Rick Owens – Shadowman (Metropolitan)

When the inevitable biography is written, Rick Owens’ life story will read like one of the dark, sensational and glamorous works of literature that he’s such a fan of: an art student from a small town becomes a druggy, bisexual, noir-nailed goth within the LA demi-monde of trannies and hustlers. He studies pattern cutting and hooks up romantically with fabulous, diamond-toothed celebrity restaurateur cum stripper cum lawyer, Michele Lamy. Spotted by Anna Wintour, he takes New York Fashion Week by storm and moves to Paris, to become the most influential designer of the 21st century…

Rick Owens, Paris © http://www.markcoflaherty.com

Right now, Rick Owens is the overlord of high and dark fashion. His collections sell out at record speeds and Rizzoli have just published a coffee-table-sized coffee table book on his work. He’s attracted a cult following for his severe, often sinister, monochrome, draped jersey and leather aesthetic. This afternoon, when he walks into one of the vast, whitewashed, concrete-floored rooms of his 7th arrondissement HQ – its shelves littered with skulls and Kaiser spiked helmets – one might expect an accompanying soundtrack of 5am Berghain Berlin techno, and perhaps for the temperature in the room to drop. Instead he carries a tiny espresso cup and plays Dorothy Squires Live at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on his iPhone. “I like Dusty, but I really burnt out listening to her,” he says. “Now I listen to Dorothy Squires all day long. She has that whisky and cigarettes tone to her voice and I find her really moving.”

His fixation with the late Welsh songstress – and one time Mrs Roger Moore – is far from contradictory. Everything in Rick Owens’ universe fits perfectly into place: the gothic tendencies, the transgressive sexuality, the austere, monastic, concrete aesthetic now translated into limited edition furniture, and the camp… Everything has its purpose. Like the high heels he designs for men, inspired by “the virility of Kiss in concert”. And the bumper-car hi-top sneakers inspired by “gangs in LA using their shoes to anchor huge basketball shorts, in an almost kabuki way.” But there are unusual interests too. He loves the BBC sitcom Nighty Night so much that he sold the DVD in his stores in London and Paris and he’s a huge Gary Numan fan. “I think of Gary when I’m working on every collection!” he says.

Still very much the anything-but-quintessentially American in Paris (he refuses to learn French, believing it’ll take far too long, and he likes the “layer of privacy” it provides), he frequently Channel hops and finds the contrast with London fascinating. “In London the kids are so much cuter,” he says. “There’s a scruffiness that the Parisians just won’t allow themselves. In Paris it’s about APC jeans, white button down shirts and a blazer, and in London it’s all wittier and cheekier.” Owens is drawn to the often acidic and subversive nature of British culture, from early 20th century socialite Stephen Tennant to the 80s “queer” filmmaker Derek Jarman. “It’s that British dry wit I love. I’m reading a lot of Beverley Nichols from the 1920s, which has a lovely Cecil Beaton quality. There is an imperturbability about the British, while the French make a big thing about pretending not to be perturbed, but they are. They’re always indignant.”

When Owens travels to London with his partner Michele, they stay at Claridges – although if he’s travelling alone, he’ll stay at the Savoy “because the deco is more severe, and darker” – and spend their time exploring galleries and museums. “I always return to the Joseph Beuys room at the Tate Modern,” he says. “And I loved the Whistler show at Tate Britain. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been in love with him before. He belonged to the most exciting of times.”

Rick Owens, Paris © http://www.markcoflaherty.com

Owens studied to be an artist, but turned to fashion because “art seemed like entering the priesthood, and I’m too frivolous” – though he now adores the pomp of the contemporary art scene. “I was at the Bermondsey White Cube opening recently and it was like Hollywood, all neon bulbs and epic proportions. And as we were leaving, there was a crowd of people behind the velvet ropes. It was so Day of the Locust, I wallowed in it.” He also moves in offbeat London circles: Lamy backs the designer Gareth Pugh, so there are strong links between the Pugh and Owens labels. “There’s a group around Gareth that have a great allure and mystique,” he says. “That crowd from Ponystep and Boombox are so talented, sharp, fun and sweet.”

When Owens and Lamy are out in Paris and London, they are the ultimate ambassadors for his brand: Michele in a ton of jewellery and Owens’ clothing, looking like a vampiric Egyptian priestess, and Rick with the poker-straight black locks that have become as iconic in fashion as Lagerfeld’s ponytail and Menkes’ quiff. And of course, always clad in black or grey, “even on the beach”. So committed is he to the palette that on the counter of his London and Paris stores there are bowls of M&Ms in varying shades of grey. Monochrome is the only thing that makes sense to him. “It sends a message,” he explains. “It says  ‘don’t look at my outfit, I’m presenting my face to you. You don’t have to look at anything else, I’m not trying to capture your attention with an interesting shoelace’.”

Owens spring 2012 collection is a development of his black and white aesthetic, with dresses for men and prints for women that hark back to the deco of the 20s. “I love that linear modernism,” he says. “It’s aspirational with a simple elegance. And I think it’s quite melancholy, because it’s looking for a perfection that will always be out of reach, forever.” And the future? Before that inevitable biography and the museum retrospectives? More furniture, perhaps a move into colour, but with a promise that it will “never be banal, or Marks & Spencer’s…” And then perhaps a hotel, finished with raw, bunker-like textures and fur bedspreads. “I’d love to create something on a nice coastline, somewhere remote. Maybe in North Africa, which is close enough, but far enough too. And on the top floor I’d create a Gary Numan suite.”

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