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“This is my little alternate universe,” Rick Owens says. “I’ve built a place where—I hope—people who may have otherwise been outsiders can feel welcome.”
Over the years, Owens has regularly spoken some iteration of this invitation to like-minded “freaks,” “weirdos,” and other square pegs—all terms of affection coming from him. The fact that he doesn’t indicate some distinct space, that he doesn’t point to some isolated bubble on the periphery of our world, is telling. His little universe is here, there, everywhere.
At the moment we are in the back of a water taxi, skipping across the Venice lagoon from the Lido. We’ll step off at the Giardini to wander around the Biennale, the art world’s equivalent of an Olympics held here every other year, where we will see plentiful evidence of his Owensverse—in the elegant, knowing wink of the jet-setters draped in his recognizably lush leathers; in the devotional fervor of the superfans who stop him, incessantly, asking to take selfies; and even in the deference from the rather civilian-looking pedestrians here who simply yell out their affections as they pass.
Walking through an art fair with Owens is a little like going to a concert with Prince. People gawk as if they’ve seen a white peacock—one of which Owens thinks would look really perfect by the Serbian pavilion.
“It’s wonderful,” he says as we stroll, watching the art-watchers. “A complete and utter devotion to the pursuit of beauty.”
I nod solemnly and squint in a manner I hope looks sagely. Then Owens says, “Art—I hate art. I like parties, though.” He fake collapses on the grass, from the fatigue of it all, and we flop around in front of the Greek pavilion like 6-year-olds.
When I am under the influence of the Owensverse, as I am with growing frequency these days, I see Owens’ hand in everything—in the suspiciously familiar drape and asymmetry of an H&M sweater, in pseudo-trends with names like “healthgoth,” in the haute fashion aspirations of sneaker culture. And this is not purely magical thinking.
There are numbers that attest to Owens’ expanding influence and growth. Numbers like $120 million, which the company’s earnings were projected to surpass in 2014—patently not the number of a “niche” fashion brand. But what’s in a number? Let’s take a test subject—take me.
“Rick is the god, the god of this shit.”
Two years ago, I was the textbook menswear square in gingham shirts and pin dot ties, never within shouting distance of a dropped crotch or asymmetrical collar—this, while literally working three feet from Nick Wooster and Josh Peskowitz, two of the fashion world’s more adventurous dressers. At the time I had personally known Rick Owens for almost 20 years, so I was not entirely unexposed to his aesthetic, though I couldn’t see myself wearing it yet.
Now? Now I like to think I dress like a luxurious Mad Max (though probably look more like Euro Assassin No. 3 in a bad Nic Cage movie)—wider-collar tees, slouchier denim, boxier sneakers or boots with a trippy-cut leather jacket made from whatever wagyu Italian cattle Owens is sourcing. Point is: Even if it’s not head-to-toe Owens, my whole wardrobe is now inflected with a little of the dark lord’s sensibility. I’m the ideal case study to illustrate the change in menswear that Owens wrought.
How did that happen? When did style-conscious men all loosen our ties and throw on sweats? When did Air Force 1s replace oxfords in the office, and why?
Conveniently, I have a theory on that.
It happened in 2011, when Kanye West wore a custom Givenchy leather kilt on stage. At that point, Kanye was the most famously fashion-forward celebrity—a blog demigod, a street style unicorn, and a sight more adventurous than any other entertainer living their lives from look to look. And then he went hard into the brutalist, goth, survivor-of-the-apocalypse mode, got heavy into Owens, and the world noticed. So, Kanye did this, right?
“Nah, man, A$AP Rocky did this,” says A$AP Rocky. We’re walking back to our hotel on the Lido in Venice, hammered, yelling at each other in agreement the way people who are drunk and excited about agreeing on something yell at one another, without listening. So, much of what he said next I do not have a great record of. The gist is that Kanye did not in fact get us to transcend our gender-normative dress habits for these Jedi robes and drape-y shapes Owens makes—Rocky did. And Rocky is, in fact, the present poster-child for the fusion of streetwear with high fashion. Maybe he’s the heir to Kanye in this regard, but it’s worth noting that Rocky, who grew up in Harlem, in the Mecca of sneaker culture and streetwear, is the next generation.
“I always thought athletic shoes were so dreary and prosaic. I swooned with flattery when Nike sent me a cease and desist.”
He’s in town to support his friend, Owens’ wife Michèle Lamy, who has turned a barge into an installation piece/restaurant/recording studio during the Biennale’s preview week. And, while in Venice, he just wants to chill and record a song with “Lamy Lam” (as he calls her), smoke a few trees, drink something sweet, and stay draped in something dope, like his pre-2010 Geobasket sneakers that look like AF1s on acid and run about $2K. “Really, really, really rare,” Rocky says. This is literal truth: The pre-’10 so-called-Dunks featured a swoosh-like emblem on the side that, after Nike noticed a similarity to its logo, has since been replaced with an inverted triangular line.
“I always thought athletic shoes were so dreary and prosaic,” Owens says. “If I was gonna wear them I wanted monster trucks on my feet. So I made my own parody combining Puma, Nike, and adidas motifs. I swooned with flattery when Nike sent me a cease and desist.”
Like everyone in the Owens-Lamy tribe, Rocky is super warm, candid, and passionate about the world that they are building. He says that, from incredibly early on in his life, he was drawn to the haute jiggyness of the Owensverse. “Raf Simons, Rick Owens usually what I’m dressed in,” he rapped in 2011’s “Peso,” maybe even before he could actually afford to. (Compare that with his triumphant boast on his new album about dropping “another 20 thousand on Rick Owens.”) But even within that elite club to which Rocky aspired, Owens meant something more.
