Rick Owens will keep your male ego in check

(Photos by Danielle Levitt/Owens Corp.)

Rick Owens is FaceTiming shirtless on a beach on the Lido in Venice — his washboard abs and shoulders covered in glittering drops of the Adriatic Sea, from which he’s just emerged, his long black hair in a thick Cleopatra-like sweep — pondering whether he feels connected to the American male ego.

“I don’t know if I’m really in touch with what American men are going through,” he says. “I don’t really go to America. I spend no time in America. But I am very conscious of male aggression and ego because I examine it a lot in myself.”

“As I’ve gotten older, I just kind of marvel — not even marvel. I’m dumbstruck by my own aggression and ego. I think back and I think, ‘What on earth gave me this sense of entitlement, that I was commanding people to accept and appreciate what I do?’ Which is what you have to do when you’re a designer: You have to insist that people look at your stuff, and you have to insist that it’s worthwhile and demand their time and their attention.”

“I’m ashamed of it,” he says, “but I’m also kind of proud of it.”

Perhaps his most famous fan, Twitter and Block co-founder Jack Dorsey, summarizes the Owens school of thought best: “Rick once said: ‘Don’t buy more clothes. Go to the gym.’ That’s an attitude that resonates with me and my work deeply.”

Owens’s work, which he shows almost exclusively in Paris, may look outrageous, but it comprises some of today’s most insightful statements on masculine arrogance, the vanity of digital culture and our repressive beauty standards.

A new Rizzoli tome — “More Rick Owens,” Owens’s second with the publisher — captured by his longtime collaborator, photographer Danielle Levitt, features some of his most audacious collections on those subjects, made between 2019 and 2023. It includes what Owens calls “our covid quartet”: four shows that Owens produced during the height of the pandemic.

That was a disastrous time for the fashion industry: Big companies had to keep calm and carry on, while smaller and independent brands struggled to stay above water, all while designers and consumers questioned whether the pace of fashion had spun far out of control. Owens was one of the few designers to present sensitive and thoughtful collections that also managed to use silhouettes, music and styling to say something immediate about the state or mood of our world.

“These are uncertain times or uncomfortable times,” he recalls thinking, “and facing adversity with grace is one of the best things that we can do right now.”

Like other designers, he experimented with video, live-streaming runway shows from the Lido. (He splits his time between there and Paris, and many of his factories are in Italy.) But his collections stood out for their relevance — using masks as fashion and political statements, foregrounding the male physique as an expression of boneheaded power, channeling the hedonism of late-pandemic partying. Other brands, he pointed out, “represent the very tippy-top, very best of our industry. So they need to look great. They need to look powerful, and they need to reassure their customers and their shareholders and their teams that they’re back at full steam.”

“I don’t think I can do that,” he recalls thinking. “I don’t think that’s the point.”

Take the masks, for example. “We are doing a show that is very sensitive to what everybody is going through, and to not use masks would be to be oblivious,” he says. “We’re not pretending this isn’t happening. Fashion is a reflection of real life, for me.”

Owens, who calls himself “a small-town sissy,” grew up in Porterville, Calif., at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in a conservative Catholic family. He moved to Los Angeles for college in the 1980s, where he met Michèle Lamy, the French-born designer, and the two became business partners and lovers. (They married in 2006.)

After getting robbed at gunpoint, he moved to the Chateau Marmont, where he designed his first collection in the mid-’90s.

“It sounds glamorous and expensive, but it wasn’t,” he says. “I mean, it was glamorous — but it wasn’t expensive.” He thinks of his fashion brand and its itinerant universe — collaborations with Converse and Adidas, minimalist furniture designs, projects with the musician Peaches, fashion shows that expose male models’ flaccid penises — as “a war against oppressive bigotry.”

In the years following, Owens has become known as a beacon for a different way of dressing, living, being. (And even loving: Owens is openly bisexual.)

His clothes represent an American avant-garde when most of American fashion is relentlessly commercial, but he also manages to make garments — four-inch-tall platform boots inspired by the band Kiss, big-shouldered coats and sculpted dresses — that sell well at stores such as Net-a-Porter and Ssense and that are wearable and flattering. (Just pull on one of Owens’s pencil skirts or his long, soft T-shirts and you’ll see.)

“I’m pretty sure a lot of people think that I’m this fantasist, and that I’m creating like, these dystopian warrior looks. And I’ll admit that sometimes my shows come across like that, because when I do a show, I’m going to put on a show.”

But, he says, “I have a huge practical streak, and the things that I present are things that I fully intend to sell. I never put anything on a runway just for the effect. I put everything on the runway as a logical proposition.

His clothes, especially his sweatshirts and tees, have become a uniform for Silicon Valley disrupters, particularly Dorsey, for whom Owens’s black hoodies, drop-crotch sweatpants and long T-shirts have become his answer to Steve Jobs’s Issey Miyake black turtlenecks. “What attracts me to Rick’s work is its philosophy,” Dorsey says. “It’s simple, forever and punk. The piece I carry with me everywhere is a black cashmere hoodie. It’s been with me now over six or seven years and only gets better with time, like all of his work.”

Asked why he thinks his clothes resonate in that world, Owens says: “I think there is a sense of futurism and a respect for something ancient that kind of appeals to people like that and appeals to me,” adding that they, like him, are “consistently applying themselves to trying to arrange something more modern.”

Owens occupies a unique space, as an independent in an increasingly homogeneous fashion industry. Nearly every high-end brand you’ve heard of is owned by the conglomerate LVMH or its smaller competitor Kering; runway shows are engineered to inspire simplistic desire, not contemplation or a thumb in the eye of the status quo.

That’s what makes Owens so unusual: that he is emphatic about his role as the designer representing the road less traveled, of alternative forms of beauty and aspiration. His shows are attended by legions of fans dressed in his garb — most invited and a few just lingering outside, taking in the Owens vibes.

People find themselves in his clothes. “I would like to see something else than what I usually see,” he says. “And what I usually see is about Bentleys and a lot of statusy things. I would like to try and present something that is … that is not that.”

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Owens thinks of the messaging of most fashion and luxury and beauty brands and sees narrow-mindedness. Just look at the duty-free shops in airports that travelers are forced to march through, which have “a very specific set of sexual and aspirational values, [and] a very specific set of standards of what people are supposed to look like in order to be desirable,” he says. “I want to be able to propose alternatives to that. I want to be able to propose [that], if you can’t reach the standards of this world, I have other proposals for you.”

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