Rick Owens: Subhuman, Inhuman, Superhuman
From darkness to light, into a long room where high windows illuminate draped white dresses, while these calm classics face off a primeval coil of earth that winds its way above the curving space. Welcome to the Rick Owens world!
“I like graceful shapes and graceful forms, but also to be as barbaric and crude as possible,” says the designer, whose first look back at his oeuvre, from cult clothing to camel-leather foot stools, is on display at La Triennale di Milano.
“Subhuman, Inhuman, Superhuman” (until 25th March 2018) is the warring title given to the first full show of a designer who came from America’s West Coast, moved to Paris in the new millennium and, with his creative wife Michèle Lamy, has built a powerful, unnerving and solid business. His next men’s fashion show will take place in Paris on 18th January.
At age 56, and having received the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award by the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designer of America), Owens deserves an in-depth museum study. But, in spite of a strong collaboration with the Triennale and the enthusiasm of Eleonora Fiorani, the Curator of its Fashion Department, this collection of extraordinary pieces is really Rick’s own show. He will celebrate it with an all-night party in Milan at the weekend.
“Oh my goodness me. Boy, was it planned out!” Rick says. “First of all, it’s just the most ideal space. That beautiful Art Deco curve, those high ceilings and the windows at the top where you can see the treetops… I love it; it’s just perfect. We built a model of it, sculpted the shape and moved around figurines of the pillars and plants. It was very hands-on and throughout I kept telling everybody, ‘The sculpture isn’t big enough!’ Or ‘I’m not sure it will work in the space.’ I told them to add extra stuff to make it more brutal, more barbaric and more raw.”
Some of the pieces do seem raw, wild and almost shocking as a statement in the would-be civilised world: a jacket unpeels to reveal unzipped trousers and thigh-high, thick leather boots – not to mention hair that falls straight but wild, imprisoning the face. The curator points out that the many extraordinary headpieces are made with human hair and Rick tells me that his own hair is included in the menacing coil above our heads.
The strength of this exhibition is the opportunity to see in detail creations that I myself saw pass by on the runway, often in a group (or shall we say “cult”) display. While the power of these Rick Owens shows can be appreciated in the loop of videos at the end of the Triennale exhibition, the revolutionary quality of his work is experienced in close-up: seeing each draped dress, as Fiorani explains, not slithering over the body, but subtly changing the female shape.
The fabrics themselves, listed in a booklet of programme notes, are unexpected mixes of viscose and lambskin or, even for the silver stockings, a combination of “acid lambskin cowhide and merino knit”.
Fiorani describes how these unexpected materials are used, including the knives and forks in dark fabrics and the sleeve that turns into a mask. Such gestures are defined by Fiorani as “Gothic”.
I tell Rick that the presentation appears to be less of a retrospective and more of a broad sweep of his work, including the sudden and unexpected colours he introduced or the occasional deliberate shocks in the shaping of men’s clothing to concentrate on the penis.
“To tell you the truth, it’s inspiring to do an exhibition. It has motivated me to have more ambition and drive, and it’s a lot of fun,” Owens says, explaining that the museum approached him first, and that although he has a property in Venice, Milan “is not the part of Italy I am based in”.
One of the great strengths of the Rick Owens style is that it has no obvious home territory. Instead, there is a general sense of raw energy. Hence, the presentation is played out in a combination of ultra-sophisticated materials with deep design thoughts.
“He is rethinking the grammar of clothing,” Fiorani says. “He is creating curves where curves are not meant to be, so really he is reshaping the body. Also he is reshaping the classical elements. But he always still keeps one classical and central element, which is usually the coat.”
The “deeper meaning” is always an element of Rick Owens’ world. But what, I asked him, inspired his bold and even mysterious title?
“Subhuman, inhuman, superhuman is the equilibrium that we are all trying to find between our failures, our successes, and who we want to be,” Rick explains. “Everything that I am doing is about getting through life, finding that balance between an ambition that I am a little bit ashamed of and also this drive to say something positive and make a contribution. This is like an empathetic rumination on all of the things we are all going through.”
More than 8,000 visitors have seen the Owens exhibition since it opened last month. What are they likely to take away from a presentation that is artistic but not “arty” in the sense of showing clothes that are unwearable? Will the local Milanese define the designer’s work as a fashion cult?
“You are called a cult designer when you are popular but never really hit the prestige of the big time,” the designer says. “Then they call you ‘cult’, which is a funny thing, but I’m fine with it. There are people that really commit themselves to it, and I have to admit that this is something that I put out there. I like the idea of picking a certain aesthetic and sticking with it – that’s something I believe in. That kind of cult is about people that are collecting together to celebrate certain values, and for me that means a certain amount of inclusivity and kindness, and a gentleness, I think. But once enough people collect together, they can create a closing wall to other people. So what started out as inclusive ends up being exclusive.”
Certain areas of creation have reached a further audience. After a collaboration with Adidas, Owens has now teamed up with Birkenstock, bringing a new spirit to the powerful German brand, both in his designs and his collaboration on the “Birkenstock Box”, a mobile retail concept that rolls into cities like a shipping container on wheels. Its next stop is outside the Rick Owens store in Los Angeles, where it will encompass several aspects of the designer: his fascination with cult footwear; his long-term involvement in architecture; and his wife’s design skills that helped him create the box.
“I see the sandals working very well,” says Rick. “They have an almost Art Deco-Biblical look, which is one of my favourite things.”
In Florence at the Pitti Uomo menswear shows the next day, I spoke to Oliver Reichert, Birkenstock’s CEO, about this new collaboration.
“We always have people asking to do collaborations,” he says. “I tell my team, ‘A collaboration is good if one plus one is three. If one plus one is two, it’s not a collaboration.” You marry somebody if you really are stronger together. This is what we are looking for. It very seldom happens. Rick Owens is one of the designers who brings ideas to the table. His awareness and intellectual thinking about the brand creates something special.”
Whether or not there is a long relationship with the makers of orthopaedic sandals turned fashionable footwear, there is one unchanging collaboration in Owens’ life: his relationship with Michèle Lamy. I would liked to have talked to her about Rick’s exhibition, but she currently has her own commitment at Selfridges in London – “Lamyland”, which is open until March and focuses on a boxing gym with workshops and events to introduce a powerful, but stylish take on empowerment. It not only includes the most stylish of decorative punch bags, but conveys a glamorous spirit that underscores the dynamic attitude of modern women.
“Supposing I were a pugilistic, male or female 22-year-old fashion student who discovered your work for the first time in the Milan exhibition, what reaction would you hope for?” I ask Rick.
“I want to be for them the way Salvador Dali or David Bowie was for me,” he replies. “To offer possibilities beyond what they might have thought before. I want to say, ‘You could learn so many things. You can really work outside the box. It is possible. You don’t have to feel confined or oppressed.’”