What Becomes A Rebel Most? Anders Christian Madsen Talks To Rick Owens
I always detect a flinch in people whenever I respond to the age-old question, “What was your favourite show this season?” “Rick Owens,” I tell them. It’s the spontaneous answer I’ve given almost exclusively over the past few years, ever since Owens became illuminated by a different kind of light.
They flinch not just because I’ve never worn his clothes (and would look like a large fetish troll in his sylph- like cuts), but because they expect a trendy answer: the newest streetwear collaboration, the pseudo-arty Instagram label du jour or whichever designer darling just debuted at a big house. Those are the things that fuel the spinning wheel of fashion and yet, season upon season – with every epic show he puts on – I find myself worshipping at the altar of Rick. This independent fashion outsider with his set aesthetic has become my seasonal Jesus: someone to hear my prayers – someone who cares. Backstage after his SS18 men’s show in June, he started quoting his Sexual Harassment soundtrack like scripture. “In this time of hate and pain, we need a remedy. I need a freak,” he cited.
The words had just scored his most otherworldly show to date, his first after he was honoured with the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement award in June. It wasn’t the couture-level mastodons of recent seasons wafting down the floors of the Palais de Tokyo, but exquisitely refined, dark tailoring descending from the crown of that monumental building, outside in the scorching summer sun, like black angels falling from the sky in princely gazars, cloqués and duchesses. Freaks at the opera – rebels dressed to the nines! And in a contemporary fashion landscape intent on elevating the dull (I mean, a world that created normcore!), his words echoed in my fashion-week dreams. “A freak to me is something rare, sensational, inspired by the unusual. And I’m seeing this normality in the world that’s kind of being lionised and deified, and personally that’s my refrain – I need a freak in life. I need to be surprised. I need effort. And I need things to be rare and not banal,” Owens decreed. “Celebrating the prosaic and conventional is amusing, but it’s not the spirit of my spirit. It’s a little mean-spirited. A little snotty.”
If you presume most people in fashion were outcasts in school, and I think we can (and if not outcasts, then at least under-appreciated for the goth-tastic Dior Homme wardrobe they’d queued up to get at age 16 outside the only store in Copenhagen that carried it), Owens’s words should reverberate through the whole industry. Because in a postmodern fashion world increasingly low on the freakishness that spawned it, Owens has become a messianic force of susceptibility, sent to keep the torches of fashion’s once- so-bright rebellion burning and make the world a better place, to use the lyrics of another magnifient freak. “Clothes are aspirational, and putting mannequins on the highest level, it makes it more heroic,” Owens said on that hot June day in Paris. “I’m not saying my clothes deserve that, but I’m just saying that it’s a moving thing to come together as a community, to have a moment that’s aspirational, and that’s what runway shows are. That’s what I try to do – something positive.
“I wanna wear something a bit more disciplined and formal to counterbalance this kind of sordid discord and chaos that we’re experiencing. If my clothes are any kind of answer to that, it’s just a little more formality. Blazers are really about being polite and I don’t see a lot of that being emphasised enough right now.”
Owens has never questioned the fact that fashion reflects and affects our surroundings. And in a time when the social and political zeitgeist has rapidly been evolving against his moral beliefs, this designer has evolved against the zeitgeist of fashion. After years of showing in what he called “the bunker in Bercy” (a blacked-out sports arena in east Paris), with shows that got more and more theatrical – a flamboyant metal band, an American high-school performance troupe – something changed on Owens’s horizon. In 2014, he pulled back and moved his shows to the contrasting surroundings of the Palais de Chaillot and Palais de Tokyo in the west of the city. He transformed his method – and world.
Now, it was about the smaller gesture: the quiet, refined rebellion. He presented a show styled on his studio team and based two other collections on the scandalous 1912 ballet Afternoon of a Faun. Then, in what was a relatively frocky collection by Rick Owens standards, for his AW15 men’s show, boy models suddenly came out with their dicks on display. “You know I love a simple, tiny, little gesture that packs the wallop,” he jibed at me back then. “It’s very powerful. Not many people can do that. I mean, it’s a straight world now. And it also says something about being independent. Who else can really get away with that kind of stuff? It’s a corporate world.” Owens was quietly starting to carve himself out of the conglomerate fashion circus, politely flexing his sovereign muscle in an industry where few designers have that freedom. On a trip to Hong Kong in November last year, he simplifled it for me. “I realise I’m very lucky. And the luck is in having made a good marriage,” he explained.
He was referring to Elsa Lanzo and Luca Ruggeri, who own the 20% of his company not controlled by Owens and his wife, Michèle Lamy. “To have a force that executes your ideas without blinking and without any questions, that’s the miracle. I’m not the miracle, they are.” In the seasons that followed his penis parade, Owens took full advantage of his creative freedom. His designs literally grew into magical sculptures, draped and swathed like giant haute couture creations, accompanied by solemn and sometimes apocalyptic soundtracks, with backstage statements about restoring civilisation, containing aggressive masculinity and ageing gracefully. Behind the scenes, Owens was dealing with those same conflicts, not just on a global political level but in his personal life.
“As I’m getting older I think about decline a lot, in ecological terms and certain other ways,” he said after his SS16 women’s collection, in which he answered those fears with dainty and delicate garments.
“My things are usually really solid and this time they were almost floating. I don’t know how it’s gonna work in a store – how we’re gonna shape stuff, but we’ll worry about that later,” he shrugged, summing up that privilege of independence.
Last August, when I visited Owens at his summer residence in Venice – a condo on the Lido – the dust was still settling from a string of life-defining events. He’d recently bought up his Italian factories, officially becoming an establishment brand. He’d entered his fifties a few years earlier and was still coming to terms with the death of his dad in 2015. A traditional-values man, who lived in their native Porterville until he died, he represented Owens’s original rebellion. “I was the only son, so we were kind of close and kind of mortal enemies. He was very actively conservative, so obviously I was a karmic reaction to that,” he said. “But I have to hand it to him, I think he was able to swallow a lot. He was coming to my show ’til the end, sitting next to drag queens at dinner. He made a huge effort. He did what he could.”
That night, we sat on his terrace and watched the sun go down over the Adriatic, talking about our deceased dads and their strange male egos. It wasn’t until Venice that I realised why Owens’s shows had begun to mean so much to me. Experiencing him on that small sandbar, in voluntary isolation for the sake of reflection, I saw a rebel so rebellious he couldn’t escape his cause: his truly compassionate heart, which beats so brutally for the worldly and gracious virtues he believes in. “It’s been very Death in Venice this month,” I remember him saying. “And then there’s this underlying sense of grit. There hasn’t been a war for a long time and this generation hasn’t really known that kind of war. And I’m suspicious that people are ready for one, that there is some kind of death lust that’s kind of part of our genes, that we just can’t avoid.”
These were the emotions he poured into each of those shows – the feelings passed on to audience members like me. “It can be depressing if you think about it, all alone in your penthouse on the Lido,” he quipped, dryly. In the shows that followed that summer, like that celestial men’s show this June, he has effectively campaigned for a solution, promoting the values he believes will change the bigger picture. “I ended up being a selfish creator and I’m kind of living in my own little sandbox,” he said. “I feel a sense of moral responsibility in what I’m presenting out there. I’m preaching tolerance and I’m also presenting ideas of optional beauty. Not really alternative beauty, because that would mean I’m endorsing this kind of beauty over your beauty, and I’m not doing that – I’m just saying this in an option. I feel that by doing that I’m fulfilling some kind of moral responsibility for the future.”
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photographer Danielle Levitt
From Top: AW17, AW13, AW15, SS13
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…