A Conversation With Rick Owens

HE SPEAKS TO ME through the ether. He’s a fashion designer known for his love of the colour black. He’s in Italy, he tells me, starting to think about his next men’s collection. When he speaks, he’s gentle, attentive. I get the feeling that I could ask him about his collection or about the most intimate quirk of his character and he would answer me with the same forthright earnestness.

Illustration by Nello Alfonso Marotta

I’m a Los Angeles cliché. I had a conservative, controlled childhood, then became as uncontrolled as I could, then realised that I liked control after all. This is the story of my generation: kids that were too controlled and then became drug addicts and alcoholics before finding spirituality and Zen. It’s so common. I’m totally common.

I was pretty effeminate and sensitive as a boy. It’s that same old story: sensitive boy in a small town, trying to fit in. I felt threatened pretty much all the time. Growing up, there was a certain set of rules or expectations about how to behave. That angered me, and later on I felt vengeful. I tried to conform, but I never managed to do it very successfully. I was forced to bend, to act in a way that I was uncomfortable with. Their rules didn’t seem fair. They were limiting and uptight and didn’t make sense. I had to become more masculine. I couldn’t be flamboyant; I had to butch it up. It was humiliating. In a way I suppose it helped me form a sense of defiance and rebellion and when I left to go to art school in the big city, I became as flamboyant as I possibly could.

I lived in a warehouse by the railroad tracks in L.A. You had to climb in from a set of stairs. I had this great car with fins on it. I wore platform boots and capes and full make-up. I wore gloves to bed. But when I went back home to Porterville to see my parents, I’d take off all the make-up and nail polish and put on normal clothes. What would be the point of going to their house and provoking them? If I wanted to have a relationship with them, I had to compromise. That isn’t a bad thing. And in the later years, when I was completely honest with them and allowed them into my life, they had to make some compromises too. That was lovely. In a way, it was the money that made them change their minds about me. (Laughs.) My parents figured, well as long as he’s successful he must be okay. It was kind of bittersweet because obviously it was a false context, but then life isn’t perfect.

I’ve always wanted to participate in the world, to be involved. When I was younger I was timid and had a problem fitting in so I drank to give myself courage, but I’ve always found a way to communicate with the world. The world that I propose to people is not meant to impose or insist. It’s not a manifesto, it’s a proposal. It’s meant to be gentle. Although it was born out of my reaction to the rules imposed on me, I want it to be an alternative, not the only option. That’s really important to me.

I like artifice. I don’t mean lipstick and Botox – I’m talking exaggeration and enhancing ideas, rather than trying to look young. Think of Kabuki or the artifice of a room with a scroll on the wall and one flower arrangement. A tea ceremony: artifice as formalised ritual. Well, maybe it’s not that different from Botox and lipstick after all. Maybe it’s wrong of me to think that one is more sophisticated than the other – I don’t want to be the kind of person who claims to know what the rules really are. I hate sounding opinionated even though I probably am. The artifice I like is always exaggerated and borderline ridiculous. It’s challenging the codes of good taste and notions of conservative beauty in a good-humoured way. Humour is one of the most elegant things in the entire universe, you know.

I’m a fifty-five-year-old man with grey curly hair that has been chemically altered to be black, straight and long. I’m a fifty-five-year-old man who has gone to the gym for twenty years: I’ve altered my body in a very calculated way through steroids and working out. I started going because I was drinking so much that I had to balance that out, but also because I wanted to change my body. I just wasn’t happy with it as it was. My wife was always going to the gym, and she pushed me to go too. Today it’s as regular as brushing my teeth, just something I do to feel right. A grooming habit. I’m not saying my body is perfect, but it’s as perfect as I can make it. I don’t need to rely on clothes to hide flaws or make it look better than it actually is. I’m also very comfortable with my feminine side now. I’m definitely an old queen.

