In a wide-ranging interview the designer talks to us about his two new books, his body of work, the role of irony and politics in it, his fanbase, and the current generation of fashion.
There is this rare thing about Rick Owens that’s hard to define, but easy to see, once you see it. That thing is that he simultaneously exists outside of fashion but also inside it. He is a true auteur, having created an aesthetic universe of his own. His clothes are never on trend, because Owens doesn’t need trends – he has his tribe and beyond the tribe he has the reputation of such unflappable coolness that its gravitational pull extends way beyond the fairly narrow circle of fashion enthusiasts and creative professionals that hold Owens in high regard. This calm strength that Owens possesses, which he calls “grace under pressure,” allows him to cultivate his own style while garnering constant, unadulterated praise from the fashion industry insiders, few of whom actually wear the clothes.
This month Rick Owens is adding to his universe by releasing two books with Rizzoli, one on his own work by the photographer Danielle Levitt, and one on the under-appreciated American designer Larry LeGaspi.
Rick Owens Photographed by Danielle Levitt is a pretty straightforward chronological tome of photography, documenting Owens’s work, starting with his S/S 14 women’s collection.
The images in the book are stark, the models pose against a white background; everything in the photos is about the clothes. The crispness of the images isn’t sterile, however, and therein lies a measure of Levitt’s talent. The pictures underscore how sculptural Owens’s clothes are, and how unique. What’s more, the photos often show that traditional nomenclature for clothes does not really reflect what Owens creates. What Levitt photographs are garments, but if you closed your eyes and were asked to envision a dress or a coat, it would look nothing like the sort of clothes Owens has been putting out in the past couple of years.
On the surface, Legaspi is a book of a totally different sort, a homage to a largely forgotten designer Owens admires. Yet, in the press release Owens writes, “This book is shamelessly about me. I’ve edited Larry’s work into a composition of designer I wanted him to be, and the kind of designer I hoped to be. It’s me fetishizing him through a fanboy filter. It’s very much about Art Deco Kabuki meeting black leather, sweaty 1970s NY, and the stomping bombast of KISS, LaBelle, and Divine, who he did costumes for.”
Indeed, there is something very Owens in LeGaspi’s work, a kind of camp mixed with glam. And while Owens shakes these elements and something quite different falls out of the magic box of his brain, the book contains parallels between the two men. Certainly the glam rock direction the couple of Owens’s last collections have taken, somewhat inspired by that of LeGaspi, have resulted in some of his best work to date. The cover image of the book’s dust jacket could’ve been Owens’s own work, and no one would know better.
What people often miss in Rick’s work is a healthy dose of camp it’s imbued with. Camp is usually thought of as pink feathers and Elton John. Owens has challenged that notion with his oversized brutalist stomping style that is produced with “a loving wink.” And that’s the thing that has always struck me about Owens’s work – that blending of aggression and love that is the essence of the punk spirit. One could go further and make the case that goth can be a form of camp, something that Owens has always stressed.
But with LeGaspi camp culminated not with goth but with arena metal freaks, KISS. In the book one of the first images is of Gene Simmons, the band’s kooky frontman, regaled in full LeGaspi, studs, horns, a huge cutout in front displaying his hairy chest and stomach (oh, the bravery!), gripping his guitar, what I assume is red paint (the photo is black and white) dripping out of his mouth. We forget how transgressive that was, but Owens is happy to remind us.
I caught up with Owens, who graciously took time out of his day as he was preparing his new women’s collection, over FaceTime to talk about the two books. As usual, however, our conversation meandered and it grew into something bigger and too interesting to let it linger on the cutting floor. See for yourself.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
ER: You are in the midst of preparing a new collection. How is it going?
RO: I am putting it all together, imagining how different clothes will look in different fabrics and colors. This is the part that I like about this job; it’s not really stressful, and it doesn’t bother me. I love having deadlines and cycles. You have this amount of resources, this amount of time…and how do you fit everything in so that there is a rational, cohesive expression? So it’s a little puzzle that I enjoy, actually.
ER: I don’t really mind the pressure of deadlines, because they give me clarity. You’ve always seemed disciplined about them.
