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"Most people take my clothes more seriously than I do." - Rick Owens
Rick Owens has astonishing nipples, each quite the size of a Wedgwood side plate. “Oh my,” says the designer as he runs a hand over one of them. “It is magnificent.” We are in an industrial unit in Park Royal, north London, where Owens has just taken his first look at the titanic statue of his topless torso that will be winched into position on the front of Selfridges this weekend.
"This is not me," repeats Owens as he circles it; not because the sculptor Douglas Jennings hasn’t hewn an uncanny likeness of his prominently nosed, gym-honed subject (he has) but because the designer is trying to rationalise the possibility/probability that having this 25ft statue suspended over Oxford Street might lead some to suspect he’s a raging egomaniac. His closest confidante, wife and muse Michèle, "already thinks I’m too big for my britches".
By chance, she arrives at just this moment. “Honey?” says Owens. “What do you think?” She jangles around a gantry, nimble in a stiffly voluminous black dress, and after a deep inhalation delivers her verdict through gold-capped teeth: “I think . . . you ‘ave to redo the nipples.”
A 20-piece special collection will go on sale at Selfridges on September 1, with prices ranging from £30 for a bag to £1,775 for a men’s leather jacket,
Selfridges is a high temple to high fashion. And so despite Owens’s delicacy, if anyone’s likeness merits installation on its facade, then it is his. For at Paris Fashion Week, where Owens is the sole US-born designer to lead his own house, the collections he presents attract an audience more cultishly dedicated than even Chanel’s. Raiments as much as garments, Owens’s clothes typically tend to be black (via the occasional aside into grey or other sludgily neutral tones) and fall unconventionally from the wearer.
They are extremely well manufactured, and generate sales reported to touch $500 million (£300 million) a year. His drop-crotch shorts, reputedly non plus ultra leather jackets, and low-hem vests are an instantly recognised uniform favoured by those who wish to appear ceremonially unconventional, vaguely agonised, and radically tasteful. It is a crowd, I’ve noticed wearily at his shows, that takes itself jolly seriously and relishes the aura of monastic otherness that wearing Owens lends them. In short, they can be quite up themselves.
"It was supposed to be something that was very much about tolerance, about embracing everybody," he says, when we meet a few hours after the statue-viewing, "but we’ve created this thing that has a wall that kind of eliminates a lot of people, and I regret that a little bit . . . It’s been said before that most people take my clothes more seriously than I do."
At his show a year ago, Owens dumped the usual cast of wispy barely-theres for a robust squad of US sorority dancers that danced its way fiercely (and a bit Stomp-ishly) down the catwalk. “There was humour in it, and it was very chic because these girls are saying, ‘We don’t want to look cute for you. Forget being cute, this is what we do.’” Although he was heaped with acclaim for subverting the norm of tall, thin and white models, Owens says his next collection will be shown more prosaically: “I don’t want to get trapped into being Mr Showbiz, or to lose that sense of reserve I started out with.”
Raised as an only child in Porterville, California, by his social worker father, John, and teacher mother, Connie (whose Mexican roots explain his peyote-shamanic mien). His childhood was difficult, he says, “because I was just a small-town sissy, and that town was very conservative”. With no television allowed at home, Owens developed a fondness for classical music and literature, which further alienated him from his peers. “I guess I felt a little forced,” he says of his cultural hothousing, “but of course I’m grateful now. I’m even grateful for the bullying, because it motivated me.”
Once risen, Owens went briefly to art school with ambitions to be a painter, but left because of the cost and learnt pattern-cutting instead. His twenties and thirties were spent living on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, working his trade by day and enthusiastically haunting the local demimonde by night. “It was very druggy and hustlery, and super-glamorous.” In a recent book (which Owens will be signing at Selfridges at 6pm on September 13), he recounts “the trash and the glamour of my formative years. It’s this fantastic story, of all of the denizens of the Spotlight Club, this bar . . .”
The lights came up on Owens’s extended gestation period, he says, just as he was pushing 40. By then, he had met Michèle Lamy, who is French and 17 years his senior, initially as her employee (she had an eponymous label in Los Angeles) and then as her husband (Owens says he is bisexual). “Very mercurial, and much more punk rocker than me,” Michèle decided to become a restaurateur, and “abandoned her business to her husband. So then I started my own thing. I would like to think that it was more about my courage and my recklessness of throwing myself into my destiny, but it wasn’t that so much; it just kind of . . . it was the next thing to do.”
Using his experience of engineering fabrics, the clothes were unorthodox from the off. “If you’re going to do it, make a difference; do something, exaggerate it. I think it was a reaction to Helmut Lang: the idea that you can be a rebel if the inside lining has a little dangling thing that only you know about, but you get to pass for normal.” Sharp-eyed fashion buyers and sceney locals including Courtney Love adopted Owens’s “glunge” look; he held his first fashion show in 2001 (gripped by the conviction that he had enough ideas for only three of them); and after a partnership was established with an Italian manufacturer, he and Michele moved back to her homeland a few years later.
This small-town, Wagner-loving, Hollywood Boulevard party boy has since established a niche as fashion’s dissenter-in-chief that’s so lucrative he recently withdrew from the purchase of an entire island in Venice only because the Italian bureaucracy was so impenetrable. He cheerily owns up to “selling rebellion” - his Selfridges statue is mid-throw of a molotov-like burning torch that will erupt with propane flames every 15 minutes - but does at least offer clothes that genuinely represent an alternative to what Owens describes as the Mary Tyler Moore consensus in women’s fashion. “Why are we seeing Mary Tyler Moore on all of the runways? ‘A-line skirt, blouse, flowers’ - you can reduce a lot of fashion collections to that. Possibly ‘A-line skirt, blouse, sequins’, or sometimes ‘pencil skirt’, or ‘miniskirt’. But so much of it is that . . . I was more ‘let’s go bonkers and make something ridiculous that hits you over the head’.”
Another thing that “kind of bugs” him is when designers “send these models out wearing these concoctions, and then they come out [after the show] in jeans and a sweatshirt. It makes me crazy, because you are sending out this message that you don’t believe in what you’re saying.”
Modestly, Owens characterises his success as being achieved through repetition and consistency: “you say something long enough and people believe you”. And, surprisingly, he cites Giorgio Armani - whose fashion aesthetic is close to a polar opposite of Owens’s - as someone “I’ve always admired. Because he’s very consistent. Very much about beige, and a kind of hard-edged softness, with a lot of 30s in it - which is a decade I’ve always looked to aesthetically.”
Although an expatriate for more than 10 years now, Owens has never mastered French as “it’s just too hard”. He has, however, become fluent at deflecting Parisian froideur. “Why do you think the French are like that? I just assumed it was a cliché when I moved there, but then I realised that it’s not.” To evade the snooty citizens of his adopted home, he says, “I ignore them. Yeah, I don’t have patience with rudeness. I think there’s just no excuse for it.” Going by the chilly demeanour of some of his fans, I had thought that Rick Owens was going to be aloof. Instead, he’s a laugh, with an ego far, far smaller than his Selfridges statue.