Fashion's Anti-Hero

It's not my personal style, but Rick Owens remains one of my favourite designers - a master of reinvention. Here, a piece I wrote for Wish magazine.

"I don't know if it's possible for someone of this generation to create an identity the same way I did," says designer Rick Owens. "The design world is so saturated that it's [impossible] to be accepted on your own terms." Owens' personal style is certainly an interesting one, or at least it was. His penchant for asymmetrical cuts and mixed proportions and an almost singular use of black as a colour palette has been so referenced, copied and imitated with the proliferation of digital media - in turn creating an army of Owens acolytes - that his once daringly inventive style has now become, like many subcultures past, mainstream. Owens, 50, is keenly aware of the proliferation of his aesthetic - indeed, his business is involved in genres of design beyond fashion - but his absolute commitment to and perfection of the style he created, a sort of modern mythology, ensures he remains at the top of the fashion food chain.

Owens began his self-titled label in 1994, an era during which surfwear, the antithesis of the designer's aesthetic, reigned, at least in Los Angeles where he was born, raised and, at the time, based. But an alternative to the norm will always find like minds, and selling his wares at visionary LA retail outlet Charles Gallay, Owens found a customer base. Of course, for the designer to maintain a viable business, broader distribution was necessary given the sheer price of his garments. An American Vogue-sponsored runway show and a CFDA Emerging Talent Award in 2002 aided such growth, and saw the designer move his business to Paris, where he now resides. At the same time, Owens began working with renowned stylist Panos Yiapanis - a creative who intimately shares Owens' vision - who has helped, over the subsequent decade, to communicate the Rick Owens aesthetic to a greater audience.

Moving to what is arguably the world's centre of luxury fashion hasn't changed the way Owens' business operates: he remains one of few established designer brands that does not advertise, in print or otherwise, and as such maintains no press office, in contrast to the vast majority of contemporary brands that employ multiple employees in this area alone. But basing himself in Paris provides much stimulation for Owens. "I've always had an extreme attraction to the French artifice of the turn-of-the-century when Art Nouveau transitioned into Art Moderne. To be in Paris now is as close to that moment as I can possibly get." Not that he ever believed changing locations would alter his style; he believes that the French runway has "nothing" to do with Paris itself in terms of the way people dress in the city. In any case, the Rick Owens brand shares floor space alongside French luxury labels in high-end department stores, the quality production and presentation of his brand situating it in this market. "Smart ideas executed with quality and grace are a pretty good interpretation of luxury, [and] that's what I aim for," he says of his positioning in the market.

There's a darkness to Owens' collections; an intensity communicated through his use of layers and unstructured garments, as well his colour palette, or lack thereof, that reflects little of his LA upbringing. But perhaps Owens' vision of the City of Angels is different to mass-produced images of palm trees and Hollywood Hills; an interpretation shared more with the likes of author Bret Easton Ellis and photographer Hedi Slimane (who, since leaving Dior Homme, has photographed the city's underground youth subcultural movements). "I probably have a Californian's blunt casualness that I use to reinterpret European complexity," explains Owens of any connection to the city in which he lived.

Despite the initial perception that his designs are simply expensive "Goth" outfits, the metaphorical (as well as physical) layers of the Owens' clothing quickly become apparent, it being obvious that his experiment with form is more in line with early 20th-century designers such as Mariano Fortuny and Madeleine Vionnet. "[These designers] radically released the body and created an easy elongated dripping line that I've tried to follow," explains Owens. It makes sense then that Owens' typical touchstones are indeed design periods like Greek classicism and 1930s modernism. "I'm a bit too cynical and old for hero worship but I do admire figures who have created an allure," he adds, noting Marcel Breuer, Jean-Michel Frank, Eileen Gray, Claude Parent and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not surprisingly, given the sometimes complex construction of his garments, architecture is a great inspiration to Owens, though he dislikes "art or design that preaches. I'm not saying that I always achieve this but I always have it in the back of my mind. It's always important to me that everything I put on the runway can be made available for sale. I slipped a few times early on but finally learnt how to keep this promise."

Owens employs one assistant for each division of his business - fabric orders, men's patterns, women's patterns, knits, shoes and bags - but, for the most part, designs everything himself. "I don't know how to work with other people's ideas so I'm afraid that I can only be a dictator," he says. He frequently visits his Italian factory to personally work on the construction of each piece. "I'm constantly looking for flaws that can be inherently inevitable in a business our size. After years of this it's almost impossible to enjoy looking at anything I produce without being harshly critical." His Paris studio, where he designs, has four administrative staff alongside his wife, Michele Lamy, who manages the fur and furniture ateliers, in which Owens is "not allowed to interfere because I can be too controlling. This is a compromise we reached so she wouldn't kill me."

In extending his business beyond the runway, Owens has kept his vision intact with each project, such as in his furniture line, sold through selected interiors retailers, where antlers and skulls crafted from marble and timber adorn chars, sofas, tables and lamps. DRKSHDW, a diffusion line, presents Owens' sensibility in more accessibly priced everyday materials, while Rick Owens Lilies is a less serious, more playful take on his women's line. "I like altering everything around me to conform to my aesthetic," says Owens. "Doesn't that sound awful? I'm afraid it's horribly true."

What's next for Owens? Certainly not a high-street collaboration. "I have to say these piss me off," he exclaims. "Designers do it for a splashy flash of exposure, validating companies that make their money from exploiting and cheapening other people's original ideas." Instead, "I'll just keep making my collections as long as everyone lets me."

Given the designer's personal image is so inherently linked with his business profile, one wonders what will become of the Rick Owens brand when Owens has tired of it, but he doesn't believe in any other way for fashion designers. "My aesthetic is so personal and intimate that it would have been dishonest not to completely commit myself. When I was younger I always wanted designers to look like they meant what they said. Of course, the long black hair will probably always brand me as a Goth designer, discouraging some people from entering my world, but at this point I guess that boat has sailed."

Rick Owens is available exclusively at Harrolds in Australia.

Main image: via Sonny Vandevelde. Portrait via