RO: I’ve been doing it for so long now, and I’ve established a certain body of work, that even if I did a total fucking mess this season, I think people could excuse it and I could probably move on and hopefully do better next time. I have a little room for failure right now, which is great.
ER: It’s crazy to expect a designer to hit it out of the park with every single collection. I certainly don’t expect it from any designer; it’s too much pressure.
RO: Well, the main thing is to be consistent. Not to hit it out of the park, but to stay steady. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s a different climate. Because you see some designers that used to be so relevant and so precise for their moment, and then thirteen years later they’re just obsolete. It’s chilling to me. How do you not recognize that? You just keep going and just blindly thinking you’re doing the right thing.
“I think any kind of contemporary expression that is relevant has to be political.”
ER: In your last men’s collection, “Tecuatl,” you made a pointed political statement, paying homage to your Mexican roots. I felt like it was the first time your work took an overtly political tone.
RO: I think any kind of contemporary expression that is relevant has to be political, it has to be about the world around you. I resisted being political about particular events, but you can be political without specifically pointing fingers. Though, i guess this is the first time that I actually really pointed a finger.
ER: Do you ever think about your legacy?
RO: Sometimes. I keep thinking, when I get to a certain age, why not cash in? Why not reap the benefits of everything and distribute them among my loved ones? Long ago somebody asked me, “Would you ever consider letting go of your company”? And I said “No, I’ll take it down with me. I’m burning it down when I go.” Now I’m thinking, if I sell it some day, that is burning it down. I am taking it with me. Two hundred years from now what will people say about it? Who am I trying to impress? I agree with the purism, but there’s a cynical side to me that’s saying why should I care? Why not sell it?
ER: Sure, it’s a reward on its own. But the fashion industry is the only one where selling your company means selling your name. And that faustian bargain must be heavy. It must be for guys like Helmut Lang and Margiela.
RO: I don’t know, they seem happy, quietly doing their own thing. I wonder, if I saw a Rick Owens collection happening without my participation, I think it would make me cringe, and I would just be horrified, but right after that, I would think wow, I’m being really petty. Especially if I sold it for a lot of money. Then I would have no right to complain. But I don’t think anybody would pay that much money for my company right now, because there are too many companies out there.
ER: The guys in corporate fashion seem to be doing very well.
RO: Yeah, but it’s such a treacherous terrain now. Everything is changing really fast. Also, this generation doesn’t have the same kind of loyalty that our generation did. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, that’s just evolution. They have more of a magpie mentality, just because they’re inundated with so much information all the time. They have the luxury of being able to pick and choose in a very superficial kind of way. Is that wrong? I don’t know. It’s just different.
ER: In the preface to the Daniel Levitt book, you wrote that people expect some kind of a dark, murky esthetic from you, but you want your work to be remembered the way Levitt shoot it, clean and crisp. I think it makes total sense to anyone who has followed your work closely, because even though you started as a “goth” designer, you’ve transcended the moniker long ago, but you have also kept its essence, which is dissatisfaction with the bourgeois morality and the bourgeois aesthetic that is its product.
RO: If my work was the cartoon goth thing, which is the cliche, nobody would’ve stuck around this long. Some magazines can use that name for me, and that’s fine; in their context that makes sense, because they need to classify me. If people aren’t really attracted to what I do, I don’t expect them to spend that much time thinking about what I do.
ER: It’s just such a lazy interpretation of your work.
RO: But maybe it’s also asking a bit much for people to define what you do more precisely when it’s a very busy world, and I get it. This isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. For example, I’m not interested in preppiness. I use that as a blanket term when there’s a lot of nuance to it, too. People summarize, and they’re allowed to summarize; I think that’s fair.
ER: In the Danielle Levitt book you are essentially giving up control of your image because you are putting a lot of trust in the photographer. How did it feel for you as someone who likes to control his environment?
RO: Well, it’s like having a runway show. You put all the elements together and you send them down the runway, and it takes on a life of its own. It’s still as controlled as I can get it, when we shoot these behind the scenes pictures; it’s basically styled by me, and every element is as close to what I want. There’s a breeziness to it that gives it a sense of speed that I think is good for it. Otherwise it would feel overly labored and that would bother me. I trust Danielle, and I pick out every picture anyway, so it’s pretty controlled.
