“SAINTS AND SINNERS IN DRAGGING ROBES IN DUSTY TEMPLES LOOKING FOR REDEMPTION AND TRANSCENDENCE AND FINAL BLOODY RECKONINGS,” writes Rick Owens via email on the childhood in the Catholic church that defined his aesthetic. Had he been narrating the scene of worshippers at his Spring/Summer 2023 Menswear show yesterday at Paris’ Palais de Tokyo, the description would have been prophetic.
The vestments of fans of Rick Owens' signature brutalist, extreme aesthetic are easy to spot: the measured steps of a person strapped into his gargantuan, vertiginous Spartan heels; the mid-coital clothing in full midday sun – black leather harnesses worn with nothing but ripped jeans, nude corsets and spanks as outerwear – groups of young men partnering hillbilly haircuts with halter dresses and ripped, sinewy male torsos cascaded over by long, angelic hair. Owens' enthusiasts, like the designer himself, don’t do things in half measures. Far beyond a single piece, they’ll commit to an entire wardrobe from the designer.
The new collection – entitled “Edfu,” after the Egyptian temple – was inspired by Owens' recent trip to Egypt, feeling small in the grand space of history and the weight of historical events in progress. Hardware was muted but volume on shapes was turned up all the way, exaggerated and overblown. It shot up from the shoulders in domed, bat wing-esque peaks and puddled around the ankles, twisting in currents that dragged the fabric around the calves. Ripstop nylons floated aura-like around the body, as did fly proof robes with gauzy, face-covering hoods layered over floor-sweeping silk shirts. The collection was punctuated by “Apparition leather” – jeans, jackets and shirts made from air-dried cow leather treated with glycerine to give it a transparent finish. Archive favorites like FW22’s multiple armhole sweaters were whittled down to rib tanks and then further still, to the binding that finishes the garments edges. Boxy-shouldered tailoring and cinched waists in black and neutrals were offset by shocks of yellow snakeskin, shimmering, iridescent cargo flares, and a vest realized in swollen scales the size of some prehistoric fish.
It’s a radical and antagonistic style of luxury that Owens has honed since he launched his namesake line in Los Angeles in 1994. Born and raised in Porterville, California, Owens relocated to Paris in 2003 with his Co-Founding Partner/Managing Director Art/Furniture at Owenscorp and the famous art- and fashion-world figure Michèle Lamy. The brand remains independent at a time when few of its heritage do, facilitating Owens' ability to collaborate on projects that extrude his creative vision from skincare and fragrance with Aesop to streetwear with Champion, footwear with Converse and Dr. Martens and, most recently, pentagram panties for Highsnobiety’s Not in Paris pop-up.
At the show, three giant globes were set ablaze and air-lifted by a crane to be dropped dramatically into the fountain pool of the Palais de Tokyo in time to a throbbing, growling soundtrack. It was a nod to the Egyptian god Horus, who represents the triumph of good over evil, realized as a carving of a winged sun over the main entrance of the temple of Edfu, the sun crashing into the ground over and over for infinity. No stranger to spectacle, Owens' shows possess an unbridled energy that is almost always incendiary. Consider his FW15 Men’s presentation, where his models wore tunic dresses without underwear, giving the audience an unobstructed view of their genitalia. For SS14, he enlisted an assembly of step dancers from local sororities, embracing body types the fashion world hadn’t much seen on the runway at the time. There was the Estonian heavy-metal outfit, Winny Puhh, in wrestling gear, who played suspended upside down from the ceiling for SS14 and, perhaps most notoriously, the human backpacks of SS16.
It's an energy that permeates, evidenced by the crowds of kids standing outside his show, mounting bus stop shelters just to get a glimpse. For a designer so often called the “Lord of Darkness,” seeing his shows is an exhilarating experience that leaves chills on a scorching summer day, sat next to three burning globes.
Via email, days before his Paris show, Rick Owens employs his signature all-caps autography to talk defining moments, gutter glitter, and his steady-rolling scotch-tape spirit.
How did you first come to fashion? Was there an epiphany that set you off?
LOOKING BACK I DON'T REALLY KNOW WHY I THOUGHT I COULD BE A DESIGNER. I ALWAYS TELL THE STORY OF CHOOSING FASHION AFTER 2 YEARS OF ART SCHOOL BECAUSE I DIDN'T THINK I HAD THE INTELLECTUAL STAMINA TO BE AN ARTIST - BUT I THOUGHT I MIGHT MANAGE TO GET A JOB IN FASHION IF I ACQUIRED A MARKETABLE SKILL LIKE PATTERN MAKING... SO FASHION WAS ACTUALLY MY PRACTICAL PLAN B.
