This story is taken from Issue 17 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.
She’s an enigmatic polymath whose charisma attracts a legion of fans and celebrity friends, a one-of-a-kind cultural figure with an inner circle that ranges from A$AP Rocky to Gareth Pugh. Eugene Rabkin peels back the layers to find out what makes Michèle Lamy tick.
People who don’t know Michèle Lamy usually refer to her as “witchy.” Sure, with her henna-covered hands and bejeweled fingers, piercingly brilliant eyes set amid the lines on her dark face, there is something witchy in her appearance. But more bewitching is her enigmatic personality. Most people walk, yet Lamy seems to glide. Her voice is raspy and her French accent is overwhelming, despite having lived in Los Angeles from 1979 to 2003.
She’s a frustrating interviewee, her train of thought often derailing and disappearing off on tangents into storytelling mode. Or she speaks in grand pronouncements: “Rappers are the poets of today.” Or she looks at you like you’ve fallen from the moon when she thinks you’re asking something stupidly obvious. In response to a question about whether she follows politics, she replies with a subject-ending “Who doesn’t?” As in, “How can you not?” At the same time, Lamy is wonderfully friendly and open-minded. Kids come up to her shaking with anxious veneration, only to be embraced in an instant. And she has a wicked sense of humor.
If you’ve ever met Lamy, been mesmerized by her, and yet don’t know quite what to make of her, don’t worry; it’s a normal reaction. Perhaps you know she’s the wife of designer Rick Owens, although “wife” is a weird term when describing their symbiotic relationship. Lamy is a creative tour de force in her own right. She produces the furniture that bears the Owens name, ranging from matte black plywood daybeds, brutalist marble chairs, and steel frame benches with cushions covered in textured camel hair. She also designs jewelry with Loree Rodkin, makes music with her band LAVASCAR, and has appeared in FKA twigs and Black Asteroid music videos.
Lamy was born into a family with a background in the industry. Her grandfather made accessories for one of France’s most famous couturiers, Paul Poiret. Lamy studied law, and after law school, she practiced for five years before moving to Los Angeles. There, she started her own line of clothes and accessories, for which she also had a shop and a small factory. One day she hired a young man by the name of Rick Owens to be its patternmaker. Lamy quickly realized that in Owens she had a real talent on her hands. His ambition was to start his own line, and so Lamy’s clothes-making enterprise slowly morphed into that of Owens.
At the same time, Lamy ran Les Deux Cafes, a sprawling, vine-covered restaurant that was frequented by the Hollywood elite. In the evenings, Lamy would sing to them in a raspy voice. In the mid ’90s, Owens gradually started selling clothes under his own name. Naturally, Lamy was the first woman he dressed. Les Deux Cafes patrons took notice, commenting on her clothes, and the name of Rick Owens spread. He began dressing celebrities such as Courtney Love and struck up an exclusive deal with Maxfield, the best designer store in Los Angeles. In 2002 he did his first show in New York under the auspices of Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Shortly thereafter, he found an Italian investor and received an invitation to design for French fur house Revillon, married Lamy, and they moved to Paris. The rest, as they say, is history.
For two years, Lamy hosted an art project called Bargenale, turning a literal barge into an installation that melded music, food, and art during the Venice Biennale. She made a habit of effortlessly pulling people into her orbit, such as rapper A$AP Rocky and the Ghetto Gastro crew — both were participants at Bargenale, with the latter providing BBQ for attendees.
Lamy’s cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural appeal is why she’s the definition of a contemporary cultural polymath — not exactly an “artist” in the traditional sense, but a mind that is creatively omnivorous. You can’t quite place her, and so all of Lamy’s work has been gathered into something she’s called Lamyland, a creative universe that is uniquely her own.
If you were born in one place, lived for a long time in another, and do not fit neatly into the conventions of society, you have the option to create a world of your own. You choose to define yourself not by your nationality, race, or religion, but by a set of cultural and aesthetic values. That’s where art in its many forms — be it music, poetry, or fashion — comes in. You find like-minded people regardless of color, sexual orientation, or place of birth. You create your own tribe. And that’s how you get Lamyland.
I meet Lamy in Paris before the Rick Owens men’s show in June. It’s a hot and brilliantly sunny day, perfect for the show, which is taking place in the courtyard of the art deco Palais de Tokyo. She’s wearing a sculpted Rick Owens dress and boots with elongated toes. On her head is a cap with an upturned visor and a GoPro camera.
“I am recording my day for Visionaire,” Lamy informs me. “You will be famous.”
