In the last 15 years, there are few people who have captivated the worlds of fashion, art, and design as strongly as Rick Owens. A designer with a cult following that eagerly awaits his gothic-grunge collections at Paris Fashion Week, Owens has done what few in fashion are able to do. He succeeds independently within a tumultuous, fast-paced industry, while continuing to expand his vision beyond clothing into furniture and art.
Part of Owens’ appeal is his ability to surprise audiences while giving them the essential style they’ve come to know and love. His clothing defies structure by creating new ideas of shape; it is dark yet glamorous and truly meant to be worn and lived in. His shows, which have featured Estonian rock band Winny Puhh, American step-dancers, and exposed male genitalia, are often performances that give his clothing an immediate narrative for the world seeing it for the first time. His furniture, which he has described as a way for him to explore a more enduring medium than clothing, uses an array of materials, like fossilized woods, alabaster, moose antlers, and vein-less black and white marble, to create the ultimate collision of minimalism and strength.
Though Owens’ ascent in fashion seemed fast, his entire life prepared him for the eventual risk that was starting his own line. He was born in Porterville, CA to a mother who was a teacher and a father who was a social worker. Owens then moved to L.A. to attend college for painting, but later dropped out because it was too expensive and he wasn’t sure it would turn into a sustainable job.
At that point Owens turned to pattern-making through trade school, which gave him a stable career. By cutting, creating, and even copying patterns, he learned the fundamentals of how to make clothes. Eventually one of the companies he was working for went bankrupt, giving him a chance to refocus and decide that he was ready to forge his own path.
Of this time in his life, Owens says, “I am a great believer in self-invention.” A few years before, he had met his future partner, Michèle Lamy, who remains his muse and collaborator to this day. In the early days of their relationship, Owens says, “I would leave things around the house that I’d made, and if she responded to something, I knew it would work.”
Owens knew to follow his instincts and had years of experience, but he still had many hurdles to overcome. Initially he had to figure out how he would produce and manufacture his clothing in Europe, despite the fact that he was living and designing in Los Angeles. There were not only the French and Italian language barriers, but also the need to scale his business at the right pace in order to maintain his creative integrity and freedom.
Then came the opportunity to do runway shows, which Owens had never intended to do. At the time, he was content to have his self-identified “niche” clothing in only a handful of stores globally. His first buyer, Charles Gallay, would pay for half of the collections up front so that Owens could afford to make the next one. A French Vogue photo of Kate Moss wearing his leather jacket in 2001 got Anna Wintour’s attention and an offer from American Vogue to finance his first runway show in New York.
Though Owens had initial hesitations, and had never even seen a fashion show before, he decided to go for it. On the outside, things were looking great—his collections continued to sell out almost immediately—but Owens admits that he was truly “learning publicly” and felt a certain amount of awkwardness in the process of trying to entertain other people. He knew from the beginning that he didn’t want his runway shows to present a fantasy or include any clothing that wouldn’t be available for sale.
After a few years, Owens found the balance of doing runway shows and existing in a greater fashion system, while not giving in to its ruthless, breakneck expectations. When comparing himself to other fashion houses, some that exist in bigger conglomerates, he says, “I just do my thing. I have that freedom. I don’t have to have people make suggestions or insist on things. I don’t have to negotiate.”
Part of this independence comes from his process. He doesn’t create mood boards (they “just explain too much to everybody”), he has a trusted team (Lamy, stylist Panos Yiapanis, and employees in Paris), and he lives in his design studio, which he moved to Paris, partly to be closer to manufacturing in Italy. Owens and Lamy renovated the five-story workspace-meets-mansion in the city’s 7th arrondissement from traditional offices, and it includes furniture they’ve made.
The most recent chapter in Owens’ ever-fascinating career has been the result of years fighting for his uncompromising vision, which has influenced nearly every corner of fashion. He has stores and stockists globally, a “tribe” of devoted buyers who wear his clothing, a diffusion line, DRKSHDW, his furniture line, and a range of other art projects he’s doing with Lamy. One such project happened last May at the Venice Biennale, where the couple created a “Bargenale,” or rather, a barge that functioned as an installation piece/restaurant/recording studio (A$AP Rocky was a guest and recorded there). Owens has also said that they are working on a mobile home for his and Lamy’s future travels in the U.S.
It’s pretty remarkable in the context of the volatile fashion industry, how Owens has changed the way we dress: drapier, darker, longer, and edgier. He exists simultaneously at the center of it all (there have even been sculptures of him at Selfridges in London and in his Hong Kong store) while making the clothing represent a greater lifestyle that celebrates the individual.
“Every collection I’m ever going to do is inside me,” Owens says. “I just have to untangle and edit and look for it and clean the dirt around it. It’s all there.”
This article is part of a series sponsored by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM's ‘CREED’ starring Michael B. Jordan. It showcases how different luminaries from sports, music, and design fought (and continue to fight) to achieve success. Check back the week of November 23 for more content on Rick Owens.