Rick Owens: What to Know About the Designer and Brand
Rick Owens: What to Know About the Designer and Brand
- Words Rocky Li
- Date November 18, 2019
Who is Rick Owens?
Rick Owens is an American-born designer living in Paris, known for his abstract, yet approachable avant-garde designs. Born Richard Saturnino Owens, he began his label in California in 1994 and now oversees a veritable fashion empire from a five-story compound in Paris. If there's one characteristic that has defined his life, it has been Owens' fierce independence. His eccentric brutalist approach is evident in his fashion, his furniture and even his personal life.
After decades in business, the important thing about Rick Owens fans is that, more often than not: if they’re devoted, they don’t just own a single piece, but an entire wardrobe of his designs. Much like Owens’ own commitment to his unique aesthetic and silhouette, his now-global group of supporters are brand loyal and—more importantly—embody and spread Owens' luxurious gothic grunge lifestyle worldwide (and trust us, it’s a lifestyle).
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The story of Owens' ascension in the fashion ranks is an unlikely one. Like every good success story, it starts with humble beginnings. Rick Owens dropped out of Otis College of Art and Design to take a course in pattern making. This led him to a position cutting patterns that illegally knocked-off designer clothing. This was an ironic start to his career in fashion seeing that he's now one of the most imitated designers of his generation. Owens himself described his start in fashion this way:
"I had always lived in Southern California. I grew up in Porterville, which is next to Bakersfield. I went to L.A. to go to college at Parsons, but I didn't graduate. I was an art school dropout. I studied fine arts there for two years, but it was too expensive and I didn't really see a job ahead, a real job. So I went to a two-year program at a trade college learning how to pattern-make with all these Korean ladies—not glamorous. I didn't grow up in the industry, like Marc Jacobs at Halston. I ended up working for knock-off companies in L.A. I just knocked off patterns for years."
In 1994, Rick began his own label selling exclusively to Charles Gallay. Gallay operated what was the most avant garde boutique in L.A. at the time, becoming the first in the city to carry Versace, Mugler and Margiela. Rick commented on Gallay saying, "He was the biggest buyer in the world of Margiela's first season. I showed my clothes to him first. He bought them. And he prepaid."
Rick Owens and Michèle Lamy
No profile of Rick Owens would be complete without discussing his relationship with his wife, collaborator and muse, Michèle Lamy. The two met in the late '80s through Owens’ then-boyfriend when she hired him as a pattern-maker for her own line, Lamy. Predating his own brand, he began working on the design team for the Lamy brand in 1990.
At the time she was living in Los Angeles and running Les Deux Café, one of Hollywood's true insider spots, located behind an unmarked door in a car park. Owens worked for two years at Lamy's company before they began an affair. Owens ended up leaving his boyfriend and Lamy left her husband, Richard Newton.
They enjoyed a self-described rock'n'roll lifestyle. A 2008 profile in The New Yorker described the early part of their relationship as follows:
"Owens and Lamy drank and used drugs prolifically, inspired in part by the rock musicians they admired—Iggy Pop, Keith Richards, and David Bowie. 'It's also Baudelaire and Tennessee Williams,' Owens said. 'It's just the whole idea of excess and the phrase 'A candle that burns at both ends might burn shorter, but it burns brighter.' 'Lamy,' Owens says, was 'an enthusiastic drinker,' but, he adds, 'she never went as deep as I did and was the one to call the private nurses when I got too bad.'"
The two have since been sober for over a decade and have intertwined their personal and business dealings. In 2001, Rick Owens sought international expansion and agreed to a distribution deal with Eo Bocci Associati and, as a result, the designer's production relocated to Italy. After a mugging incident at gunpoint in Los Angeles, the pair moved into the Chateau Marmot and lived in residence for a year. As for LA, Owens notes, [After the robbery] “We were never comfortable there again.” The couple soon followed the business to Europe, moving to Paris in 2003, where they still reside.
Owens rose to prominence within the fashion industry following French Vogue’s publication of an image of Kate Moss wearing one of his signature leather jackets. Owens was able to utilize the momentum, with assistance from Anna Wintour and Vogue, which sponsored his first runway show, Spring/Summer 2002, at New York Fashion Week. That same year saw the beginning of his ongoing collaboration with with notable stylist Panos Yiapanis.
In 2002 Owens began branching out into menswear, seen prominently in his Spring/Summer 2003 collection. While this was early days for the modern man falling under the spell of Owens’ cultish appeal, soon-to-be-signatures (seen in gauzy bomber jackets, sharp shouldered blazers and predecessors to the Pod Short) were clearly taking shape.
While Owens’ runway collections have earned him justified fame among fans and casual followers alike, its his footwear that has added to his wider cultural appeal. One of his most iconic pieces—the Dustulator Dunk (named for the Spring/Summer 2006 collection of the same name—began what would become a series of highly coveted (and highly controversial) Rick Owens sneakers. After rumored beef with and a potential lawsuit from Nike, changes were made to the silhouette over the years, resulting in the Rick Owens mainstay sneaker: the Geobasket.
