From The Archive: Alexander Fury Speaks To Rick Owens
In anticipation of Rick Owens taking home a shiny Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award at tomorrow’s CFDA awards, presumably to slot in amongst his many other shiny awards, we have dusted off the archive to revive this – a conversation between Rick and very talented wordsmiths Alexander Fury. Uncharacteristically for us, we haven’t had to go very deep for this – it’s taken from issue 52 of 10 Magazine, which was a mere 6 issues ago. From Paris to LA, early beginnings to shooting the shit with Joan Burstein (kinda), enjoy this intimate convo with Mr Owens. You’re welcome….
Meeting Rick Owens the morning after the Academy Awards ceremony is an odd experience. Usually, Owens would be in the throes of preparation for his own-label show on that date, but this year’s Oscars were pushed back to early March. Meaning that Owens could watch the action live, should he so choose. He chose not to – although his wife and business partner Michele Lamy did. Owens yawns, because he slept on the sofa while Lamy watched the early-hours ceremony in bed.
“She’s mad about the Oscars,” he confessed in a Californian drawl that betrays his birthplace and his formative years in Los Angeles. Owens never moved to New York, so his accent remains west coast languid – peppered with gnarly Bill & Ted-esque turns of phrase, such as “like” and “you know” – rather than east coast staccato. He has been based in Paris since 2003, but doesn’t speak French.
Those are the incidentals, but ideologically it feels odd to think of Owens and the Oscars. Despite living and building his business in Los Angeles, there is no less “starry” designer working in all of fashion than Owens. If he does an evening gown, it’s likely to be in pilled grey cashmere with a train trailing in the mud, or in multiple layers of cellophane that end up resembling the shower curtain from Psycho. At the same time, the Rick Owens distressed leather jacket – asymmetric, super-skinny of arm and fluttering of hem – has become the go-to garb for starlets, harlots and “Zoebots” in the minimal LA strut from stretch Hummer to Starbucks, despite its lack of Hollywood glamour.
Maybe that should be lack of “conventional” Hollywood glamour – because, to Owens’ eyes, there is glamour in his shroud-like shapes, his tulles and multiple-washed wools and silks, his creased and crumpled layers. Owens isn’t anti-glamour, or even anti-fashion, he’s anti-convention. And unlike just about any other contemporary purveyor of star-spangled evening frocks, Owens is a Californian couturier through and through. He’s also, to borrow the parlance of that quintessentially Los Angelean heroine Cher Horowitz, a totally important designer.
ALEXANDER FURY: “How long did you live in LA? Was that where you were brought up?”
RICK OWENS: “No, I was just there in my wild years, the period where you blossom into yourself – so my glory years, I suppose. In my twenties, basically. And that’s where I really got started and that’s where I really kind of became. That was kind of the kernel of everything that I do, I suppose. That’s when I first started learning to do what I do.”
AF: “Has it influenced the way you design?”
RO: “I mean, I look at the 1930s when I think of women’s clothes. That’s the era that I like, that black and white, Hollywood, languorous era. I think it’s partly that, and it’s partly me growing up – the things that made the most sense. Everything I do that is shorts and T-shirts is shorts and T-shirts, the simplest things, and then I just go from there. Like what is the most fundamental, primal thing that you would wear in the jungle if you lived there by yourself? And then kind of elaborate from there. With men’s it’s very much about iconic masculinity, the things that make men historically look the most noble.”
AF: “Which is true of a lot of your womenswear, too, actually. But does your approach to clothing differ according to gender?”
RO: “Oh yeah. With men. Men have a smaller margin to flirt. With women, there’s a bigger comfort level to exaggerate, to be coquettish. I think, bottom line, what men are going for is a sense of propriety, masculinity and, above all, a kind of dignity. Women can afford to be more playful. I think, with men, it’s hard for them to want to appear as if they are trying to be alluring – with women it’s acceptable. With men, trying to look alluring, it’s problematic. Definitely with woman there’s a lot of leeway to be extravagant, to be amusing, to be witty, to be coquettish, and to a certain extent that applies to men, too, but to a lot smaller degree. There’s definitely a big divide as far as I’m concerned.”
AF: “Your aesthetic is very distinct and very strong and very individual.”
RO: “It’s supposed to be.”
AF: “Well, I think every designer’s is supposed to be, but very few actually get that. But I wonder if that’s possibly because, when you first started, there was that period when it was outside of this catwalk-show system?”
