American designer Rick Owens expatriated to France 14 years ago to build a reclusive empire in Paris’ Seventh Arondissement with his wife Michele Lamy. Barneys’ editorial vertical The Window recently caught up with the man in black for a silent documentary (filmed in black-and-white, naturally) that gives a rare glimpse into the day-to-day operations of fashion’s Crown Prince of Darkness. Owens’ apartment is stark, filled with objects and furniture of his own design, and the couple’s adorable kitten, Gaia. Owens is filmed making alterations to garments himself, poring over outfit shots, and video-calling with colleagues and cohorts. He and Lamy share a meal and quiet smiles. Dare we say it, but the documentary is almost cute. Read on below for Owens’ quotes on his wife’s bullshit detector, whether he considers himself a conceptual designer, and more. Click through to The Window to read the full conversation.
Would you describe yourself as a conceptual designer or practical designer?
Well, everything’s for sale. I’m not making stuff for runway only. Everything we do is a proposal for the real world. Don’t get me started—I always resented about fashion these men creating these floats for women to come out in on the runway, and then they come out in jeans and T-shirt at the end. I feel like it’s ridiculous to create this fantasy of a woman that clearly doesn’t exist if they don’t believe in it. That makes me crazy. Everything I propose is for real life. Don’t get me wrong, I understand fantasy—but we can make that fantasy an everyday thing. I do my best to make them meet.
You’re a California native but have been working from Paris for 14 years now. How has that changed things?
I think there’s an American sleaze that I bring to Paris that kind of works for me. There’s a sense of ease in California. In the U.S., everything is quite straightforward, whereas Europe is about layers and layers of history. You can even see it in the language—the way you form a sentence in French versus the way you form a sentence in English. Americans will always find the straightest line from point A to point B, which can be quite blunt—especially to Europeans sometimes. I’ve brought a fascination with European complexity to an American bluntness, and it’s kind of my shtick. Regarding L.A., I really think about the expanse of space. When you’re born with those proportions, you carry that with you. As for Paris, I love it—although I don’t always feel totally welcome. It can be a bit aloof here, which is fine because I am not that gregarious, so I don’t need to be friends with everybody. Just recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about environment, and would my collections be different if I had, say, a Rothko in my office? Really it’s just about excellence and having really refined excellence around you all the time. When I was starting out, I was on Hollywood Boulevard, and my references were much more raw.
People consider you quite gothic and dark, but you often describe yourself as camp, or I even once read you said, a “teenage angst without the angst.” How do the darkness and the campiness fit together?
I think the goth thing is more about the art nouveau influence, but it’s just an easy thing to say. I mean I get it—the long, black hair! I was goth when I was a kid, a lot of people were. There is an adolescent side to it that isn’t flattering when you’re a 52-year old man, but I guess I brought that on myself! I think if I was just a ‘goth designer,’ I wouldn’t have lasted this long, but people know that. If anything, maybe I’ve changed the perception of goth and made it more glamorous or sophisticated.
Tell us about Michele. Do you consider her your muse?
Michele is a formidable creature. She hates being called a muse, because it makes her seem kind of superfluous, and she’s not. She gets bored being my muse! She has no patience with a lot of things. She has genuine emotional urgency. Recently, she’s been creating these events on barges where she hosts various creative people. It’s basically these salons where she cross-pollinates different people—musicians, chefs, artists—and breeds new creativity. I don’t know what the word is for what she does, maybe a hostess. Really it’s more of a salonist—someone who creates an environment for people to connect. Like Gertrude Stein and the cubists—you can’t separate it. As a salonist and a patron, Gertrude Stein had so much influence. Women often play this interesting, secret role. Michele harnesses people and forces people to make something.
So how does she influence your work?
She’s a huge bullshit detector, and the great thing about her is that she has no filter. I never show her a collection until it’s finished, it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t do it! Her reactions are important to me. I learned a long time ago that I have to focus on exactly what I want to make it work. It’s not an easy process to not think about a staff of 200 people in the showroom – I can’t let that be a factor. Sometimes, I am amazed that all these people are counting on the most fleeting notion of me coming up with the right idea that people will respond well to. It’s such a crazy gamble! If I start thinking about it too much, I’ll get nervous—so, I don’t!