If you are fine-tuned to the fashion-world power rankings, you already know that we’re living in the Rick Owens era. And even if you’re not, you’ve probably caught wind of his cinematic fashion shows, his arresting alien models, or at least this photo of him riding a Lime scooter in Paris. In the 18 years that Owens has put on runway collections, first in New York and since 2003 in Paris, the designer has risen from a fringe eccentric to one of fashion’s most essential, provocative, and inspiring voices. As he tells it, part of his success is down to the fact that fashion is ruthless, wiping out most of his independently owned peers and putting the conglomerates, with their revolving doors of creative directors, on shaky footing. He’s just about the last man standing—and he’s standing tall in 6.5-inch platform boots.
Now isn’t just Owens’s moment because he’s survived, but because he’s staying alive so beautifully. His Spring 2014 step show was a breakthrough. Since then, Owens has only worked harder, pushed farther, and gotten better. Photographer Danielle Levitt had the good luck to have been backstage at the step show, where she was asked by Owens and his wife, Michèle Lamy, to make a documentary about the dancers and photograph them for still portraits. “I think the process of working on the step show sparked something in him, something he liked in himself or in the work or however I chose to document the show, and that’s what opened the door to our relationship,” Levitt tells Vogue. She’s been backstage at every show since, and now her arresting portraits depicting Owens’s work in its purest form have been compiled in a new book from Rizzoli, Rick Owens Photographed by Danielle Levitt. “The images that I make, I believe, are of the moment where what Rick thinks, feels, and wants to present is actually seen. This is Rick’s entire vision as documented by me,” she says.
Levitt understands that she’s been present for a magical time in the Rickaissance. “It actually gets me emotional,” she says, “because he gets better every season. How does he do that? I’m an artist, he’s an artist, but his artistry—every time I see it, it’s better. Every. Time. He’s constantly learning and he’s always pushing himself. Where does he come up with any of this stuff? Where is it living in his head? Every time I’m in awe of his level of artistry and focus.”
On the morning of his New York City book signing in September, Owens reflected on Levitt’s comments. “It’s simply because I became more comfortable with my tools and I became more playful.” A testament to his unbridled playfulness and his unflinching work ethic: In the month since our conversation he has signed books in four countries, shown a Spring 2020 collection of pannier’d ball gowns and Aztec headdresses, hosted a rave to mark the launch of his Veja collaboration, hosted another rave to benefit the Centre Pompidou, and will, in a couple of hours, receive the Superstar award from the Fashion Group International here in New York. If Owens’s creative output of late has shown anything, it’s exactly how open-minded, how willing to evolve, change, and collaborate he really is.
At his Howard Street store in September, Owens announced, “I’m just going to ramble,” and proceeded to do exactly that, discussing the things he likes to do in New York (visit the new Gavin Brown enterprise), the things he wanted to see at Fashion Week (only The Row, though he did like Look 2 from Oscar de la Renta, and is getting into CDLM), and the trials of his new cat, Pixie, who won’t stop peeing on the same spot of his black jacket. The conversation zigged and zagged, from his work to my work, to his life to my life, to the TV shows we’re bingeing on and the paparazzi fodder I’m obsessed with. Maybe he should do a podcast next—it would be fantastic. In the meantime, here are edited highlights from our conversation about staying alive, making it real, and hitting your stride.
What do you like about the way Danielle photographs your work?
Maybe my eyesight is not what it used to be, but I like things very high contrast, very crisp, and very well-lit. I think there is a great clinical side to it, but then there’s this underlayer of emotion. The models are always in the middle of some kind of gesture that’s a little bit human, and every once in a while, a little bit endearingly awkward. She just gets something out of people. I think she’s really easy to be with, and she’s really enthusiastic. You can feel a little bit of recklessness from her; that’s appealing and it makes you want to be a little bit reckless. I suspect this, I mean, from when I watch her photographing people. I think she has good mom energy probably, so it helps people feel comfortable. And she’s nice and brash. Is that a good word?
Yes, brash is a good word.
Is it an unflattering word?
No, I think it’s good in this context.
I don’t think it’s unflattering. You guys should use her.
I love her. I love her work.
Make it happen.
I’ll do my best! From the images, it seems like Danielle has creative control over the photographs she makes. What is that like for you, to cede a little bit of your own creative control to her?