ER: How did you pick Levitt to document your work?
RO: She was just right because I had seen her photos of all these sub-cultures. And that spoke to me. But there was a kindness to her work, it wasn’t exploitative. It wasn’t leering, because she needed to fit into those tribes. She joined in, kind of the way I joined in. She is just really easy to be with, so I don’t overthink it. It was something that just started out as a whim and galvanized from there.
ER: I loved how human the models look in her shots.
RO: She has a great balance of polish and vulnerability that is attractive.
ER: Another thing that jumped out at me from those photos is how sculptural your work has become over the years. It’s not that I haven’t noticed, but it’s really striking in the book. Because it was quite drippy in your early days.
RO: Well, the drippiness was sculpture too. The drippiness was the very sculptural beginning, and then the drippiness just became more baroque. The drippiness is always there, it’s the foundation. Over time it’s gotten more playful I suppose, because I’ve been able to get control of my resources, the fabrics, the colors, and the dyes, and also the control of the people around me. And maybe the people around me have grown more used to the way I work, so things come out more fluid. But even when it was drippy, that drippiness always extended beyond the body. Things were too long, things dragged on the floor, extended beyond your arms. It was already there, but… it was more flaccid and then later on it got more engorged.
ER: So, the sculptural element was always there.
RO: When I started in art school, I wanted to be a painter, but then I saw that first Julian Schnabel painting, the one with the antlers sticking out of it, and that probably was very significant. I suppose it should have been Robert Rauschenberg, the goat with the tire around it, but for some reason it was Schnabel, just because it came up right at that moment and it seemed… I guess the Rauschenberg because it was vintage at the time, it just didn’t have the same impact for me. And that’s a good lesson in how things that are happening of the moment have to have a different kind of significance than the things of the past. Just the energy of something being immediate like that. But I guess that took me off of a flat painting into a more sculptural direction. It was the surprise of an extension where you wouldn’t expect it. And I think that probably trickled into my clothes later on. The clothes being a part of you, but you fill the space in a different way, and the extravagance of filling the space that is bigger than yourself. The artifice of a personal presentation, bigger than you really are. Just as birds fluff their feathers to look bigger. Maybe also as a kid watching all those Cecil B. DeMille movies that were so grand and opulent, the monumentalism of being able to build your own mountain and stand on top of it.
ER: The dominant narrative today is all about human interaction with nature. But artifice and exaggeration are maybe the most human thing. We’ve always done it, building monuments to ourselves. Isn’t that what architecture is about?
RO: Yeah, well, I mean every man wants a huge penis. Life is really primitive, life is really dumb. That makes total sense.
ER: I want to discuss the LeGaspi book. I love this one-man effort on your part to resurrect his legacy. It’s not just the book, but you dedicated two collections as homage to another fashion designer. That’s ballsy.
RO: But it’s also all about me!
ER: Yes, you say that in the preface. And yet, you’re trying to resurrect the work of a designer the world has largely forgotten.
RO: I’m almost reinterpreting it. He’s so much more than what I presented. There’s a lot of stuff that I just wasn’t interested in. I had a very narrow focus of how I wanted to present him. The best part fo me was the thrill of him infiltrating Middle America with a kind of drag queen sensibility. Which was already there with glitter rock, but he did it in a more kabuki way, a more grotesque way, and that just thrilled me. Remember when KISS came out, they didn’t have the same comical connotation they have now. They were really sinister and really satanic. Gene Simmons was slitting his tongue out of his mouth every night; I mean he wasn’t, but we were convinced he was! Also, just graphically, the way that they looked, it was so beautifully balanced.
ER: Why do you think LeGaspi’s been largely forgotten?
RO: I bet partly because he was doing it in New York. If he had been doing that in Europe, it might have been accepted in a very different way. That’s why, without thinking of him as an example at the time, I moved from showing in New York to Paris. Because I realized that in New York what I was doing would be marginalized and considered a freak show. I guess he was just too exotic; I mean, exotic makes it maybe sound more glamorous; his thing was too cartoony for New York.
ER: I wonder what would have happened if you didn’t move to Paris, but I suppose the answer is right there.
