Celebrating more than 20 years of his eponymous brand and the opening of his first flagship store in the Middle East, American designer Rick Owens is more than meets the eye.
Forming a barrier between the lagoon and the Adriatic Sea, the Hotel Excelsior in Venice Lido, opened since 1908, is one of those magical havens that over decades has attracted politicians, poets, and artists. It is also the place where American designer Rick Owens has spent his summers for the past 10 years, and therefore, the location for our Zoom interview. Owens, from his breezy balcony overlooking the water and me, from Vogue Arabia’s office in Dubai. “Sergei Diaghilev died in this hotel, and Stravinsky was also a guest, alongside Jean Cocteau. They are all from my favorite period, which is still very present in this space,” he tells me, with his face tanned, framed by his signature long, gothic black hair. “I have a beach cabana here at the Excelsior, without electricity but with a desk and a couple of day beds, where I get my emails done while staring at the water. It is quiet and very ghostly in a way. There’s no music, and there are mostly old families who have lived in Venice forever. It is not like the beach clubs in the rest of the world, like Mykonos, with bottle service, a loud DJ, and a whole social life. I certainly do not disapprove of it, as I think we are put out in the world to have fun, but this is very different.”
This summer, Owens is accompanied by a very special guest, his 89-year-old mother. “Do you have elderly parents?” he asks. “It is an interesting period… but we are having a wonderful time in Italy, swimming in the Adriatic Sea.” Every time I have had the opportunity to meet the designer in the past, I’ve discovered a side of Owens that usually gets shielded by his high heeled, “don’t mess with me” look. His shows can also project a distancing energy, with models many times transformed into creatures from a different galaxy. But when in private, the designer blossoms as a kind and empathetic man, with encyclopedic cultural knowledge, and a serious passion for museums, architecture, music, and Egyptian civilization. He is also gifted with a very sharp, no-nonsense view of the world.
I clearly judged the book by its cover. But let’s rewind…
Born in Porterville, California, Owens studied painting at the Otis College of Art and Design, influenced by his personal “heroes” Julian Schnabel and Joseph Beuys. However, he decided to drop out from his art studies, fearing not possessing the “intellectual rigor to be an artist,” or even the capacity to propel himself politically to get the right recognition. Owens ended up enrolling in a trade school, to learn how to cut patterns and make clothes. “I thought that even if I didn’t make it to [being a] designer, I would always have a job as somebody that can labor in a factory. It was not about creating my brand, although that would have been great,” he recalls.
However, in the early nineties, Owens started dropping his collections independently, creating a unique aesthetic that grabbed the attention of international boutiques such as Maria Luisa, Browns, and Maxfield. His signature pieces were bias gowns, draped T-shirts, and items sourcing recycled army surplus. “I started out very commercially, and I never even considered doing runway shows, as I never thought I’d ever be able to afford them,” he reveals. “I thought I would be an eccentric designer who showed my collections in hotels, maybe in Paris, and I was luckily well connected to a small independent network of pioneering buyers, who took chances on their designers. I don’t know who takes those kinds of risks anymore…”
Even if the plan was to “produce tiny collections to have a modest way of sustaining,” everything changed in 2001, when the American edition of Vogue underwrote Owens’ first fashion show, in New York. This was a new reality for the creative, who had previously only attended one runway show. “In Los Angeles we don’t do fashion shows… I only experienced that in Paris when I got invited by a friend as a plus one. When I entered the room, I just sat in the front row, as I didn’t know the seats were numbered. Nobody is that dumb… Of course, someone just snapped at me,” he laughs. “The show ended up being depressing. I was wowed, thinking I could never recreate something so glorious. It was a world beyond me, and I had learned to be satisfied with my own stuff.”
The designer eventually gathered the strength to set up his runway presentations, winning the Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent at the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awards in 2002. “Luckily, I always received positive feedback, or maybe I was delusional enough to always see the positive side – or arrogant enough to dismiss the negative feedback,” he reflects. “I’ve always been grateful for the acceptance I’ve got because I know that I’m not always promoting the most popular thing in the world. But I always had an honorable little project, and great people to help me execute. I don’t fool myself; I know I’m not a genius… I have good ideas, but also many great partners.”
Rick Owens’ relocation to Europe happened in 2003, for practical reasons, and to explore new opportunities. The brand started to be produced in Italy, in a factory in Concordia sulla Secchia, and the growth of the business required a closer interaction with the manufacturer. Two decades later, Owens still produces in the same location, and eventually bought the facilities in 2016. A year before the move to France, the designer had also been appointed as creative director of the legendary fur company Revillon, founded in 1723, and “even mentioned by Proust,” as Owens highlights. “I was attracted by the legend and reputation of this brand. It was not about the money, as there was really no money there,” he shares. “What I didn’t calculate was that I received instant credibility, as my appointment impressed people in fashion. If I had come on my own to Paris as an American, people would have been suspicious, and I would have been dismissed. This was a serious and glamorous job that gave me an edge.”