“Rick is the god,” he says repeatedly during our walk-rant, “the god of this shit.”
I’m working on this theory that, within the historically conspicuous-consumption-heavy world of hip-hop, Rick Owens has become a byword for the utmost in luxury.
“I don’t see it that way,” Owens says. He wants his universe to be democratic, open to the public. “But it’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “I know what it looks like at the shows when the whole tribe is in uniform. Uniforms have always been historically intimidating to outsiders.”
More and more, though, people seem to be trying on just a piece of the uniform, working a super-long Owens tee into a tailored look, say, rocking his Geobaskets with an elongated bomber jacket, or one of his slithering, asymmetrical coats with Levi’s. But enough about them. Back to me: What finally pulled me into the Owensverse?
Was it a trickle-down effect from the Rockys and Kanyes of the world wearing Owens? Was it feeling the change of a new generation, Rocky’s generation, which perhaps does not see gender, sexuality, and thus, clothing, the same way as previous generations did, bringing Owens’ shapes and drapes across some line of accessibility? Is it that life has become more casual, and I’d rather wear a cushy Owens jacket and sneakers than a custom suit and brogues?
Truth is it has to do with sex, like everything else. I used to think, in my square little box, that a perfectly tailored suit—just that James Bond Savile Row style—was the only way for this white peacock to show its feathers. Now I think Bond looks pretty good off-duty too. Or even as the villain. And I am, increasingly, not alone in thinking so.
There may be a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg thing going on here, according to Eugene Rabkin, founder and editor of StyleZeitgeist, a magazine and website tending toward the Owens end of the style spectrum. “Since Owens has borrowed some elements of hip-hop wear,” Rabkin says, “elongated T-shirts, low-slung pants, and high-tops—of course reinterpreting them in his own way—it was easy to re-incorporate his clothes into the standard hip-hop aesthetic.” But we’re only just dipping our collective toe into the Owensverse, Rabkin says. “The stuff that has made it into the mainstream is the lowest common denominator of what Owens designs, [not] ‘the hardcore stuff’ that he puts on the runway.” Not yet, anyway.
Back on the boat-limo, I was trying to get Owens to freak out about all the wood grain. We share a crazy affinity for all things art deco, for Victorian-era murder mysteries, and luxurious modes of transportation gone by, so I figure this paneling is mutually enjoyable terrain. But Owens just gives a meh shrug, which is a way of saying, I’d do it differently, which of course means, obviously, My version would be better. I do not argue this point. But it is likely that Owens is seeing things differently than I do. It is almost certain that he sees beyond what I am able to.
Consider the way he works. He’s not into sketching, which he considers vanity, and ultimately irrelevant. He drapes. He studies things as they are in the world and corrects them, brings them into alignment with his vision for them. He professionally bends the world into accord with his ideals. And, at present, he is finding this boat lacking.
Consider, too, Owens’ famous attention to detail. It is not for nothing that the murder mysteries we mutually adore are those featuring the famously persnickety Hercule Poirot. In Owens’ world—as in Poirot’s—everything must be just so. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this.
Take, for instance, the story I heard recently: During the huge party for his Selfridges shop-in-shop, a circus of the senses for which Ryoji Ikeda built an installation and runway model barmen were fitted with the exact uniform worn by the waiters at Harry’s Bar in Venice, Owens noticed a company executive wearing a brand new jacket, purchased with his own money from the Rick Owens London store just that day. Striding across the room, the designer approached the executive and said something to the effect of: “WHAT IS THIS STITCHING?!” Then, in his disarmingly kind and delicate way (I’m not being at all sarcastic), Owens relieved the executive of his jacket and mailed it to the factory with a handwritten letter, presumably repeating his query into the anomalous stitching, also in all caps.
Even if the story is not true to the letter, it shows how his little gray cells are always at work. Luxury for Owens is control and precision, the complete and unhindered execution of his vision. “I’m fine if I can have it all done my way,” he says. “But it has to all be my way.”
At the moment he is building a completely custom mobile home for his future travels in the States. “Matte-black,” he says, “of course.” His chief architect is on site at the Winnebago factory in Forest City, Iowa, and will be for at least a year throughout construction. Owens, who grew up in Porterville, Calif., where his parents still live, hasn’t been to the West Coast since he moved to Paris in 2002.
If and when he does go back—and he is planning to spend more time out there, with the opening of the store in L.A., and with his parents getting on in age—he wants to do it his way, in a rolling Owens-topia. “This [mobile home] is perfect,” Owens says. “Michèle likes to wander and I’m happy to tag along, so long as I can bring my whole world with us.”
During the week I spend with them in Venice, Owens and I talk a lot about movies. He’s particularly under the spell of Cecil B. DeMille of late, in delighted awe of the dense tableaux about Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, for example, almost rapturous in celebration of the detailing, the fine-tooth attention to minutiae on enormous, spectacle-sized canvases. Which is absolutely fitting.
At 52, Owens is almost the same age as DeMille was when he made Cleopatra. And, like the director, his own ambitions are ballooning while he is at the absolute summit of his powers. White peacocks and the Excelsior hotel on the Lido: “Very DeMille,” he says in admiration.
The little universe Owens has been building since he started his company in 1994 is not so little any more.
It is dusk and Owens, Lamy, and I are wandering through the very DeMillean back pathways of Venice, past the Opera. I ask if they’ve been to see a performance since they’ve started spending time in the area.
“I’m not a big fan of going to the opera,” Owens says. “Something always disappoints me. The costumes let me down, or the sets. I’d rather just listen to it.” What about putting the Owensverse on stage, or, better yet, on screen?
“I don’t have any great burning desire to make a movie,” he says. “But if I did, I just know that everyone would die in the end. And it would be beautiful.”