Dark Knight Still Rising: Rick Owens, fashion’s lord of darkness

·5-min read
Rick Owens by Danielle Levitt  (Rick Owens by Danielle Levitt )
Rick Owens by Danielle Levitt (Rick Owens by Danielle Levitt )

Rick Owens spends his summers in Venice, from May to October. He’s there now, waiting for his breakfast delivery: coffee, croissants, eggs and avocado on toast. ‘One of the most civilised things you can do is have a daybed and a hot coffee on the beach in the morning. I’ve got my toes in the sand and it’s a sparkling day,’ he says.

This is not a scene that you would expect a fashion designer who has been described as ‘the lord of darkness’ to appear in. But Owens has always straddled the line between the grotesque and the beautiful.

‘I know that everybody kind of assumes that I am very dramatic and dystopian,’ he says. ‘And I guess that when I do shows, this is the case. But I live a very quiet, gentle life.’ Owens says he prefers to travel as little as possible. When he does, he never takes private planes. So the airport has become somewhat of a problem — particularly the pre-flight saunter through duty free shopping. ‘I find it so jarring and unpleasant,’ he says. ‘I started referring to this as an “airport aesthetic” because you’re forced to go through those duty free stores. It’s this super-glossy, super-classic, super-rigid, narrow kind of environment, promoting jet-set aspirations and conspicuous consumption.’

His upcoming SS23 womenswear show in Paris will be a reaction to this, he explains. ‘I want something raw, something gritty. I’ve been getting a little too glam recently, which people have really responded to well. I’ve always believed in glamour. But the world has gotten a little bit too glossy for me recently. We’re living in an airbrushed selfie world.’

Although Owens uses social media himself, it’s clear that mainstream influencer culture does not appeal. Although, when I press him on the matter, he says it is ‘amusing and ironic’. ‘The “online” style appears to me as a kind of a grab bag of pulling every label together and then calling it your own look,’ he says. ‘But it all looks the same to me — all of the combinations of designer clothes end up levelling out.’ From a man who once famously said, ‘Working out is modern couture. Buy less clothing and go to the gym instead,’ Owens’ ethos couldn’t be further away from #OOTD Instagram snaps and YouTube unboxing videos.

Golden globes:  Rick Owens’ SS23 men’s  show at the Palais de  Tokyo in Paris | Getty (Getty Images)
Golden globes: Rick Owens’ SS23 men’s show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris | Getty (Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, Owens’ muses have always been what society would deem unconventional in appearance, rooted in the aesthetics of subculture. A native of California, he spent his formative years in the LA punk scene. After studying art followed by pattern cutting and draping at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, he founded his own label in 1994 before heading to Paris almost 10 years later with his partner in life and work, Michèle Lamy, to whom he has been married since 2006. Their company, Owenscorp, is the umbrella under which stands the uncompromising world they create.

Owens has dressed the likes of Kanye West, designed brutalist furniture, released six books, staged both exhibitions and a museum retrospective of his work. The Rick Owens mainline collections (there are four a year, two women’s and two men’s) are some of the most revered each season. Not only for the exquisite clothing but also for the ‘bombastic’ — as the designer puts it — shows that accompany them. Previous runways have included models wearing each other as backpacks, step teams performing full dance routines in lieu of a walk, naked penises peeking out of hemlines and, most recently in the case of the SS23 men’s show, an apocalyptic set with burning globes dropped from cranes into the fountain pool of the Palais de Tokyo.

His poker-straight hair (naturally curly and white) is religiously dyed jet black — ‘my goal from childhood was apparently to have hair like Cher,’ he once said. But what does Owens make of subcultures in the age of TikTok, and particularly those emerging from London? ‘I love the kids who do Kaos London. It’s an underground techno club and collective. Anyway Chadd, who goes by the name of Dahc Dermur — well, I just call him Chadd but I guess Chadd is too pedestrian for him — he used to work for me 20 years ago in my New York store. Then he moved to the UK and he has kind of created a community around him with Kaos. It’s one of the few subcultures that I’ve seen in recent times. But maybe I’m not looking around enough.’ Owens also references Welsh Gen Z drag artist Salvia and an artist duo named Fecal Matter as two other inspirations (I’ll leave you to google them in your own time). ‘When I see those kids going further and starting to distort their bodies and working with prosthetics and plastic surgery, that’s kind of interesting to me. It’s kind of the new version of tattooing. I mean tattooing used to be transgressive and now it’s just the most suburban, dreary thing.’

I ask Owens about ES’s cover star, Julia Fox, whom he met while she was dating Kanye West. ‘It was only after I met her that I discovered her photography work,’ he says. ‘It’s really impressive. A photographer I have worked with for many years, Danielle Levitt, showed me. I did wonder if there was backlash after the Kanye thing,’ he says, thoughtfully. ‘For all the progress that we have made, the way women are treated and the way that they are thrown away, like with the whole Amber Heard thing… He was seen as such a hero and she was such a villain. It was shocking. The world can be such a vicious, primitive place.’

‘I think London is just so beautiful, though,’ continues Owens, changing the subject to describe his love of The Beaumont hotel, his preferred accommodation in the city (he likes to stay in the Antony Gormley suite). ‘It overlooks this weird little garden across from Selfridges,’ he says, referring to Brown Hart Gardens. Trust him to notice this inconspicuous concrete spot. In fact, first built in 1889, Brown Hart Gardens was deemed an ‘instant disaster’ for attracting ‘disorderly boys’ and ‘verminous women’. In a vicious world, largely ‘airbrushed’, like Facetune over an unflattering selfie, taking a leaf out of the book of Rick Owens, Michèle Lamy and their disorderly boys and verminous women wouldn’t be such a bad idea.