I’ve styled it. It’s behind the scenes at a runway show, and it’s already as art directed as I can get it before it goes on the runway. Each model is as dressed as close to perfection as I’ll ever be able to get it, so it’s not like I’m really taking any big risks. It’s all pretty organized at that point. I just trust Danielle is going to capture things. So, yes, there’s an element of trust—and I’m not a very trusting person at all, but I trust that it’s going to come out fine and there’s going to be enough options to choose something good and that there are going to be a lot of things to edit from and there’s enough wiggle room for some personality, and some emotion, and some of Danielle’s mother energy.
Do you think about how the images will play out on social media and on the internet? Their virality?
Not really. I guess I do put them on Instagram, but I don’t do a lot of them, I think. I’m not on Instagram myself, but I appreciate looking at things graphically on a small screen and I’m conscious about what is looking good for this generation. It’s not like I’m doing it in a calculated way, but you see how things go along and you see what the world feels like.
The way things look graphically has always been important to me. Just the way that I make clothes, I like to see things jutting out a lot, or dragging, or trailing, or extending. I like to see the human figure taking up space in a different way, in an exaggerated way, or in a flamboyant way. It’s an architectural thing. Just one gesture, one thing sticking out, makes your whole silhouette look different. I’m thinking graphically already, so that is the harmony about Danielle’s imagery and my clothes. It gets very sculptural. It gets more sculptural later on [in my work], and you can see this evolution of sculpture. That’s simply because I became more comfortable with my tools and I became more playful, I think. It’s not like I thought about it then, but when I look back on it, that’s how I analyze it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that’s what happened. After a while, you have more confidence to play.
Is there a reason you wanted to do this book now as opposed to waiting until the end of the decade or something like that?
It was proposed to me. It wasn’t something I proposed. I proposed the LeGaspi book and Rizzoli countered with, “Can we do this too?” They seem to think this has more . . .
. . . coffee-table appeal?
I guess. I guess the LeGaspi name was just too obscure. I mean that book will only be an oddity, which is kind of why I like it. That’s my favorite part about it. But, yes, if this makes a nice coffee-table book I’m all for it. I can’t remember how the front looks. [Owens closes the book.] Oh yeah, nice coffee-table imagery.
Personally, I hate book dustcovers. When I buy books, I always take them off. It’s like keeping the wrapper on something. Also they’re kind of bright and calculated to draw the eye, like on a store bookshelf, so I always feel like this is a manipulative image. I like cloth covers. I like the way they fade and I like the way they look on my bookshelf. I don’t want to see shiny supermarket cereal boxes on my bookshelf. So I always resist the book cover thing. But this looks pretty damn good! And the one of Kembra [Pfahler on the LeGaspi book] looks pretty good too.
When I talked to Danielle on the phone, she was saying she felt like she came into your world at the perfect moment, right as you were hitting your stride. Do you feel like that’s true?
Maybe. That could very well be true. I’m glad she was able to capture that moment which will probably be one of my most defining moments, that step show. I love that she was able to come in on that note and keep progressing from that period on. The timing was really perfect. I’m trying to remember what the shows were like before then. I can’t!
There was the show with the fire backdrop and the one with the foaming bubbles . . .
Oh yeah. They were nice. It’s funny how I started out, I never had really thought about doing runway shows. I always thought that I wasn’t going to be able to keep it up after a couple of shows, that the world demanded a lot more excitement than what I was going to be able to do. It’s kind of funny how I’ve ended up growing into it, realizing that I do like being flamboyant and doing spectacular shows. I had never anticipated that. It’s not like I ever dreamed about coming out for a bow at the end of my runway show in Paris. It’s not like I ever, ever thought of that when I was making clothes in the beginning or even thinking about making clothes. I don’t know if I even thought it was possible. I don’t remember. I really don’t remember.
It seems like it has been a very natural evolution, though, from the early sets and installations to everything that you’ve done recently.
Yeah. A big part of that is that I just have fantastic partners that have protected me. We’ve talked about this before. Without that kind of bubble to allow you to find your voice and to express your voice—it’s hard for anybody to really prove themselves in three seasons the way that is demanded now. So that’s where I was lucky. I was lucky to have protection and that’s what got me here. You know, I kind of tell my partners, “You guys could have done this with anybody.” There are a lot of talented people out there, but the hard part is execution. Getting it finished on time and at the right price and allowing you to keep going. All of that stuff is so essential.