RO: The answer is right there. Or, I would have become a lot more like 1970s Calvin Klein or Halston. I might’ve gone in that direction, because that is the stuff that would work there. It would just happen naturally I think, to support the business. I mean, I love Calvin Klein and Halston from the 70s. I think they were really… that was very ballsy sleek clothing that they were making.
ER: But Paris is very bourgeois, yet they can differentiate between their lives and art.
RO: They have a history of poetry. Of almost perverse poetry, and they demand that poetry even though they can be very bourgeois. In New York it’s about efficiency and shrewdness. But I think this new generation of fashion is really interesting, too. If we look at people who are prominent right now, they are prominent for being very shrewd and calculating, and being very blatant about it. But I don’t know if that’s wrong. Maybe that’s a new aesthetic. This new generation is supposed to react to people like you and me. So what is it they can do that can irritate us the most? That’s what’s happening. Because they know that we’re falling for it. So i’m watching it and I’m thinking they’re supposed to be doing this. I’m irritated? Bravo!
ER: That’s where the culture is today. I was talking to some kids for another article, and to them the idea of selling out, which was anathema to my generation, just doesn’t exist. There is no selling out, it’s just selling. I asked them about kids wearing Nirvana tees without having listened to the music, and their retort was, well Nirvana created that artwork, and they are getting paid, so what’s the problem? They are comfortable with it, and I am so not.
RO: You can just see that in body language, the way people hope to sell to these kids, shamelessly, and the way people do sell things, in public, who just have no problem putting on a completely artificial face and selling themselves on Instagram. But, it’s evolution. They’ve just changed. And that’s supposed to happen.
ER: In the book you mentioned several times that you do camp as opposed to irony. How do you differentiate one from the other?
RO: There is a sneer to irony that disturbs me. But I have to admit that it can be fun and sexy. Cruelty can be sexy. While it’s not my forte, I definitely love a bitchy queen.
ER: I mean irony as in, “we’re in the in club and haha if you don’t get it.”
RO: But that’s what we all do to a certain extent. And we resent it when our aesthetic becomes widely accepted and then it loses its luster for us. That’s what I’ve always been conscious of; I know that there are people out there that were so dedicated and have become disappointed as I’ve evolved and expanded. I don’t know if I regret it, and it’s a shame when it happens, but I suspect there is a little bit of superficiality to that. It’s just about resenting the exclusiveness of something becoming recognized by more people than you would like it be. Everybody wants to be special.
ER: But I don’t stop listening to my favorite music because it’s become popular.
RO: That’s a good point. I guess Bowie would be a good example here. He’s become so mainstream.
ER: In the book you talk about childhood rage that stemmed from being judged by Middle America for being an outsider, and that this rage still drives you today. Would you say your work is a mix of the middle finger and catharsis?
RO: Yeah, it’s definitely revenge. But for Larry, it was also sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his stepfather. I always intended to do this book about Larry in this kind of black and white, and gray celebration of my perception of him, but then his sister sent this manuscript that Larry had been writing on his deathbed. In it he was very direct about his stepfather fucking him all through his youth. And there’s that, and then he dies of AIDS. This manuscript, which I included in the back of the book, added a whole layer of gravitas that I hadn’t expected when I started it, and it made it much more profound and moving. In a way this book is also about AIDS, because it is about a generation of young people and creative forces in that era that was wiped out.
ER: Do you hope that you will jumpstart a LeGaspi renaissance?
RO: Well I did, in a way. My biggest thrill was that he now has a Wikipedia page. Which he didn’t before. That is a triumph. I mean there already is a LeGaspi renaissance. There’s a glitter rock sliver lamé thing kind of happening. I’m sure there’s a “LeGaspi” piece or two in a Gucci store right now. There’ve been KISS influences in collections for the past fifteen years. So, I don’t think anything new is really going happen.
ER: Still, It would be cool if someone did a LeGaspi exhibit.
RO: That would be hard. I don’t think there’s that much stuff out there. But you know what? Patti LaBelle could probably have a fantastic exhibition, because she said she’s saved all the costumes Larry designed for her band. So, maybe between Patti LaBelle and Paul Stanley (from KISS), they could come up with some stuff. I don’t know, maybe.