Master Class: Rick Owens
Master Class: Rick Owens
- Words Rocky Li
- Date September 06, 2016
Rick Owens is a cult leader with an army of devotees the world over. They are a fiercely brand loyal group who buy heavily into Owens' luxurious take on gothic grunge. Rick Owens 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.
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. Rick 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.
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 Owen's then-boyfriend when she hired him as a pattern-maker for her own line, Lamy.
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. 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 American 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.
Owens' runway shows have since grown in spectacle, subversiveness and notoriety over the years. Of particular note is his Spring/Sumer 2014 women’s collection, which featured American step dancers in lieu of traditional models. In January 2015, his controversial men's show drew headlines for being the first runway show in Paris to feature frontal male nudity.
Business Success and Expansion
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 ten 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 is handled by Lamy.
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.
Rick Owens was also able to expand his core audience through the streetwear oriented DRKSHDW label, a diffusion line of sorts, which focuses on denim and lower priced staples like hoodies and sweats. In addition, collaborations with EASTPAK and Adidas have expanded the brand recognition beyond just niche fashion devotees.
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.