From 2002 to 2007, Owens reigned as the artistic director of Revillon, a luxury fur company. It was here that Owens would begin working with Gareth Pugh—ultimately taking the Central Saint Martins graduate under his wing. Fans of Owens will see Owens’ influence within Pugh’s work.
Spring/Summer 2008’s “Creatch” collection spawned another Owen’s icon, the aptly named “Creatch” cargo pant. While reproduced and reimagined for several seasons thereafter, this particular iteration helped create another cult Owens item, introducing more people to the brand with this abstract-yet-accessible twist on a menswear staple. (Don’t believe us? Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and even Virgil Abloh have all been seen in the pant at one point or another.)
Furniture, adidas Footwear and Fashion
Perhaps the most impressive element of Rick Owens' career has been his ability to meld commercial success and creative freedom. Since the opening of his first flagship store in Paris, the retail footprint of the brand has spread to over 10 locations, ranging from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Unique to the industry, the expansion of the brand has come through increased demand, not external financing.
The brand also grew laterally through the creation of a furniture line in 2010 and a fur collection that are handled by Lamy. The decision to make furniture came about when it came time for the pair to furnish their Paris home. The furniture collection made an initial splash in Berlin in 2010, tapping into the work of Eileen Gray and the brutal concrete of California skateparks for inspiration. His “Prehistoric” furniture collection debuted at the Carpenters Workshop Gallery in London, unveiling a brief-but-brutalist seven piece offering. As to be expected, the color palette was confined to one of two options: white or black. With materials like ox bone and alabaster contrasting deep, dark petrified wood, the selection was another Italian-made extension of Owens runway looks into the lifestyle space.
The Business of Fashion reported on the financial state of Owens' brand stating:
"In 2010, Owenscorp revenue was around $40 million. In 2012, that number was closer to $70 million; in 2013 it exceeded $100 million and, this year, it’s projected to surpass $120 million. And, though he once flirted with the idea of selling to an unnamed conglomerate, Owens has grown his house without any outside help."
The independence of Owens business is exactly what has allowed Owens to work on projects that advance his perspective and add to his overall vision—something that has, over the years, expanded to represent something akin to a complete Rick Owens-esque lifestyle (intended or otherwise). Owens has openly vowed to never sell his brand; as Dazed notes, as of 2017 “80 percent of the Owenscorp company is owned by himself, and the other 20 percent by Owens’ commercial director and CEO, Luca Ruggeri and Elsa Lanzo.”
Owens major crossover success appeared in 2013, heralding the beginning of a seasons-long partnership with German sneaker giant adidas. Like Yohji Yamamoto and Raf Simons, Owens designed seasonal sneakers, creating new models, reimagining adidas classics and incorporating then-new sneaker technology (see: adidas’ interesting but ill-fated Springblade sole) in his footwear that intersected with the themes for his own seasonal runway collections. The collaboration line came to a close in August of 2017.
Owens' runway shows have since grown in spectacle, subversiveness and notoriety over the years. Of particular note is his Spring/Summer 2014 “Vicious” women’s collection, which featured American step dancers in lieu of traditional models.
In January 2015, his controversial Fall/Winter 2015 men's show, titled “Sphinx”, drew headlines in Paris after carefully-placed and carefully-draped garments (intentionally) revealed frontal male nudity.
For recent collections, including the Spring/Summer 2018 and Spring/Summer 2019 shows, Owens has shown a consistent ability to take command over the Palais de Tokyo, staging collections that show his penchant for brutalist construction against the beauty of the Parisian landmark location—sometimes literally.
There are several collections and countless iconic garments in his archive, but the ultimate takeaway is that Owens’ influence is not be dismissed. Celebrated 20 years of artistic achievement, Owens was the center of an exhibit at the Triennale di Milano in 2017. As Owens described his work in the exhibition pamphlet:
“‘I would lay a black glittering turd on the white landscape of conformity.’ I wrote this shamelessly bombastic line over 20 years ago and it’s a very simplistic summary of what I initially set out to do. Over the years, this defiance softened into a more tender expression. If I could ever so slightly blur the rigid parameters of what is considered beautiful or aesthetically acceptable I will have fulfilled any potential I had to make a positive contribution in this world.”
Outside of the art and fashion spaces, Rick Owens was also able to expand his core audience through the streetwear oriented DRKSHDW label, a diffusion line started in 2005, which focuses on denim and lower priced staples like hoodies and sweats. Often riffing on and reinterpreting his own runway collections, it stands as an excellent way for newcomers (or those looking to round out their wardrobe) to experience Owens’ aesthetic vision. Sneakers—including the popular, Converse-like Ramone model—are often found within this secondary line, earning cult status all on their own.
Owens' deadpan sense of humor belies his shrewd business sense. In his own words, "It would take me ten years to burn this whole thing down. Even if I were to go insane for five years, there is still enough in the archive that they could sell. It would take another five years before people caught on and it all came crumbling down." Even if Owens did burn it all down, we feel pretty confident: No matter what you think of the clothes on the runway, that’d be one hell of a beautiful, brutal, weird party.