We walk around the backstage area, trailed by Janet, who handles Lamy’s PR, and by Giovanni, her right hand on the furniture-making side. Lamy’s energy levels are enviable. She doesn’t seem to stop for a second, checking in on the makeup team, looking at the models, walking out to inspect the runway, and making remarks to Owens, who lovingly refers to her as “hun.” At one point, Scarlett Rouge — Lamy’s daughter from a previous marriage — shows up, and Lamy sets us up to take a walk on the runway as she records on the GoPro. The show’s rehearsal begins and Lamy points out the first model, commenting, “That’s the rapper Tommy Cash. He’s brilliant.”
Lamy has her own seating section at each Rick Owens show, where her tribe is seated. She asks to rearrange some seats, causing a PR agent to break out in a nervous sweat. Show attendees are due to arrive within minutes. “But those are reserved for the American Vogue!” the agent says, exasperated. “I don’t care,” Lamy replies flatly.
After a little back and forth, it’s all chalked up to a misunderstanding, and the PR agent, who for a minute looked like he’d swallowed an apple whole, heaves a sigh of relief.
“I don’t care.”
The guests arrive, pay their respects, and start taking pictures. A$AP Rocky shows up clad in a denim suit with an all-over print advertising his latest album, TESTING. It’s a bit of guerilla marketing to advertise his Paris Fashion Week pop-up that’s selling the same merch. On his feet are an unreleased pair of chunky black Under Armour sneakers of his own design, which have been likened to the Osiris D3, a similarly bulky skate shoe that had its heyday at the turn of the century. Lamy and Rocky hug and chat for a minute. Ghetto Gastro co-founder Jon Gray turns up as well, wearing a black Rick Owens uniform of drop-crotch shorts, a tank, and DRKSHDW sneakers that resemble Converse Chuck Taylors on a steady diet of steroids. Within about half an hour, everyone has settled and the show begins.
The last thing you would expect Lamy to be is a proficient boxer. She’s been an avid practitioner since her days in Los Angeles. Although Lamy prefers contactless boxing because she hates violence. This contradiction is typical Lamy, but to her there’s no contradiction at all. What she loves about boxing is being acutely present in the moment, with all of her senses heightened, the world taking on a sense of immediacy, of here-and-nowness.
“It’s like dancing,” she says. “There is the ring and the music.” Lamy trains in different parts of the world. One of her favorite places is the OVERTHROW gym on Bleecker Street in New York. She once roped me, a decidedly non-boxing type, into a photo shoot there. Among the motley crew of characters from the gym, there was also Lester Walker from Ghetto Gastro. I left after the photographer urged all the men to take off their shirts. Walker stayed.
“It’s like dancing,” she says. “There is the ring and the music.”
Earlier this year, Lamy got to manifest her love for boxing in an entirely unconventional way, when Selfridges invited her to set up a temporary space that reflects her universe: Lamyland. Lamy chose boxing as the theme for Lamyland, installing a boxing ring inside the store and getting designers from Gareth Pugh to Supreme to create exclusive boxing products. The Selfridges idea was to make a themed pop-up shop, but Lamy wound up recreating a fully functioning boxing gym, complete with classes one could take on the spot. “What are you fighting for?” was the installation’s slogan. When I ask Lamy what she’s fighting for, she says, without the slightest hint of bombast, “To save the world — no big deal.”
The brands involved in Lamyland product collaborations ranged from Everlast to Versace. Grit and glamor were smashed together into some unclassifiable mix, and that’s exactly the type of stuff Lamy likes. “I think all these categories of classification are wrong and not contemporary anymore,” she proffers, referring to the traditional hierarchies that separate, say, art from food, or opera from hip-hop.
Our surroundings seem to underscore the point. After the Rick Owens show, we sit in the lush garden of a fancy Japanese restaurant in a posh hotel in the richest part of Paris. Imagine four goths surrounded by a bunch of suits and Hermès bags and you get the picture. It feels strange to me, but Lamy seems right at home. “I like this restaurant because many gangsters like to eat here,” she comments. Then, taking note of the uncharacteristic number of fuddy-duddy suits around us, she adds, “Maybe not today.”
It’s a rare occurrence to see someone create their own universe, but Owens and Lamy have done just that. Their style is unmistakable — a mix of brute rawness and elegance, nomadism and goth, a kind of creative destruction that is the envy of the fashion industry and beyond. The two complement each other, despite leading lives that are often quite separate due to the demands of their schedules. Just three days after the men’s show, Lamy was already bound for London to record a new album with LAVASCAR. She would then be going back to France to check on a big furniture delivery for a private client and take meetings with an art fair seeking to recreate Lamyland in a different incarnation from the Selfridges pop-up. And from there, who knows? One thing’s certain, though: it will be unmistakably Michèle Lamy.
Highsnobiety magazine Issue 17 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.