[An aria reaches its climax in the background.]
This is quite the playlist!
I’ve inflicted it on them and now I’m kind of irritated by it. It’s kind of wild.
With the Larry book there is an obvious intention and purpose of the book, in a way. It’s your homage to him . . .
When I did the Larry book, I just intended it as a fun, flamboyant, silver, black, and white personal thing. About half way into it, I found out there was this manuscript that he had written while he was dying, and there was his widow and his sister. They hadn’t been connected in a while, so they became connected again, and the manuscript became available through his sister, which was a nice moment for all of us. In the manuscript, it was all of a sudden the whole idea was that I was going to be able to have his voice in this book, but the whole thing just turned. There was this layer of gravitas that made this book so much more profound than I ever thought it was going to be. I was very proud to be able to include his voice in it and let him be heard. That was something I hadn’t really planned on. I didn’t really feel like I was part of the AIDs generation because I was not around. I feel like I am the last person to be able to talk about it, but this story did feel about a generation that not a lot of people survived. It felt good to talk about somebody who didn’t have a chance to be heard.
Also, how crazy that this drag queen sensibility ended up being in middle-American football fields? I love that! I love that we got some queen camp in high schools. [Laughs.] But I don’t know if I recognized it as that when I saw it when I was 13. When we were 13—you weren’t even born, but when we were 13, I don’t think there had been heavy metal like that. Or I wasn’t aware of it. I felt with Kiss it got more evil, satanic, and sinister. That’s what it was like then. Later on, looking back, it became very cartoonish and very silly, but then it was really menacing—at least to me when I was 13 in Porterville. That was thrilling, that menace.
The thing about those costumes is that graphically they are so resolved. The graphics and the presentation gave Kiss an authority that they would not have had otherwise. It was a uniform that you believed in. It was convincing. The whole thing was convincing because the uniform was so right and there was just the perfect note of ridiculousness that made it chic. It was kind of like a 1940s woman’s hat, you know how sometimes they were just so ridiculous and over the top, but sharp and chic?
I feel like that is what’s happening in fashion, a little bit, now. Because there was a magpie sensibility for the past, for a long time, that it was very much about throwing everything together, everything you’ve seen through all the generations of fashion. [An idea that] everybody has their style. They don’t. But now, I think, we’ve become so oversaturated that people are able to be selective and maybe [whispers] elitist.
Being elitist is coming back in a big way.
Is it? Oh good. Are you allowed to say that though?
I don’t know if we’re allowed to say it yet, but there’s something happening where streetwear, accessibility, social media, and the democratization of fashion made fashion available to everyone—which was a beautiful thing—but people want to push against that democratization now, I think.
Everybody wants to be special.
Ideas of being secret, elite, bourgeois are very cool. I think it has to do, as well, with all the perversity associated with being bourgeois.
I know, the bourgeois thing. Oh, my god. Riccardo Tisci started it at Burberry, and then Celine followed, which is funny actually.
You’re rarely in New York, but do you like to come to this store and your other stores and just watch what’s happening?
I did last week, actually, in Paris. I’ve never really sat in there for two hours watching people trying on clothes, but I was with a friend’s mother and we were getting her something. It was fun! I mean the first half hour I was kind of like, “I can’t wait to get out of here”; but then I eased into it, and it was actually fun—and informative. It made me look at things with a different perspective and a different attitude. But I feel like I did learn that stuff when I was selling the clothes myself, in the back office to these buyers, so I do feel like I did have a little bit of insight from when I started of the way the business worked. It was very personal. I was just schlepping stuff around myself and it was very retail based. It was always retail based at the beginning without the fantasy of fashion shows. It was just in the store. But it is nice to be in here. God, it’s pretty isn’t it?
Do you think about the lives that your pieces have after you part with them or the ways other people consume your products?
I don’t really think about it. It’s always a surprise when I see something on somebody. What I love is being on the metro in Bologna, underneath the city, and seeing somebody wearing a knockoff of my stuff. It’s a thrill. I’m thinking, God, I really did influence something. It’s not like I cured a disease or anything, but in a very primal way it’s very satisfying to see that you had influence in the world and that you are immortalized by participating. I mean, immortality is kinda . . . [pause] well, it’s kind of what we’re all into. We all want to be immortalized.
