The Primal Beauty of Rick Owens
As is the case with many greats, there is something about the work of Rick Owens that gives viewers pause. Is it clothing or art? Ugly or intricately beautiful? Does that even matter? There is perhaps no other designer, with the exception of Miuccia Prada, who so revels in challenging our perception of what is and how to define ‘good’. Through the abandonment of fashion’s fuss, Owens has created a universe of his own, one complete with apparel, accessories, tableware and furniture that all bear his signature Brutalist touch. While the surfaces may be coarse, the inherent beauty permeating every object has a delicacy that makes you want to wrap yourself in it––cashmere-lined armor to protect against an inhospitable world. His independence both as a visionary and as a business owner has allowed him to carve out a space that is all but separate from the regular goings on of fashion—and thankfully so.
His recent Fall/Winter 2019 collection was a perfect depiction of this very rejection of fashion norms. Owens sent out a stream of the most glamorous aliens imaginable: some wore biomorphic jackets sans pants while others were draped in Madame Grès-style pleats exaggerated and twisted as if about to swallow the wearer. Every exit was somehow as inviting as it was menacing. Owens even expanded his own naturally somber palette to include plum, crimson and leaf green––all still muted tones yet ones that magically looked light and fresh seen through his lens. He quite simply never stops evolving.
Follow Martin on instagram here.
Owens is one of the business’ few leading designers of his stature to independently operate his label. It’s logical given just how extreme his presentations, not to mention the wares themselves, can be. But it’s also impossible to imagine Owens being any other way. His worldview is so idiosyncratic the notion of corporate suits issuing him directives seems laughable. On the surface, his work jumps from one extreme to the next, but a deep inspection reveals just how adept Owens truly is.
Yes, the craggy leather jackets (the best around) and tough dresses that seem to poke and prod the space around them exist, but they are only one facet of the Owens canon. Right beside them are incredibly soft jersey T-shirts, plush cashmere sweaters washed to nubby perfection and sweatpants so exactingly undone you really could envision yourself wearing them forever. Most brands would put these kinds of pieces off to the side on a lonely rack––the ‘core’ collection as it’s often referred to––yet Owens mixes these in harmoniously with his most avant-garde designs. Why? Because there isn’t really a difference. The ethos remains resolute. Whereas some begrudgingly churn these types of clothes out purely for their bottom line, Owens recognizes their economic value without devaluing the ideas that go into them. He’s not above a great slouchy tee (who is?), and his customers feel the earnestness through that comfort.
For those and many other reasons, the eponymous brand he’s built is not typical, but neither is Owens. Raised in central California, he got his start in LA making patterns for illegal copies of designer clothing. His own label was founded in 1994 and Owens decamped to Paris in 2002 where he’s been based ever since. The dark sense of romance that has become his signature seemed to gain new life once rooted in Europe, something which has continued to morph over the years. And it’s a sensibility that has proven increasingly lucrative. Though Owens admitted to Footwear News that he used to mold his own rubber soles because he couldn’t afford factory minimums, his company now has an estimated worth north of $100 million. With that kind of capital comes the ability to flesh out in the real world precisely what goes on in his mind. “My job is to promote beauty and find new versions of it and present it and talk about it and enjoy it and, I suppose, provide it,” the designer told Tim Blanks in a 2017 profile. “Who am I to say what’s beautiful? I’m just doing these proposals but enough people seem to enjoy it that it means it has some value. And I think that’s important.”
Propose Owens does. One never quite knows what to expect with his bi-annual runways presentations, but they have gained notoriety thanks to both Owens’ brilliant way of showcasing the unexpected and social media’s encroachment on the fashion sphere providing wider access. His casting of step dancers from American soroitites, many of whom were women of color and all of whom had different body types from the one usually prescribed by fashion, for his Spring 2014 show was deemed iconic before day’s end. There’s little doubt that Owens and his team––notably Michèle Lamy, Owens’ wife and creative partner in all things––are ignorant to the media impact something like that could have, but as with his clothes, it is the genuine sense of curiosity about seeing things anew that continues to blow people away.
Rick Owens’ aesthetic is not a monolith, despite often being wrongly assumed as such. It’s by turning things inside out, getting up close, feeling them mindfully that you realize the level of consideration brought to every single thing. Unlike most of what populates department stores, it does not diminish when held near—its relevance only grows. Perhaps its Owens’ undeniably American style melded with the fantasies unleashed by European freedom that make this singular label so compelling. As he told GQ in 2018 in reference to Paris, “It's the poetry. There's just a poetic weirdness to the fashion here that doesn't exist anywhere else. There's a sense of abstraction and almost Dada. There came a point where, to be the designer I wanted to be, I had to get smarter. And the stuff you see here is just on a different level. ” And so is Rick.