I wouldn’t say my clothes are radical, but for somebody my age I suppose they’re a little bit ridiculous. What I wear is a logical answer to the way I live and what I need to do. I don’t really have anything I want to say every day with my clothes so they’ve become a sort of uniform. I have twenty copies of the same outfit. I wear sneakers of my own design. I’ve become very known for sneakers which is ironic considering that when I first started doing them it was almost a parody. I thought sneakers were the most boring things on the planet. They represented complete banality to me. But I was going to the gym and I needed some so I started doing my own exaggerated version, and they’ve become a signature of mine. It’s one of the things I sell the most of now. The ones I wear are on a stretch leather sock: they’re kind of a sneaker combined with an opera leather glove. I wear those, and baggy shorts that end below my knees. The sneaker-socks cover my knees because I think it’s a bit rude to show bare, hairy knees everywhere. It’s more discreet to cover up. I also wear a silk jersey tank top and a black cashmere turtleneck. When I go to the gym, I just take my sweater off and push my socks down and I have my gym outfit. I don’t really do anything that cardio vascular, just weights and stretching so I don’t get sweaty. It’s all very practical. My shorts obviously reference skateboarders or Mexican gangs in L.A. from the Eighties, or they can reference a sort of Buddhist monk situation. The black turtleneck could be read as a reference to the Beats in Saint-Germain in the 1960s: it’s architectural, formal and severe. Over that I always wear a black bomber in nylon, partly because Montana always wore one in the Eighties, and partly because leather has become too heavy for me. The tank top doesn’t represent anything. In short, I’m a fifty-five-year-old man wearing evening glove running shoes with shorts – probably not every fifty-five-year-old man’s dream look. (Laughs.) But for better or worse I’ve established myself as a fashion designer in Paris, and as such you’re expected to uphold some kind of aesthetic eccentricity. If I showed up in a suit, people would be disappointed.

I’m not really interested in clothes, for me personally I mean. I never buy them. You know, the interior designer Jean-Michel Frank had forty identical grey flannel suits in his closet: I always thought that was the height of modesty and extravagance at the same time. I love that. I don’t remember when I decided to start wearing this uniform but I’ve been doing it for a long time. In the Nineties I wore tight black jeans, black platforms, a black T-shirt and a leather jacket. That was my uniform then. After that I wore army surplus shorts over sweatpants with a T-shirt and a leather coat for a long time, probably until I came to Paris. In Paris I replaced the leather coat with a sable-lined one, but I still wore army surplus pants. Eventually that morphed into what I wear today. I have a set look for a couple of years and then I make a change. When I see people changing styles all the time, it makes me wonder: don’t you know who you are? I don’t mean to be critical, but I question their sincerity.

In my uniform I can go anywhere – to the opera or to a rave. There are rare occasions when I alter it, out of respect for the situation. I went to a state dinner at the White House this year, and I wore my shorts and sneakers but with a long black silk duchesse blazer and a black silk turtleneck. I didn’t want to be rude. I want to live the life I want to live, but when I go to somebody’s house I respect their vibe. Being polite is more important than being defiant. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. I’ve shown nudity and bizarre stuff at my shows but a fashion show is a sophisticated aesthetic arena where people expect a certain element of surprise and challenge. I wouldn’t do those runway shows for my mother’s church group. That would not be polite.

The most successful men’s fashion is conservative with just a hint of rebellion. Imagine something classic, but with a ripped lining or a hidden strap that implies S&M. That’s the stuff that sells the most in stores. I do clothes like that myself. It’s a funny period for menswear. It’s so popular and yet so restrained. We’re so prudish today. I don’t know why the catwalk isn’t more exaggerated – I guess flamboyance ran its course. One of the inspirations for my men’s clothes is Neil Young. He doesn’t care about dressing up. He’s a poet and he’s masculine but he’s sensitive too. He seems honest, with a sense of honour. I don’t think honour tops the list of women’s attributes but it’s one of the appealing things about a man. We expect men to build the house, and women to make it a home. In a very primal way we still want men to be providers and women to add grace.

Fashion is popular because it’s a mystery. It’s the ebb and flow of the subtle things we propose as designers, and that people respond to like flocks of birds turning all of a sudden in the middle of the sky. That’s what makes it fascinating. It’s all about instincts and subtle references that certain people can grasp in a very vague way. It’s a pattern or code that is understood by a group of people at the same time. To be a designer you have to change enough to maintain interest, but not change so much that you come off as insincere. It’s a tricky balancing act. I wonder when the day will come when I no longer understand what is relevant in the world, and I continue refining a vision that’s no longer significant. We’ve seen that happen, and I dread the day it happens to me.

My father died not long ago so I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality. He was a very confrontational man, very analytical. He liked putting people into a corner intellectually – it was a form of bullying. He could be so critical of the way people live their lives and in the end he became very bitter. I never had the chance to ask him why he, after all those years of thinking, couldn’t find serenity. He wasn’t able to negotiate the ending of his life in a graceful way. He was so observant, and he believed in being a resolved human being – someone who thinks correctly – and still he never managed to make peace with the fact that he was dying. It made me think about the world and about how to find graceful ways to deal with threats. That’s what I would like to do. I’d like to end up in a garden with a wall around it, reading and playing with kittens. That’s probably the best I can hope for. I’m not going to have grandchildren. Well, I guess in a way I will because I surround myself with people, and some are having children. I love seeing babies around. So I suppose I will have the comfort of being in a garden and playing with kittens and babies. I don’t know what could possibly be better than that.

This interview was originally published in Vestoj ‘On Masculinities.’

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s Editor-in-Chief and Founder.