Today, what started as a shy endeavor became a worldwide empire, with the Rick Owens brand being sold across 500 stores, and staging spectacular runway shows in Paris. This was the case of the latest Fall/Winter 2022 season revealed at the Palais de Tokyo and photographed in this issue against Iceland’s dramatic landscapes. In the show notes, Owens states that fashion is all about communication, and it can be used as a gracious way to move through the world. But what does that really mean? “Clothes are status signifiers, and no matter how restrained, they always give you subtle symbols of what your values are. I can’t really tell you how the cut of a shoulder relates to a certain system, but as an editor of Vogue, you know exactly what I mean,” he says.
Comprising 51 looks, revealed by models walking through a cloud of smoke, the collection featured big puffer jackets, pointy shoulder looks, and skin-hugging skirts, touching the floor. However, it was the sculptural, sequined evening dresses that really caught our eye, showcasing a more elegant facet of the designer’s universe. “I’m always looking for a barbaric elegance because there are very primal experiences that we all share, and that we all respond to, such as rejections, love… I’m trying to touch on those,” he explains. “This particular show came during a very delicate time, reacting to what is happening in the world. Initially, the music was going to be very violent and bombastic, but I changed it at the last minute as I needed the mood to completely collapse into beauty. The show had to be violently beautiful to counterbalance the disappointment of war. War entering our lives again, after everything that the world has learned… With Mahler’s symphony in the background, I wanted things to be sumptuously striking, as the strongest expression I could find in protest.” This collection – and all the other lines of the house – will be available in Dubai at the brand’s first flagship store in the Middle East, just opened at The Dubai Mall.
Speaking of beauty, Owens very often generates headlines due to the diversity of his casting, but also the daring beauty he promotes. Models have walked the runway with their features modified with prosthetic makeup, sporting fully shaved heads, and black contact lenses. As a guest, it all can look frankly intimidating at times. When questioned about what is behind his provoking aesthetics, Owens immediately refutes the concept of beauty in traditional pop culture, and what he calls “airport beauty.” “When I walk in an airport and I see all the makeup advertising, I don’t subscribe to that very narrow definition of beauty. When I started my own collection, I wanted to offer alternatives, not because I’m against classical beauty, but because I wanted to offer options if you don’t fit into this ideal. I felt that this was a kind and honorable thing to do, and a responsible way to frame my work.” Digging more into his past, Owens also candidly shares that his whole aesthetic was defined by his difficult Catholic childhood. “I was raised in a small, judgmental, and disapproving town, where I had to experience a lot of shame.”
Taking into consideration what he underwent and his teen struggles, I suggest that everyone back at home must be very proud of the designer, as he has built one of the most consistent, recognizable, and well-respected global fashion brands. “They probably just think of myself as a celebrity, and that’s good enough for a lot of people,” he answers dismissively. “I’m sure there are a lot of people from where I come from that would laugh at my clothes, if they saw them out of the context of the celebrity connection. But that’s me not being generous,” he laughs. However, now without sarcasm, the designer confides that he felt especially proud when, in 2017, he collected the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award, one of the highest honors for any American designer. “I’ve never really been in that world, and I never went out of my way to participate. So being recognized out of the blue… that was very validating. I was surprised as I understood that I became more visible than I thought, out of my niche. It was touching, as I stood in front of a room full of cultivated people, who expect the very highest of that world.”
Besides the awards, I ask Owens how he feels when he experiences the love of his fans. The brand has probably one of the most loyal and dedicated followings in fashion, with consumers ready to go the extra mile to get that Rick Owens look, from head to toe. Just pass in front of one of his shows during fashion week, and you will easily spot a flamboyant army of daring dressers, mostly all clad in black. “I don’t know if I ever really experienced it the way other people do as I’m not actually in that crowd, I’m observing it from a screen, from a distance, in a quiet room. And at the end, by the time I come back from the backstage, everybody is gone,” Owens explains, making me think that even during the craziest period of the fashion calendar, he was able to find some sort of allegorical isolated cabana, just like the one by the sea where he was probably relaxing before this interview. “I can’t invest myself in an emotional commitment to it,” the designer concludes. “Maybe I don’t allow myself to take it that seriously because, you know, it can all be gone one day.”
Originally published in the September 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Asegir Hjartarson
Makeup: Roksana Kruszewska
Photo assistant: Guillaume henry
On set producer: Anne-Sophie Galy-Gasparrou
Model: Karits & Hannah at Eskimo