Women's Fashion

His dark materials

Rigour and ease, street and chic, beauty and destruction… Rick Owens refines the dualities of his world view into provocative and collectable clothes that translate into a €30m empire. Vanessa Friedman sheds light on fashion’s Dark Prince.

March 20 2010
Vanessa Friedman

You might assume, on hearing of the designer Rick Owens, that he occupies a very particular niche in that parallel universe known as fashionland. You might assume, for example, that his long sheet of black hair, pumped-up biceps in tight T-shirts, oversized shredded black sweaters and stacked-heeled black boots indicate a punk, underground sensibility. You might assume that his shops, decorated with wax sculptures of himself, are comfortable venues only for night-owl, gothic types. You might assume that his shows, full of dry ice and stomping models, are not about clothes you would wear but clothes that would make a discordant statement. And because of all that, you might assume that, as Owens himself says, “I don’t get out of bed until noon and then spend the rest of the day hunting virgins.”

But if were to assume all that, you would be wrong.

Because, at 48, Owens has become one of the most globally influential American designers working today. The New York Times recently suggested that “he may be fashion’s most imitated designer”, thanks to his signature piece: a soft, faded, washed-leather bias-cut jacket with the kind of tiny, closely set arms Christian Dior used to favour combined with ribbed insets that allow for the sort of movement Yves Saint Laurent loved. The jacket is also known as a favourite piece of Michelle Obama (who wore a greenish-grey number on her private holiday to the Grand Canyon and for a public appearance at a food bank in Washington DC) and actress Julianne Moore (who wore a black zipped version in New York), as well as such disparate personalities and body types as Courtney Love and Jennifer Aniston.

The jacket is also cited by The New York Times as being the “inspiration” for a number of other designers, from Roberto Cavalli to Roland Mouret. As Ikram Goldman, owner of an eponymous store in Chicago who has been buying Owens since the early 1990s, says, “Rick’s way of cutting has become part of the way we think about clothes; people don’t see his work as fashion pieces but as necessities, part of the building blocks of a wardrobe. It’s like ketchup and mustard; you use it to make everything better.”

Sarah Rutson, fashion director of department store Lane Crawford, agrees: “I bought Rick when we opened our store in Beijing in 2007,” she says. “And I thought we’d have to go through this long process of education, because at that time the Chinese were very interested in brands and stature. But without really any effort on our part, it flew out the door. I think it stood out to the Chinese as something unique.” After the Chanel jacket, there is the Owens jacket. You can’t get any more iconic than that.

But here’s the thing: you don’t get to be that successful by staying out all night and distracting yourself with various illicit substances. You have to work for it, the old-fashioned way. And the truth is that in many ways the story of Rick Owens is a very old-fashioned story about how to build a business: customer by customer, store by store, piece by piece. It just doesn’t look that way. It does, however, begin that way.

Actually, it begins in California, where Owens grew up in Porterville with a social worker father and schoolteacher mother. He moved to Los Angeles to become an artist and went to what was then the Otis Institute of Parsons School of Design, but dropped out. “I was intimidated by the art priesthood. I had this idea that I was too dumb to do art, but I could do fashion,” he says. “And my father wanted me to learn a trade, so I learned to be a pattern cutter.” From there he went to work for a knock-off company, taking apart branded designs and copying them – “It was incredible training,” he says – and later a sportswear company owned by a Frenchwoman, Michèle Lamy. They eventually became involved (she had a husband and a child). Later she opened a restaurant called Les Deux Cafés, and Owens decided to start his own line.

“I was puzzled by the fact that so many designers presented clothes on the runway in this extreme, unattainable way,” he says. “I thought that extremity should be realistic and attainable, that it should be something you could wear all day long. Otherwise, why do it? I wanted to recreate a sort of 1930s Hollywood glamour, but in black leather and T-shirts; accessible fabrics. And I could afford to experiment. We survived on next to nothing, but it was OK because I could be poor and make clothes my own way.”

This was in the 1990s, a time when fashion was just beginning to exit the Dynasty-driven heyday of shoulder pads and sequins, and cleanse its palate with Prada’s almost logo-less nylon bag and Marc Jacobs’ grunge deluxe. But what Owens wanted was even more extreme: “To change how people really dress, not just lend them something to wear on the red carpet.” He wanted to remake their closets from the inside out. One day he packed up his samples in a box and lugged them over to Charles Gallay, a fashion-forward store in Los Angeles, who bought them. And things grew from there.