From Porterville to Paris, how do both towns influence you creatively?
I LOVED THE AESTHETIC DENSITY OF PARIS AND HAD THE ARROGANCE TO THINK I COULD INHALE AND THEN SIMPLIFY IT - THE HISTORY OF THE BELLE EPOQUE SLITHERING INTO ART NOUVEAU CALCIFYING INTO ART DECO... NAIVELY SUMMARIZED BY ME WITH SOME BIAS T-SHIRTS AND LEATHER RAGS. I THINK THE RAW DIRT OF A SMALL TOWN IN CONTRAST TO THE ARCH ARTIFICE OF PARIS KIND OF BECAME MY SCHTICK.
You’ve said that you are “drawn to pre-gentrified Hollywood.” What was that time for you?
I LIVED OFF OF HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD WHICH HAD THE GRITTY GLAMOROUS SLEAZE A SMALL TOWN BOY LIKE ME WAS LOOKING FOR - I WANTED TO ROLL IN GUTTER GLITTER. THERE WERE THE PUNK ROCK BOYS AT THE LEATHER BAR BEER BUSTS, THE FLOATING CLUBS IN ABANDONED DOWNTOWN BUILDINGS, THE BLACK GAY DISCOS ON CRENSHAW AND THE SPANISH SPEAKING DRAG SHOWS ON LABREA BOULEVARD. WE DIDN'T TAKE PICTURES THEN BUT I REMEMBER BEING TORTURED AND POETIC AND RECKLESS AND DRAMATIC AND MAYBE HOT FOR A MINUTE.
If you had to consider your “first work”, the number one piece that marks the beginning of your body of work, what would that be?
I DID A SHRUNKEN LEATHER JACKET WITH RIB INSERTS IN THE SLEEVES WITH A HIGH ARMHOLE TO MAKE THE ARMS AS LONG AND SKINNY AS POSSIBLE. THAT JACKET GOT ME STARTED AND WAS KNOCKED OFF EVERYWHERE I LOOKED - I ENDED UP SEEING IT ON COMMUTERS IN METROS OF FOREIGN CITIES I WOULD VISIT AND I JUST MARVELED AT HOW I HAD INFECTED THE WORLD WITH SOMETHING IN MY OWN TINY WAY. I WAS AND AM ALWAYS ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED WHEN I SEE A KNOCKOFF.
Do you remember the moment, or series of moments, that defined your aesthetic?
I ALWAYS TALK ABOUT GRASPING AT THE EXOTICISM OF CATHOLIC IMAGERY AND PAGEANTRY AT THE CATHOLIC SCHOOL I WENT TO IN THE TINY CONSERVATIVE JUDGEMENTAL TOWN I GREW UP IN. SAINTS AND SINNERS IN DRAGGING ROBES IN DUSTY TEMPLES LOOKING FOR REDEMPTION AND TRANSCENDENCE AND FINAL BLOODY RECKONINGS... I STARED AT A HOT LONG-HAIRED GUY DYING ON A CROSS EVERY DAY FOR YEARS.
Are there any projects outside of the fashion and furniture world that you are working on?
YOU'RE ASKING ABOUT FASHION AND COMMERCE - BUT ACTUALLY I OFTEN THINK ABOUT CULTIVATING AN IRIS GARDEN SO I RECENTLY ACQUIRED A SPACE NEAR MY FACTORY TO DEVELOP ONE. WHEN I WAS A KID, I REMEMBER MY ART CLASS MAKING A FIELD TRIP TO SOMEONE'S PRIVATE IRIS GARDEN AND I REMEMBER A FIELD OF DIFFERENT STRAINS OF IRIS PLANTED IN DIRT ROWS WITH FURROWS BETWEEN THEM TO CONTROL WATERING. THERE WERE CRESTED IRIS, DUTCH IRIS, JAPANESE IRIS, SIBERIAN IRIS, BUT THE BEARDED IRIS WERE MY FAVORITES - THERE WERE ALL COLORS AND SIZES WITH SCULPTURAL BLOSSOMS WITH HANGING PETALS WITH ALL DEGREES OF FRILLINESS AND FRINGE... MORE COMPLEX AND BIZARRE THAN ORCHIDS... LATER WHEN I DISCOVERED KOLOMAN MOSER'S ILLUSTRATION FOR AN ARNO HOLZ POEM OF A WOMAN TRANSFORMING INTO AN IRIS LIKE RIPLEY’S MUTANT CLONE IN ALIEN, I KEPT THAT ASSOCIATION IN MY HEAD AND IT STRUCK JUST THE RIGHT NOTE OF BEAUTY AND THE GROTESQUE THAT HAS ALWAYS APPEALED TO ME... AND THERE ARE DESCRIPTIONS OF FLOWERS IN OCTAVE MIRBEAU’S BOOK THE TORTURE GARDEN THAT COULD EASILY BE SPEAKING OF IRISES...
