The safe middle of the road is not for him – designer Rick Owens is a man of extremes. He comes from an ordinary background, but today he is an icon of the fashion trade. His signature style is loose-fitting with crazy draping; he himself describes it as “a marriage of elegance and slovenliness.” We met the fashion designer reverently known to his fans as the “Lord of Darkness” at his house in Paris.
Mr. Owens, you have a great many and unusually dedicated fans. Your admirers pilgrimage to your shows; you are almost like a god to them. How exhausting is it to be Rick Owens?
It’s not exhausting at all. I’m not playing a role, after all. Maybe I am a god for some people, but for others I’m a joke. There are designers with a far greater presence than mine. They have to negotiate collections the whole day long, explain themselves; they have a board and directors – I don’t even know how a system like that works.
Does it bother you that some people see you as a joke?
People are sometimes aggressive and want to put other people down. To me, the Internet is one of the biggest disappointments. The comments that people post there – it’s an orgy of hostility. Seeing how aggressively people fight each other on the Net, I can’t help wondering that there aren’t more wars going on in the world. Well-balanced, happy people don’t seem to come up online – or they don’t need to express themselves that way. The aggressive people are just louder.
Have you grown a thick skin during the course of your career so far?
As a kid, I was bullied a lot at school, so things could only get better for me after that. That’s why I’m never surprised when people are unfriendly. Also, I can choose whom I pay attention to. I want to listen to the people who support and respect me.
You have made yourself something of an icon with your collections, your life story, and also your appearance. How extreme does a designer have to look in order to gain attention?
I have no idea how anyone can be successful as a designer at all these days! When I started out, I didn’t do shows, I just designed clothes, took them to shops and showed them to the buyers – and I did that for years. I had nothing to do with magazines, runway shows or the whole fashion system, which I had very little faith in. When I became more visible, people started coming to me, and a dialogue developed from there. Today, there are so many different style directions that few people today even take the time to get to know them. Who’s that? What’s he doing? In the big fashion houses, the designers only get three years. If their collections aren’t an immediate sales success, they get fired. No one listens to you if you do your job quietly and modestly. You have to be wild. A colleague once said that if you are not passionate about a thing, nothing will come of it. You have to do exactly what you want, and for that you have to be prepared stop at nothing.
And you say that to us here in such a soft, gentle voice?
Maybe it sounds a bit dramatic now. But what you need is a big ego that tells people: It’s a good idea to take notice of me.
How do you manage to be still passionate after 22 years?
That’s a gift. It’s almost even more intensive today than when I started out. I have more control over what I do. It’s like driving a car. Changing gears is never smooth to start with. I made lots of mistakes in the early days because I didn’t know when I should upshift. Now I’m a good driver.
Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors – all of these American designers stand for a fairly comparable casual chic. What they do is wearable, very successful, but also a bit … boring?
That is one of the reasons I moved to Europe in 2003. If I had carried on showing my fashions in New York, I would have been “the crazy guy,” the fringe phenomenon. In Paris, it’s much easier for me to present my collections.
The 80s and 90s both had a very distinctive look. Then along came the new millennium with chains like H&M and Zara, and multiple looks and trends. Is the Owens look a counter-reaction to all of that?
There’s something very clear about my look, it’s true. Maybe black does play a more dominant role in it that I originally intended. I am a fan of this esthetic, but I can’t keep on repeating it. No one can tell me that it’s worse than what I do today. People respond to it by buying my clothes. It’s impossible to please everyone.
Is being rich something you really enjoy?
Absolutely. Who wouldn’t? I’m just not sure whether I have ever thought about money. It’s funny; I had never had any money and then suddenly I was rich. There was nothing in between. To this day, I probably don’t spend as much as I really could.
You say your talent as a designer is just ten percent of what makes your brand a success. Isn’t that a pretty frustrating realization?