“I remember seeing that first collection and just thinking that it was the most courageous, fashion-forward line I had ever seen,” says LA-based jeweller Loree Rodkin, who has been buying Owens’ work for the past 20 years. “It was ready-to-wear that looked like couture. I think I bought about 10 things: leather jackets, long skirts with fish-tail hems, T-shirts. I still have them.”

Editor of American Vogue Anna Wintour saw his work in 2001 and the magazine offered to sponsor his first runway show in 2002. “I was quite torn,” Owens says. “I thought of my clothes as being anti-display, anti-status, when the runway is all about display and status, and I wasn’t sure how to handle that. I hadn’t even seen a show at that point. I was also worried that my aesthetic was so narrow it might burn itself out. But it was Vogue. You can’t turn that down.”

As he says this, he is sitting in his Paris atelier, which is housed in a five-storey building in the heart of the French establishment on the Place du Palais Bourbon, just behind the Assemblée Nationale. Owens bought the building in 2004. It used to be the headquarters of the French Socialist party and he is fond of pointing out the room where François Mitterrand worked.

Now it houses his workrooms, showrooms and the apartment he and Lamy share. His balcony overlooks the gardens of the Ministry of Defence, so every once in a while he sits there and drinks espresso, watching the military ceremonies and listening to La Marseillaise. “It’s very sweet,” he says.

He moved to Paris with Lamy in 2002 when the fur house Revillon offered him a contract, a job he held from 2003 to 2006. Michèle was tired of the restaurant, and it makes things easier: here they balance each other out, he says, though, occasionally, “It’s like a gypsy and a Nazi trying to plan a war.” Neither has been back to Los Angeles since, although Owens still hasn’t learned to speak French. “I’m busy,” he says. “Plus, living in a foreign culture gives you a nice sort of adolescent sense of alienation that appeals to me. And the stakes are higher here.”

He now has 20 full-time atelier employees, many of whom function as a sort of self-made family, complete with nicknames such as “Mr T” and “Eleganza” (his chief executive Elsa Lanzo). He designs six different lines – menswear, womenswear, Lilies (a less expensive jersey line), jeans, fur and furniture – all himself, without a team.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great not to have to go through and check all these buttons’,” says Owens, “but it’s why I wanted to do this: to get my hands in.” Lamy oversees the furniture and fur lines, which are designed by Owens but then “edited”, and together they have been mentoring the English designer Gareth Pugh. Furthermore, annual sales hit €30m last year. There are now 400 points of sale around the world as well as four wholly owned boutiques – Paris, New York, London, Tokyo – and one in Seoul opening later this year. The business is growing a comfortable 10 per cent annually. Owens has worked with the same factory in Italy since 2001 and now gives it enough business that it doesn’t manufacture for any other brand.

And all this is despite the fact that the designer has never advertised and has not employed a publicist since 2006. “I realised that the daily discussions with my press office were the part of the day that made me insecure, that made me consider my ranking in the world as a fashion designer, and I could eliminate that stress from my life pretty easily. Besides,” Owens continues, “over Christmas I was thinking about the internet and I thought actually, maybe I should just withdraw and let the work do the talking. Because if the work isn’t good, no amount of talking can convince people. Maybe a little mystery is what we need now.”

He can do all this, of course, because he owns his company – officially the Owens Corporation. In 2004, at the height of the group-building craze, he was approached by a luxury conglomerate who wanted to buy him. “I considered it. I wanted the money,” he says. But his manufacturer stepped in and said, “We’ll make you a better offer.” Now Owens claims it would have been a disaster. “I realised that this is a personal thing – one person’s vision, one person’s drive, aesthetic, emotion – and I have to protect it.”

He wakes up at 7am every day and walks through the Tuileries to L’Usine, a “fancy” gym where Marc Jacobs and Bernard Wilhelm also go. He and Lamy try to stay in at night. “I think,” he says carefully, “people would be surprised at how conservative and quiet we are. Order and discipline are my comfort zones. I really like being on time. I love routine.”

Nonetheless, he is surprised at how successful he is. “I still can’t believe it. I never thought I would be here. I thought I would still be on Hollywood Boulevard, and it would be glamorous and kind of seedy. I always admired Charles James [the American couturier, 1906-1978], who lived in squalor and did beautiful things. But for better or worse, things are now working the way I want them to. I now feel I am able to express something on the runway that doesn’t change that radically, and people accept it.”

