always made it a point to be so personal about everything that I say. But the world is so different now, and there are so many ways to offend people that I feel like I’m training myself to suppress myself as time goes on.”
Owens’s original fashion has been characterized as “drippy,” “monotonous,” and “pessimistic,” and that’s straight from the designer’s mouth. In 2002, after nearly a decade in business in Los Angeles, he brought his clingy, insectlike silhouettes—to his many Hollywood fans, a “cult”—to the New York runway. He didn’t linger, though. Within two years, he and his wife, Michèle Lamy, had set up home and studio in the center of the Paris Old Guard, in a building in the Seventh Arrondissement, where Owens picked up his pace. The basics didn’t change—he still favors the look of dissipation—but his experiments in modern draping and construction became nothing short of breathtaking. Today, at 57, Owens is one of the very last of the big-name independents still standing. He is also a most-liked guy — funny, accessible, always up for a rap on brutalism. Or Kiss. We spoke in June, shortly after Italy reopened its borders. He was on the Lido, in Venice, before driving to factories in the region to check on production. He and Lamy spent the lockdown in Paris.
“It was unique for us to lie under a tree and read poetry,” he said. “It’s exciting to be able to approach things from a new angle—that probably sounds douchey—and to be able to reset a little bit. Although I don’t have half as much pressure as those other designers working for big companies do, with a lot of voices to answer to. But being independent gives me a whole other set of pressures.”
Although Owens rarely comments on politics and social issues, his shows have nonetheless alluded to matters like climate change. So I was curious to know how he, of all designers, might respond to images of empty streets, people in isolation.
“I was thinking of the next step. What happens after a crisis like this? In the past — there is the easy example of Dior after the Second World War and how, after so much deprivation and restrictions on fabric, the response was this grand gesture of using so many meters of fabric. That was really exciting. And I don’t think it was exciting just because you were able to be conspicuously sumptuous. There was more to it. There was a sense of bravado and wit to that gesture. And I’m thinking, That is absolutely not going to work for this one.”
Owens feels the weight of responsibility. “The word responsibility in fashion — we didn’t have that ten, 15 years ago. And now we do. That’s kind of a great thing. Sure, it can be a gimmick for a lot of people. I mean, people have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon. But as far as gimmicks go, that’s a pretty good gimmick. If only 3 percent of it is authentic, that’s already a win.”
But can anything dutiful ever be stylish? Owens isn’t sure. “After this whole experience, responsibility is something that people are going to think about. I don’t know how it’s going to manifest in clothes, exactly. It won’t be witty. Any real chic has always had a sense of humor. Almost a touch of camp, bordering on ridiculous.”
He’s trying to analyze things logically. “There’s an Italian house I’m not going to name, and I watched for a number of years what they did. This expression of reckless voraciousness. The message was ‘We’re taking the most exquisite things and piling them on top of each another.’ They were saying, ‘We don’t have the time nor the necessity to appreciate the value of all of the elements.’ It was thrilling, it was attractive, but I was thinking, This is morally wrong. You are deliberately overlooking the value of individual, beautiful things.” That bothered him, but he knew it made his own path clearer.
“Fashion will always be 80 percent status,” he said. “There are going to be different ways of expressing status—intellectual status, financial status. Margiela was the perfect example of an anti-status status. He had more status than status. You were saying, ‘I’m above status,’ when you wore Margiela, which is just another form of status. Even in an atmosphere of humility and responsibility, those who show it will be the most humble of all.”
He paused and laughed. “Yeah, that’s cynical, isn’t it?”
Perhaps, but his gratitude showed through. “I have this beautiful space in Paris with trees, and I’m reading. One of the writers I was reading was Edmund White, his novel The Farewell Symphony. It’s about letting go and negotiating death. I was also listening to Salome, my favorite opera.” In an opera, there’s usually a fantastic death scene, and Owens has found comfort in the stories. “We are teetering on the edge of possible annihilation. How have we done it in the past? How did White negotiate the death of his lover? How did Salome deal with the rejection of John the Baptist?”