No, no. Plenty of people have creative ideas, but it’s damned hard to realize them and get them out there to people. I don’t want to understate my partners’ contribution to the label’s success. The team working with a designer is invisible, but what it contributes is not. It’s exactly the same with me. I have no doubt that I am quite good, but it only works with the team. I often joke about my partners, but they could just as well have done as much for another designer as they have for me.
But it’s true. A business is like an army. And I would not want to organize one!
Are you at the lease driving force in the team?
I’m not a great motivator. I have a few other talents. I can design, tailor, drape. My partners listen to everyone’s problems, they are really empathetic. I can’t do that.
Do you ever lose your temper?
Sure I do!
What happens then?
Oh, I have to yell at someone now and again, of course, but I’m not interested in creating the kind of stressful atmosphere in which no one feels happy. We laugh a lot even the night before a show. I’m not the type to get hysterical and start altering stuff at the last moment. Preparing for a show is actually the part I enjoy most.
There’s not much fluctuation within your team. Are your people so attached to you – or is it the other way around?
Maybe both. It takes me a long while to let people in, to connect with them. I could see that as a handicap or simply accept it. It’s just the way I am.
Your collections feature loose-fitting styles with wild draping but there’s nothing particularly sexy about them. You desexualize people by designing collections that could also be unisex. Then again, in your latest show, you sent men down the catwalk with no underpants so that their genitals were visible …
There’s usually a sexual connotation to fashion. Laced-up fashions that constricted women and gave them big bottoms – whose ideas were they? For me, they are a sign of sexual repression. My clothes are for people who are sexually satisfied. All those tight clothes you see with bodies squeezed into them – they are for people who are looking for sex because they are perhaps not getting enough.
But people use what they wear as a way to attract attention. Women tend to prefer showing off their expensive boob jobs in tight tops!
Sure, there is an element of that. People have very different ways of making their lives enjoyable, but I don’t have to support them all.
You are now 53 years old. Have you ever thought about going for a new look with Botox or a face-lift?
Maybe I will do it sometime. I can easily understand how painful it must be for people whose appearance has always got them plenty of attention when that suddenly stops. I would never judge anyone for wanting to control that development. Who am I to disapprove? I work out a lot – I’m addicted to exercising. How will I feel when my body changes, when my chest starts to droop? Looking at yourself in the mirror, you automatically strike the pose you please yourself most in. That is the self-image with which we go through life. I think that’s what we do as we get older; we aim for the pose we like ourselves best in even if it no longer has anything to do with reality.
Your body is a more important statement for you than your fashion. Why the body obsession?
I was dissatisfied. I didn’t like my body so I had to change it. There was nothing I could have changed with an operation, so I started working out – and became addicted to it. I like the attitude of trying to get the best out of what you have. It’s a fantastic way to live.
Doesn’t it take an incredible amount of discipline?
I am disciplined, that’s very important to me. I was spectacularly undisciplined in my alcoholism. My body obsession is another form of addiction, an addiction to control.
You say you don’t like going to parties. Do people bore you?
No, but I was an only child and I’ve always been a loner. I just don’t feel very comfortable around other people. Maybe it’s lack of confidence, maybe I worry too much about the way others see me. As a child, we either learn to fit in, or we don’t. I never learned that and always played on my own. In the end, it has paid off because that way I was able to develop things myself.
Do you feel uncomfortable when you get up on the runway after a show and wave to the audience?
No. I know there is no reason at all to feel uncomfortable, and I’m not shy, either. But I do feel incredibly ill at ease when I have to get up and speak in front of an audience. I hate that about myself. Why am I like that? Why do I take myself so seriously? Who cares? Would I perhaps say something I didn’t want to say? No idea.
In interviews, you talk openly about the many years you were an alcoholic. Do you have any tips for overcoming an illness like that?
I don’t think so. I stopped drinking simply because I was scared after being at death’s door many times. We do have alcohol at home these days, and that’s okay. Otherwise, it’s like with an ex-girlfriend – you know you had a great time, but you can never live with each other again.