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Paris-based designer Rick Owens has been called many things in his long career. An antihero, a goth, fashion’s “prince of darkness.” He’s been labeled as such because of his proclivity for a largely noir, gray and ice-hued oeuvre, his deployment of pentagram motifs on underwear or elk antlers on furniture, and an overall aesthetic that is – and he’d agree with this – rapturously anti-establishment.
“I get it, I mean, it’s easy to categorize somebody. I summarize things quickly, too. I suppose being called goth isn’t the worst thing,” he says during a sit down interview atop the Palais de Tokyo, two days before the revealing of his Spring-Summer 2022 collection at Paris Fashion Week. “It’s like this: There’s Disney World, where you can go to find something very clean and that denies the discomforts and horrors that really exist in life. And there’s the non-Disney World, where you’ll find somebody like me, who acknowledges and tries to figure out how to accept those things and how to manage those things. When you acknowledge it, when you deal with mortality, when you deal with threat, then, yeah, it’s dark compared to Disney. I’m fine with it.”
Owens, who is half American and half Mexican (his mother is from Puebla, just a few hours outside of Mexico City), was born and raised in Porterville, California, before launching his namesake line in Los Angeles in 1994. He relocated to Paris in 2003 with his partner Michèle Lamy, and now lives between the French capital and Venice, Italy’s Lido, where he keeps a penthouse flat that overlooks the sea (and where, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he staged and filmed intimate runway shows; Thursday’s Paris catwalk marked his return to the city after a year and a half).
His label, which remains majority owned by him and Lamy, is a success story – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue per year, thanks to his main collection, his diffusion lines, a furniture collection, brand partnerships and more. He has received numerous accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and is an industry darling despite remaining, to many, a bit of a dark horse. He’s also become more and more of a celebrity favorite, beloved by stars such as Lil Uzi Vert, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, and Timothée Chalamet, who layered Rick Owens into his recent Met Gala look.
Above all, Owens, who turns 60 in November, may be among the most unfiltered designers working today – it’s a trait that’s rare, especially when many luxury brands fall under heavily patrolled corporate approval processes and safety stops. His honesty is refreshing: “I like bombast, yet there’s been anger all along. I grew up in such a conservative, judgy town, and it filled me with so much rage,” says Owens. “I’m still operating on that rage. This is my revenge. I’m still vengeful. I’m still a vengeful Scorpio.”
Owens’ product is ultra luxurious, but it doesn’t stick to the confines of stereotypical and mass-peddled opulence. Blistered leathers, exotic skins, tape-thin cashmere knits, overwashed denim, and a bit of roughened glamour, such as with injections of sequins or foils, have all played a role in defining his singular design vernacular. His shapes and silhouettes are outsized, clingy, languid, and, frankly, captivating. It all congeals to form something futuristic and deeply primal in tandem. Neanderthal to alien, and yet strangely well-suited for the modern era.
“What I always try to do is bring auteurship to my work,” he says. “The fact is, all of my life, I’ve tried to present something that is an alternative to a very strict aesthetic that we see in this world. We are expected to adhere to it, but I try to blur the lines. And not in a militant way, but in a way that’s saying, ‘I propose this as an alternative to the standards you are used to.’ I think with confidence and a certain amount of flair and boldness, we have established our own kind of beauty. A smarter beauty.”
Owens’ balanced approach – that fashion can thrive as a tug-o-war between gloom and joy – is also reflected in his track record of both controversy and truly brilliant strokes.
Regarding the former, in June, 2015, a model walking in an Owens’ show held up a sign that read “Please Kill Angela Merkel Not.” There was some speculation as to whether it was an inside job, a violent stunt to drum up publicity (Owens denies any prior knowledge of it).
With the latter, there are two standouts in particular. One dates to September, 2013, when Owens hired step teams from American sororities instead of traditional models to present his Spring-Summer 2014 collection. The show was a sensation, and, it’s worth noting, it occurred years before the fashion industry’s system-wide push for greater racial diversity and size inclusivity.
The other involves another runway show, this time in 2019. Owens has a history of presenting at the Palais de Tokyo, and the large size of the location regularly demands creative space-filling.
That summer, there was an on-site exhibition of work by the artist and sculptor Thomas Houseago. One such piece was installed smack in the middle of Owens’ set. The designer extrapolated off of the idea, and imported clay from Houseago’s Los Angeles studio, mixing it with Parisian mud, and including it as part of the staging. Most importantly, it didn’t go to waste: “It’s clay that came from Los Angeles that was in a Rick Owens show that ended up at the Louvre, being used by students in their own creativity,” says Owens. “And I just loved that. I thought that was a great solution to [the excesses of runway shows.]”
Spring-Summer 2022, titled ‘Fogachine’, featured an array of Owens signatures; standout looks included a dip-dyed elongated sheer top over a barely-there body suit and splint-like python boots, as well as a billowing, almost caftan-like, tulle dress embroidered with iridescent raven feathers. Overall, the collection reverberated with confidence and a sort of elegant-yet-menacing energy; it was a charged-up homecoming, of sorts, but Owens doesn’t assign too many specific emotions to his work.
Plus, as always, he wrestles with the bigger questions: “[With shows coming back after the pandemic], everybody is going to want to flex. Everyone is going to want to show that they are stronger than ever, that they’re more powerful than ever. It’s a little horrifying, but I get it. So that’s where my head is right now. I’m thinking, nobody wants to see humility. Nobody wants to see a humble lesson. People want to see that we’re back to full power.” Then, smiling mischievously, he concludes: “People want to imagine that everything’s going to be fine, and that we’ve got it all under control.”
Top image: Rick Owens at his Menswear Fall/Winter 2020-2021 show at Paris Fashion Week in 2020.