by Eugene Rabkin

"In a wide-ranging interview the designer talks to us about his two new books, his body of work, the role of irony and politics in it, his fanbase, and the current generation of fashion.

There is this rare thing about Rick Owens thatís hard to define, but easy to see, once you see it. That thing is that he simultaneously exists outside of fashion but also inside it. He is a true auteur, having created an aesthetic universe of his own. His clothes are never on trend, because Owens doesnít need trends Ė he has his tribe and beyond the tribe he has the reputation of such unflappable coolness that its gravitational pull extends way beyond the fairly narrow circle of fashion enthusiasts and creative professionals that hold Owens in high regard. This calm strength that Owens possesses, which he calls ďgrace under pressure,Ē allows him to cultivate his own style while garnering constant, unadulterated praise from the fashion industry insiders, few of whom actually wear the clothes.

This month Rick Owens is adding to his universe by releasing two books with Rizzoli, one on his own work by the photographer Danielle Levitt, and one on the under-appreciated American designer Larry LeGaspi.

Rick Owens Photographed by Danielle Levitt is a pretty straightforward chronological tome of photography, documenting Owensís work, starting with his S/S 14 womenís collection.

The images in the book are stark, the models pose against a white background; everything in the photos is about the clothes. The crispness of the images isnít sterile, however, and therein lies a measure of Levittís talent. The pictures underscore how sculptural Owensís clothes are, and how unique. Whatís more, the photos often show that traditional nomenclature for clothes does not really reflect what Owens creates. What Levitt photographs are garments, but if you closed your eyes and were asked to envision a dress or a coat, it would look nothing like the sort of clothes Owens has been putting out in the past couple of years.

On the surface, Legaspi is a book of a totally different sort, a homage to a largely forgotten designer Owens admires. Yet, in the press release Owens writes, ďThis book is shamelessly about me. Iíve edited Larryís work into a composition of designer I wanted him to be, and the kind of designer I hoped to be. Itís me fetishizing him through a fanboy filter. Itís very much about Art Deco Kabuki meeting black leather, sweaty 1970s NY, and the stomping bombast of KISS, LaBelle, and Divine, who he did costumes for.Ē

Indeed, there is something very Owens in LeGaspiís work, a kind of camp mixed with glam. And while Owens shakes these elements and something quite different falls out of the magic box of his brain, the book contains parallels between the two men. Certainly the glam rock direction the couple of Owensís last collections have taken, somewhat inspired by that of LeGaspi, have resulted in some of his best work to date. The cover image of the bookís dust jacket couldíve been Owensís own work, and no one would know better.

What people often miss in Rickís work is a healthy dose of camp itís imbued with. Camp is usually thought of as pink feathers and Elton John. Owens has challenged that notion with his oversized brutalist stomping style that is produced with ďa loving wink.Ē And thatís the thing that has always struck me about Owensís work Ė that blending of aggression and love that is the essence of the punk spirit. One could go further and make the case that goth can be a form of camp, something that Owens has always stressed.

But with LeGaspi camp culminated not with goth but with arena metal freaks, KISS. In the book one of the first images is of Gene Simmons, the bandís kooky frontman, regaled in full LeGaspi, studs, horns, a huge cutout in front displaying his hairy chest and stomach (oh, the bravery!), gripping his guitar, what I assume is red paint (the photo is black and white) dripping out of his mouth. We forget how transgressive that was, but Owens is happy to remind us.

I caught up with Owens, who graciously took time out of his day as he was preparing his new womenís collection, over FaceTime to talk about the two books. As usual, however, our conversation meandered and it grew into something bigger and too interesting to let it linger on the cutting floor. See for yourself.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

ER: You are in the midst of preparing a new collection. How is it going?

RO: I am putting it all together, imagining how different clothes will look in different fabrics and colors. This is the part that I like about this job; itís not really stressful, and it doesnít bother me. I love having deadlines and cycles. You have this amount of resources, this amount of timeÖand how do you fit everything in so that there is a rational, cohesive expression? So itís a little puzzle that I enjoy, actually.

ER: I donít really mind the pressure of deadlines, because they give me clarity. Youíve always seemed disciplined about them.

RO: Iíve been doing it for so long now, and Iíve established a certain body of work, that even if I did a total fucking mess this season, I think people could excuse it and I could probably move on and hopefully do better next time. I have a little room for failure right now, which is great.

ER: Itís crazy to expect a designer to hit it out of the park with every single collection. I certainly donít expect it from any designer; itís too much pressure.

RO: Well, the main thing is to be consistent. Not to hit it out of the park, but to stay steady. I donít know, maybe Iím wrong, maybe itís a different climate. Because you see some designers that used to be so relevant and so precise for their moment, and then thirteen years later theyíre just obsolete. Itís chilling to me. How do you not recognize that? You just keep going and just blindly thinking youíre doing the right thing.

ďI THINK ANY KIND OF CONTEMPORARY EXPRESSION THAT IS RELEVANT HAS TO BE POLITICAL.Ē

ER: In your last menís collection, ďTecuatl,Ē you made a pointed political statement, paying homage to your Mexican roots. I felt like it was the first time your work took an overtly political tone.

RO: I think any kind of contemporary expression that is relevant has to be political, it has to be about the world around you. I resisted being political about particular events, but you can be political without specifically pointing fingers. Though, i guess this is the first time that I actually really pointed a finger.

ER: Do you ever think about your legacy?

RO: Sometimes. I keep thinking, when I get to a certain age, why not cash in? Why not reap the benefits of everything and distribute them among my loved ones? Long ago somebody asked me, ďWould you ever consider letting go of your companyĒ? And I said ďNo, Iíll take it down with me. Iím burning it down when I go.Ē Now Iím thinking, if I sell it some day, that is burning it down. I am taking it with me. Two hundred years from now what will people say about it? Who am I trying to impress? I agree with the purism, but thereís a cynical side to me thatís saying why should I care? Why not sell it?

ER: Sure, itís a reward on its own. But the fashion industry is the only one where selling your company means selling your name. And that faustian bargain must be heavy. It must be for guys like Helmut Lang and Margiela.

RO: I donít know, they seem happy, quietly doing their own thing. I wonder, if I saw a Rick Owens collection happening without my participation, I think it would make me cringe, and I would just be horrified, but right after that, I would think wow, Iím being really petty. Especially if I sold it for a lot of money. Then I would have no right to complain. But I donít think anybody would pay that much money for my company right now, because there are too many companies out there.

ER: The guys in corporate fashion seem to be doing very well.

RO: Yeah, but itís such a treacherous terrain now. Everything is changing really fast. Also, this generation doesnít have the same kind of loyalty that our generation did. Iím not saying itís a bad thing, thatís just evolution. They have more of a magpie mentality, just because theyíre inundated with so much information all the time. They have the luxury of being able to pick and choose in a very superficial kind of way. Is that wrong? I donít know. Itís just different."

Full interview on SZ-Mag