Owens has been plowing through books he’s never had the chance to read. He’s been enjoying the sun, making beautiful dinners with Lamy, lighting the candles on the terrace every night, and keeping track of his ideas. “I have lists and lists and lists. Master lists and sublists. And I have lists that I’ve done for the past ten years with a sublist that pertains to the next collection. They’re just weird little notes to myself.” He added, “I do Xeroxes of my past collections and then I draw over them to see where I’ll go next. Those are my first notes to start.”
At the moment, Owens and his team have been organizing a digital showroom to sell their spring 2021 offerings, which was in the works before the lockdown. He plans to present those clothes in some intimate format in September and then produce small batches for stores.
Owens said, “I believe in fashion shows, for sure. They’ll come back. People need to collect together and be shoulder to shoulder watching something transcendent. That will happen forever.”
He added, “I was walking through the Esplanade a few nights ago here in Paris, and it was full of kids sitting on the grass.” There had been demonstrations throughout Paris that week in support of Black Lives Matter and also protests against the French government. “It was glorious. Just that sense of unity. Everybody was cool, but somewhere beneath it all, they were clinging to each other.”
Owens and I agreed that it was too soon to consider how fashion might reflect the solidarity as well as the anger of this time, if indeed it ever could without seeming to profit from it. “I don’t know. I don’t think so,” he said. “Nerves are just so raw right now.”
Certainly, though, there has been a sharp reevaluation of attitudes. I recalled a 2013 show he did using Black step dancers from the Washington, D.C., area, a show that garnered rave reviews (myself included) for how Owens, long a champion of runway diversity, had done something truly uplifting and inclusive.
“Can you imagine if I had tried to do that step show now, even last year? It just would not have worked. It’s kind of a miracle that it did then — and I was completely conscious of the danger of what I was doing but somehow I had the nerve to do it. I would not have the nerve to do it now, of course.”
“Because it looks exploitive?” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Even at the time, it was delicate. I was conscious then that it could look like that.”
I said, “You know, for years, people in fashion have complained that everything is too complacent, and one explanation has been, ‘Well, there’s nothing to react against’ — no great social movement, no mass outrage. Well, we have that now.”
“So you’re tired of the love-in in Central Park and you want a mosh pit?”
I smiled and waited.
“Well, I think it’s going to take someone very young to know how to express that in a new way. All the designers you’re talking about, we were a departure from the generation before us. At this point, we are the generation that somebody needs to reject. That’s just who we are. We’ve established ourselves. And somebody needs to violently reject us. And they will. I’m waiting. They’ll be able to articulate it in a new way. We don’t have that particular sense of urgency that someone who is 17 does and all people who are 17.”
Earlier in our conversation, Owens had brought up the fact that he was fortunate to have a business partner (in Italy) who helped him develop his ideas and made sure the products were executed well and delivered on time. “I’m forever grateful for that,” he told me. “Without it, I would have just disappeared.” It also helped that editors and buyers accepted the slow pace of his evolution.
Now he said, “It doesn’t work. Because then I had a minute where I had enough space around me where everybody could kind of register who I was. Nobody has that space around them anymore. It’s hard to register anybody right now, because there’s too many people having moments.
“But, but, that is me speaking for my generation, a generation that was before cell phones, before — do you remember when we’d just watched the news and there weren’t banners scrolling on the screen? The generation today can absorb information out of the corner of the eye, in a way that we never learned how to. There’s something about that oversaturation of imagery, using symbols and hidden gestures in a feed, a combination of emojis. The obsessive scrolling through a feed —
“It’s not even technology,” he said with a laugh. “It’s almost Egyptian hieroglyphics. It’s just, like, there’s a man’s face, there’s a man’s hand, and there is, like, a turkey. And you understand the whole story.”
He laughed again. “It’s technology, but it’s also primal and primitive. And that’s kind of exciting.”
*A version of this article appears in the August 31, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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