What are some of the references you kept at the forefront of your mind when designing this collection?
WE HAVE ALL BEEN SO DISTURBED BY THE WAR AND CONSTANT ONLINE STONE-THROWING, I WANTED TO PROPOSE SOME ORDER AND DISCIPLINE... I USED SOME RIPSTOP NYLONS THAT HAD A BUTTERFLY WING LIGHTNESS WITH GRAPH LIKE CONSTRUCTIONS THAT LENT SUBTLE SOOTHING GRIDDED PATTERNS TO THE CLOTHES. I REDUCED HARDWARE AND VISIBLE CLOSURES TO KEEP THINGS QUIET. I WANTED SIMPLICITY, BUT I STILL WANTED EXAGGERATED SHAPES TO MOCK ALL THE RULES AND BIGOTRY THAT CREATE SO MUCH CONFLICT IN THE WORLD.
I HAD RECENTLY RETREATED TO EGYPT WHERE I FOUND GREAT COMFORT IN THE REMOTENESS AND SCALE OF HISTORY. MY PERSONAL CONCERNS AND GLOBAL DISCOMFORTS FELT PETTY IN THE FACE OF THAT KIND OF TIMELESSNESS. LYING DOWN IN THE DIRT WITH THE VALLEY OF KINGS WITHIN VIEW IS A PERSPECTIVE I LIKED. I ALSO LIKE THE ARTIFICIAL EGYPT INVOKED IN THE SILENT BLACK AND WHITE MOVIES THAT WERE PRODUCED AROUND THE SAME TIME AS THE DISCOVERY OF KING TUTANKHAMUN'S TOMB - MYSTERIOUS BIBLICAL EXOTICISM SEEN THROUGH A 1920S ART DECO FILTER. THIS VERSION OF EGYPT THEN REEMERGED IN THE 1970S ADOPTING THE 1920S VERSION OF EGYPT IN A CAMP WAY.
Are creative roadblocks something you experience? If so, how do you circumnavigate them?
MY CREATIVE PROCESS IS A STEADY ROLLING-ALONG EXERCISE. I GATHER AND REARRANGE MY THOUGHTS EVERY DAY AND EXAMINE THEM FROM DIFFERENT ANGLES - I STUDY MY PAST WORK - I STUDY THE PAST WORK OF MASTERS - WHEN THE TIME COMES TO LAUNCH A COLLECTION, I JUST UNTANGLE A BALL OF IDEAS AND EDIT, EDIT, EDIT. MY GREATEST STRENGTH MIGHT BE IN REDUCTION - FINDING THE STRAIGHTEST LINE FROM POINT A TO POINT B. IT'S ALSO MY GREATEST WEAKNESS, SOMETIMES LEAVING ME IMPATIENT WITH THE PROCESS AND THE PLEASURE OF WANDERING. IT'S A FANTASY OF CONTROL WHICH I RECOGNIZE AS JUST THAT - FANTASY. BUT IN MY CASE, FAIRLY HARMLESS.
Your releases are written by you and are incredibly evocative. Who are some writers that have influenced you or that you admire? What is a book you find yourself recommending to people over and over? What is your relationship to writing?
I REMEMBER IN THE PAST ENJOYING READING COLETTE - BEFORE I HAD EVER EVEN CONSIDERED VISITING PARIS... THERE WAS A SENSIBLE BUT GRACEFUL LOGIC TO HER WRITING IN A GLAMOROUSLY FOREIGN (FOR ME AT THE TIME) SETTING THAT REGISTERED WITH ME - THEN I WENT THROUGH A DECADENT PHASE WITH HUYSMANS, BAUDELAIRE, MALLARME, AND THE AFOREMENTIONED MIRBEAU. I WANTED BIG DRIPPING GLOBS OF OVERWROUGHT ARTIFICE.
WHEN I SHIFTED GEARS AND STARTED MANUFACTURING IN ITALY I STOPPED READING FOR A LONG TIME - I FELT MY TIME FOR ABSORBING WAS OVER AND IT WAS NOW MY TIME TO EXPRESS. BUT IN THE PAST RECENT YEARS I HAVE BEEN READING BIOGRAPHIES AND I NOW REALIZE I HAVE BEEN STUDYING HOW CREATORS NEGOTIATED THEIR LIVES... WHO MAINTAINED THEIR CREATIVE STANDARDS AND WHO DIDN'T - I REALIZE I AM TRYING TO LEARN HOW IT WAS DONE.