Indeed, it’s not just Owens’ work ethic that is traditional, nor his hands-on approach to design, but his single-minded exploration of a personal aesthetic that evolves over time instead of participating in the extreme style swings that mark contemporary fashion. From Porterville to Paris, his sartorial vision has grown and mutated but it has never changed. He does not go on research trips to Africa, or haunt flea markets or film festivals for different “inspiration” each season, and though it is possible to find external references in his aesthetic – to classical drapery and couture cuts, for example – they are the ghosts of ideas rather than straightforward borrowings.

Put another way, he may collect the extravagant tail feathers of the Japanese Onagadori rooster but you will never find feathers suddenly wafting up all over a collection. Instead, in this spring/summer collection, say, you will find (as REM’s Michael Stipe and Adrian Grenier of HBO series Entourage did when sitting front row last October) that his dark palette has been lightened by metallic dresses – gathered like clouds, caught between the legs and billowing around the body – and the tiny-armed, flute-necked pearl grey crushed opera capes have become tunics, Star-Trek-meets-La-Scala style. Even the menswear and womenswear are part of a continuum, with the bias-cut dropped-crotch trousers and asymmetric zipped jackets almost interchangeable.

“Every season, I go to the factory in Italy and start looking through files of what we did before,” he says. “I spend a week in a vacuum, eating dinner by myself, staring at the computer, with no distractions. And every season starts from something that came before.” The interesting thing is that rather than creating a situation where once you have one jacket you don’t need another, his clothes have become collectable. Once a woman owns one piece of Rick Owens, she tends to buy more. “It’s like a drug in your wardrobe,” says Rutson.

“It goes with everything. It becomes the piece you can’t live without,” says Goldman. “You get a racer-back tank and, if you’re a Chanel girl, you wear it under your suit and feel smarter, and cooler; if you’re a Balenciaga girl, it’s the perfect basic that doesn’t detract from the extreme tailoring. You can wear those jackets to a meeting, to a cocktail party; and you can be any age or any shape, and they work.”

“If I could design my own clothes, I always thought that this is what I would do,” says Annette Caleel, a 70-something mother of four who has been buying Owens for 10 years. “They allow me to present myself at my best and I wear them everywhere – on a recent trip to Tasmania and to an opening at the Met in New York.”

“They make you feel cool, hip and pretty all at the same time,” says Julie Holman, a 51-year-old high-school learning specialist who’s been buying Owens for the past eight years. She now has “25 to 30 pieces. And I wear them all the time, which is my absolute requirement of anything I buy, because I am on a budget.”

“It’s one of the most varied customer bases I’ve ever seen,” observes Erin Mullaney, buying director for Browns in London, who is both an Owens retailer and a client. “We have people in their 20s buying Lilies, all the way up to women in their 60s. He has 85 to 90 per cent sell-through each season. You get addicted.” Meanwhile, she herself owns “eight or nine jackets; I buy one a season, plus all the knitwear, even the beanie hats.” Indeed, a startling number of the retailers who sell Owens also wear it: Rutson acknowledges buying “at least two pairs of the drop-crotch trousers, one jacket and a bunch of the jersey tops,” every season, while Goldman also admits to jackets and T-shirts.

“The quality,” says Rutson, “is amazing.”

“If you lay a jacket out flat and look at the cut, it’s just so beautiful,” says Mullaney.

“There is no way, if you buy now, your granddaughter won’t have a piece,” agrees Goldman.

All these attributes make Owens almost an ideal designer for this time: the fact that his clothes are not circumscribed by a season; that they do not advertise their provenance; that they are limited in availability; that they join absolute rigour with great ease. No wonder other designers have picked up on his aesthetic, as well as his seeming imperviousness to the recession. Not that Owens himself would acknowledge anything other than luck.

“I think it was something in the air,” he says. “I just came along at the right time, when there was a window of opportunity. I wouldn’t be possible without a whole group of other designers: Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Helmut Lang.” For someone whose carapace demands a fair amount of attention, he is notably modest.

And this is, in the end, the key to both the designer and his work. The way the clothes look at first (dark, drapey, Addams-like), the way he looks, is not what you find underneath. For below Owens’ sheet of Iggy Pop hair is a square, classic chin; around his bare and misty stores are the elaborately historical environs of the Palais Royal, and Mayfair. But rather than compete with each other, or cancel each other out, these two realities are complementary. It is a duality – rigour and ease, beauty and destruction, street and chic, rock’n’roll and monasticism – that is, as much as anything, a description of what it’s like to live right now.

But it looks really good as clothes too.

See also

People, Interview