Seasoned fashionistas can spot a Rick Owens piece a mile away, from the edgy bias-cut sheaths with asymmetrical hems and slouchy knits to the deconstructed leather jackets with stretchy panels. Yet even after 14 years, the American designer has trouble describing it himself.
“OK, I must admit I usually have sound bites, but I can’t remember them,” he says with a laugh. He leans over to check a recent press release.
“We have no press officer and once I write things down they’re so good I can’t top them,” he says. “So what have we got? Glamour meets grunge? They always pick up on broken idealism, is that there? I should come up with a new one every year.”
Owens is sitting in his atelier-cum-buyers’ showroom near the Palais Bourbon on the Left Bank in Paris, where he lives with his French wife, restaurateur Michelle Lamy (who also backs British label Gareth Pugh).
Swathed in a loose, floor-sweeping black sheath with long, dark hair parted neatly and cascading down his back, Owens perfectly embodies the dark, gothic aesthetic he has tried to express in words. He professes that he only wears his own clothes and chooses one outfit per season, gets five versions made and rotates them. He calls the idea “cool and so extravagant but restrained”, a description that could probably sum up his clothes.
The look and attitude seem an odd fit with the 46-year-old’s all-American background. Having moved his operations to the City of Lights five years ago, all that seems left of his American roots is his perfect, toothy smile, effusive politeness and drawl.
“It’s amazing, when I look back, how provincial I was,” he says. “I didn’t have ambition or imagine what I could really do. I’m from a little town and it didn’t even cross my mind that I could make it big. I never knew I would have runway shows in Paris.”
Born in 1962 in Porterville, California, Owens left the sleepy town for Los Angeles in the late 1980s to attend Otis/Parsons College of Art and Design, specialising in art and painting. Finding the subject “too intimidating, too heavy and involving too much of me”, he left and took a fashion design course instead, learning basics such as pattern making.
“It was very industry-oriented and not glamorous,” Owens says. “It was Los Angeles, not New York, so it was about sweatshops and knock-offs. It was a great [learning] exercise for me.”
In 1994 he opened his own studio in Los Angeles, making pieces for himself and his wife that “suited their lifestyle”. It eventually grew to a smaller collection that was distributed to just five stores worldwide.
Perfectly content to stay under the radar (with a mention here and there in Italian Vogue), Owens was approached in 2001 by an Italian manufacturing group looking to work with new designers.
“The Italians offered me a choice that was just as simple as my plan, which was to just keep on making my stuff and getting it out there,” he says. “My attitude was that if I make stuff, then someone someday will get it together. It was naïve, but it kind of worked.”
His break came a season later when US Vogue offered to sponsor a runway show for him during New York Fashion Week.
“It was cool but it was exactly what I didn’t imagine doing. Fashion shows are about display and status, which is not me,” he says. “How could I reconcile this with what I was doing?
“But then I thought if I never tried, I would regret it. Plus, if you say no, then you’re blackballed for the rest of your life. It was a lifestyle change – once you start this you can’t stop until you’re dead. I had a whole new job and did I really want to be under that type of spotlight? What I do isn’t flamboyant, it’s quiet and grey. It was a lot to consider, but you only live once, so I did it.”
As he predicted, Owens immediately drew the attention of fashion editors and celebrities such as Courtney Love and Madonna by appealing to women who, he says, “have done the labels and satisfied lots of appetites”.
He was then approached by Revillon to become its creative director and moved to Paris.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision – what’s there to move? It wasn’t hugely intimidating,” he says. “The shows, yes, we had to take it up a notch, but shows are always different from sales. I knew how to sell – I’d been selling my stuff for years before I did a runway show.
“My aesthetic did change, but in the way I wanted it to. We have that crude element but I like to mix it with refinement and where better to find that than in Paris? Paris refined what I already had. The only thing I was worried about was losing my accent. I was so conscious about it that I became more Californian,” he laughs, while also admitting that he hasn’t returned to the US since.
Today Owenscorp is a much bigger and better production. Having ended his contract with Revillon, Owens designs several collections a year – a main line and pre-collections, a more body-conscious diffusion line called Lillies (“I thought it was better to knock myself off before anyone else,” he says) and a denim collection called Drkshdw. He recently added accessories and furniture to the list, and after opening his first shop in Paris last year he plans to open in New York this month and London next year. His distribution network includes Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Beijing, where Lillies and the main line are available respectively.
Although his first store broke even in six months, the transition wasn’t quite so easy for Owens personally. “Working in LA the way I was, I was so used to doing it with my own rhythm and doing it the way I wanted. But now it’s a lot of structure – I have schedules, deadlines and also a team. I’m not a team player, I’m a kind of loner. At the beginning I thought, OK, we’re international, I need lots of cute kids with cute haircuts and energy, but after a year of that it was just distracting and disorienting. I can’t have that many people in my head all the time. I was an only child and I never knew how to deal with so many people’s energies.
“Now it’s a lot more relaxed. I’ve also learned how to start earlier and this is because of fear. I made mistakes and I know you have to start early and you have to get it.
“ Karl Lagerfeld once said that I was an auto-fascist. If you want to be ahead you have to start way ahead. I learned the hard way. I burned and now it will never happen again.”
Although he is taking it slow, he is excited about his latest project with Juice Gallery in Paris, creating limited-edition art and furniture pieces.
“I really do like it all; it’s a fun little trip. I do feel guilty sometimes because it’s an ego trip,” Owens says. “It’s the Liza Minnelli thing – you’re in Radio City, go off in a cloud of smoke, go off stage and say, ‘Everyone loves me.’ How do you top that? It’s tremendous power to be able to fulfil your personal aesthetic and creatively resolve everything you want to”
Published in the SCMP, August 6, 2008