RO: “I wonder. I don’t know if it would be possible to do a Rick Owens right now; that was before the calendar was as crowded as it is, and I had, like, this outsider, weirdo kind of space in time where enough people has kind of absorbed me, and that kind of stood with me for a long period of time. I don’t know who can do that any more, who has that space around them.”
AF: “Do you think being based in LA helped with that – to make it kind of an outsider perspective from the rest of American fashion? The geographical distance helps with the ideological distance?”
RO: “Well, I would say it gave me more time to develop myself, but I don’t think I came [to Paris] that fully developed, to tell you the truth. I think I developed myself after I got here, so it wasn’t that. I suppose it gave me, like, it made me more attractive as an outsider. It gave me an outsider/outlaw kind of thing. That was a nice label.”
AF: “I guess maybe that made it easier for people to pigeonhole and understand what you were doing”
RO: “The thing that’s my absolute base is I sold clothes for years before I did runway. So I had experience with the retailers and I sold my clothes myself. It was very one-on-one; it wasn’t a showroom, it was me up there in the back office of their stores, shooting the shit and having coffee and looking at the clothes and talking about what was working and what wasn’t. And it was, like, the Mrs Bursteins – I didn’t shoot the shit with Mrs Burstein that much, but I did present my clothes to her. You know, Joyce from Hong Kong and all those people. It was all about that. It was really about selling clothes before doing runway, so that it was very retail-based, so that gave me a different kind of foundation, I think.”
AF: “It’s kind of anti-fashion in a way as well, because it’s kind of clothes rather than fashion in a sense. I don’t want to say creating a product but creating garments that people really wear. What people are responding to, I guess”
RO: “Yeah, for a weirdo, I have a very practical streak. It was very much commercially based in a funny way. But I mean there was definitely romance there.”
AF: “Do you see your work as anti-fashion, as kind of a stand against the fashion establishment?”
RO: “Sometimes I think I do. When I first started out one of my desires was to corrupt from within. I’ve always kind of resented the fact that what they put on the runway is exaggerated and is radical and is kind of saved only for the runway. My idea when I first started making clothes was I wanted to bring radical silhouette to everyday life. I wanted to – not make it less special – but I wanted to make every day special. The most radical silhouette – if it’s softened in grey and the materials are more neutralised – I liked the idea of sneaking it into daytime. When I first started out I was doing a lot of grey cashmere skirts with trains that I insisted people should wear during the daytime – and people did. I felt like that was kind of a triumph. I mean, not a lot of people did, but I felt that, in a small way, it was kind of one of the most punk-rock things I could do with clothes. So it’s not really anti-establishment – I suppose it’s anti-convention. Later on, gradually as time has gone on, I’ve maybe outgrown a little bit of that adolescent reaction, but then again, I haven’t. Sometimes I think I have, but no, I haven’t, it’s still there and I probably even celebrate it every once in a while.”
AF: “I wonder, as you obviously moved from LA to work in Paris, do you feel that move affected the clothes that you make? Has it shifted your aesthetic?”
RO: “It’s probably shifted in the runway thing. You don’t really know, though. It’s really hard to say because I was just as isolated in Los Angeles as I am in Paris. It’s very much the same thing. I work at home, so it’s home, the gym, a couple of restaurants around the house. But I think the whole runway experience means you have to rise to the occasion. It’s challenging – more challenging but in a wonderful way. Yeah, I don’t know what I would have done.”
AF: “I was interested when you were talking about how 1930s Hollywood influenced your moods, because I think, for a lot of people, thinking about your work, it doesn’t link in with that kind of idea that people have of LA fashion and specifically of that kind of old-Hollywood thing.”
RO: “Well, my Los Angeles – there was Hollywood Boulevard and it was very much about old Hollywood and legends and a kind of mythology of Hollywood. Black and white Hollywood. People think of Los Angeles as a different thing, so mine was kind of a niche Los Angeles. Very decrepit – the neighbourhood where I lived, it was, ‘this star overdosed in this apartment building’, and Cecil B DeMille used to live over here, so it was kind of all that.”
AF: “I guess there is a weird tragedy to that – it’s weirdly tied in with that Hollywood star system and how when it broke down, it broke the people”
RO: “I was living in the residue of old Hollywood.”
AF: “The Day of the Locust?”
RO: “Yes. That’s exactly where I lived, and it felt like that! It felt like the residue of it but I loved it. That was the best part about it.”
AF: “Do you think it kind of made you re-approach that old idea of glamour – our very static idea of glamour – in a completely different way?”
RICK OWENS: “It’s all about glamour, it’s about allure and it’s about creating fascination.”
Photographer: Sean Thomas
Text: Alexander Fury