MY FAVORITE BIOGRAPHER IS JOHN RICHARDSON FOR HIS PERCEPTIVE BUT DELICIOUSLY BITCHY INSIGHTS INTO THE LIVES OF PICASSO, THE SITWELLS, ANAIS NIN, PEGGY GUGGENHEIM, AND OTHERS. FOR FROTHY WHIPPED CREAM DESSERT, I READ 1930S GARDENING BOOKS BY BEVERLEY NICHOLS - THIS SERIES OF BOOKS OSTENSIBLY OBSERVES HIS GARDENING EXPERIENCES OVER THE YEARS BUT IN FACT OBSERVES THE QUIRKS AND ECCENTRICITIES OF VILLAGE CHARACTERS ALONG THE WAY THAT IS GRACIOUS, OFTEN SUDDENLY DEEPLY MOVING AND THEN FUNNY AS FUCK... AND THE ADVENTURES OF MAPP AND LUCIA BY E. F. BENSON HITS A SIMILAR NOTE AND RECOMMENDING IT IS ONE OF THE BEST GIFTS I KNOW.
You’ve mentioned a “scotch tape spirit” to the origins of your brand. What does that mean?
I'VE ALWAYS LIKED THE SPONTANEITY AND RESOURCEFULNESS OF IMPROVISING WITH WHATEVER IS AT HAND - AN ARTE POVERA APPROACH. THERE IS AN ITALIAN PHRASE THAT TRANSLATES TO "OVERLY LICKED,” SOMETHING I TRY TO AVOID - THERE EXISTS A MANUFACTURED STANDARD OF BEAUTY THAT FEELS SO NARROWLY RESTRICTIVE AND CRUEL, I HAVE STARTED REFERRING TO IT AS THE AIRPORT AESTHETIC - ALL THE LAYERS OF MANIPULATIVELY CALCULATING PERFUME ADS WITH THE SAME ASPIRATIONAL VALUES OF SEX AND PRIVILEGE THAT KIND OF DEPRESS ME A BIT.
You’ve collaborated across disciplines and industries. How do you like to work with your collaborators? What draws you to a collaborative project?
I HAD ORIGINALLY AVOIDED ENTERING INTO WHAT I CONSIDERED EXERCISES IN PHONY HYPE AND WHILE I DON'T PRETEND TO BE OBLIVIOUS TO THE ADVANTAGES OF EXPOSURE, OPENING UP MY INSULAR LITTLE WORLD TO NEW PEOPLE TURNED OUT TO BE A NEW WAY OF HAVING FUN. I LIKE THE IDEA OF COMMUNITY AND COOPERATION AND FINDING NEW RESOURCES AND SYSTEMS. I HAD PROTECTED MY IDENTITY FOR SO LONG, ONCE I FELT IT WAS ESTABLISHED, I WAS READY TO PLAY. I LIKE EXPLORING MORE RESPONSIBLE PRODUCTION METHODS WITH BIGGER BRANDS THAT ARE CHANGING THE WAYS THEY OPERATE THE SAME WAY I AM CHANGING THE FACTORY I BOUGHT THAT HAD SYSTEMS SET IN PLACE YEARS BEFORE I ARRIVED. YOU CAN’T BECOME RESPONSIBLE OVERNIGHT AND UPSET A DELICATE BALANCE OF SUCCESS - BUT LIKE I SAY ON ALL MY CONTENTS LABELS, WE CAN ALL AIM HIGHER AND WE CAN ALL START SOMEWHERE. ON THESE CONTENTS LABELS, WE HAVE BEEN WORKING HARD TO GIVE OUR CUSTOMERS A LOT MORE INFORMATION ON FABRIC CONTENTS AND RESPONSIBLE PRODUCTION TRANSPARENCY. NOT SAYING WE ARE COMPLETELY THERE BUT WE ARE IMPROVING DAY BY DAY.
When, during the design process, was the last time you were surprised?
I AM CONSTANTLY SURPRISED SAMPLES TURN OUT DIFFERENTLY THAN EXPECTED AND CAN LEAD YOU IN ANOTHER DIRECTION - OR AN IDEA THAT SEEMED WEAK CAN TURN OUT TO BE A FEATURED ELEMENT IN A COLLECTION - A WHIM CAN TURN INTO SOLID INSPIRATION. SEEING IDEAS BECOME REALITIES ARE LIKE CHRISTMAS EVERY DAY.
See our Not in Paris collaboration with Rick Owens below.