Is this book a document of your immortality?
Sure! Yeah. I remember talking with somebody from Vogue, maybe it was Lynn Yaeger, maybe it was Sally Singer, and I remember saying that if I had gone down a different path . . . The one thing I regret about not pursuing a more traditional route in fashion, maybe staying in New York or maybe joining a house and becoming a bigger designer at a bigger house, is that I was never able to get an Irving Penn portrait or Irving Penn images of my clothes. Or Horst images. Or Avedon images. Those legendary photographers, or even more contemporary versions of that. Well, I actually do now have stuff, but not a lot. I have a couple of Nick Knight images, a couple of Steven Klein images, a couple of Juergen Teller images, but I never really became part of . . . If I had gone down a different path, I would be remembered more with an Avedon or an Irving Penn portrait. I remember whoever I was talking to said, “Well, all you can really do about that is just do books. Just keep doing books and that’s going to be your immortality.” It’s true. It’s not like I actively set out to do that, but I am very satisfied now that I will be remembered the way that I want to be.
Do you feel any disassociation between the you that you have memorialized through your work, your exhibit, and your books and the you that is, maybe, sitting at home cleaning cat pee off your jacket?
Not really, because I talk about everything. It’s all part of the same story. All of the flaws in my life, I’m pretty open about. I talk about artifice and my own artifice, so I think it’s all pretty exposed. That’s one of the main gists of my story, that you’re allowed to invent yourself. I think it’s probably a good idea to know that you’re flawed and to not beat yourself up about your flaws too much. To work on them, but know that you’re never going to fix them and it doesn’t matter and 100 years from now no one is going to care. So, I don’t think there’s anything, really, that I’ve got hidden that ruins the story.
When you think about bringing new people into your world, working with Danielle or making a book about Larry, how aware are you of the Rick Owens effect? Any association with you immediately legitimizes someone, some thing, or their art.
I think so. It’s not just professionally. Danielle is already an incredibly accomplished and well-respected photographer, but having your stamp of approval brings her to a new audience.
Well, there’s going to be certain young people that are going to get a certain level of legitimacy and then I might be legitimized by association with somebody else. There was an article, it was kind of funny, because I had just done this project with Thomas Houseago [for the Spring 2020 men’s show]. They erected his sculpture where I usually do my show, so my show would have to literally revolve around his sculpture. I love Thomas Houseago, so I approached him and asked him if would he consider participating more in my show. He came himself and did this clay installation all over the runway and I remember reading something afterwards about “sometimes a tired designer needs to legitimize himself with the glamour of a famous artist.” Fair enough. I did feel glamorous working with Thomas Houseago. He’s a major—he’s going to be a part of art history. There’s all sorts of layers of legitimacy happening. I’m also conscious that there can be some people that this is not their cup of tea and they’re rolling their eyes like, “Oh, the Rick Owens thing.” I get that. I don’t always assume [being associated with me] is a good thing.
I think it’s a good thing.
I feel, also, that there is a different way of evaluating me in this day and age compared to all of the carnage of all of the designers that have just been wiped out. That is making someone like me, who has been consistent and stayed in their own lane, it’s making me look more rare than before. It’s probably enhancing my rep just by endurance.
Do you look at all the shows?
I look at a lot. It’s fun.
And you don’t, well, worry, that it wouldn’t infiltrate your creative process?
It does. I’m sure it does. I’m sure I’m looking at a lot of what not to do, a lot of what’s out there, and what’s been done too much. But you can find pleasing lines anywhere. I can find them on the metro, the way someone has their shirt tied around their hips. You can see something. I’m always looking at what people do. I’m thinking commercially too: That looks like something that works; that looks like something people would like to buy; how do we do something like that? I am conscious of that sometimes. Not a lot, but I am kind of practical. It’s not just all poetic whimsy and deep thoughts. Sometimes it’s just what’s out there that looks right, makes sense, or looks logical. You never know where it’s going to come from. Sometimes somebody’s going to do a skirt, and I’ll think that’s kind of flattering, that looks good for right now. I don’t know. There’s inspiration everywhere.