Rick Owens

Interview by
Gert Jonkers
Photography by
Daniel Riera


American fashion designer Rick Owens rules his empire from a stunningly brutalist grande mason in the chicest part of Paris where we met on a recent Wednesday afternoon. His label is incredibly successful because his clothes actually sell – to millions of goth-y fans and fanatics. Rick is married to Michele, a French lady quite a few years his senior. Together they’re completely extravagant and flamboyant. Rick claims to be very demanding, unsociable and strict, but he’s a super friendly man with a hypnotizing, melodic voice.

Gert: I’m going to record this on my phone.
Rick: Isn’t the iPhone the most amazing thing?
It is.
Did it take you a while to feel comfortable with it?
Yes. I’m still figuring it out.
What do you think of the way it completes words for you when you’re typing?
I switched that function off immediately – it drove me nuts. Do you use it?
I haven’t switched mine off. It kind of amuses me. Yesterday it refused to spell buttplug. It came up with all these suggestions because it didn’t want to spell buttplug.
Why were you typing buttplug?
That is what we named a new piece of furniture. It’s a bench and we’re calling it the Buttplug Bench, because it has these legs that look like they impale into it. I don’t think it will stick, but it’s our working title.
How familiar are you with buttplugs?
Do you want to see my collection?
I’d love to.
Ha, well, I don’t have one. Although I did buy a beautiful buttplug for a client once – a rubber buttplug with a real horse tail attached to it. It was pretty fantastic but not really practical, because it’s not the right place to put a tail, really.
The tail hangs a little too low.
Yes. The angle isn’t as graceful as it could be. But I guess you have to make do; you just have to pose right. It’s all in the pose.
I was wondering if a lot of your designs are rooted in fetishism.
I love fetishes. I’ve been out of circulation, so I don’t know what kids do these days, but when I was young there was a pretty big leather community in Los Angeles. I’m a little bit too pragmatic to let myself get involved in the fantasy of those things, but I loved the ceremony and the pageantry and the creepiness of being in a dark leather bar at four in the morning with music blasting and guys just standing there holding a beer, staring in front of them and doing nothing, everyone waiting for something to happen. That tension, that weirdness, the creepiness and that desperation, I loved it. It’s not that I could participate genuinely, just because I didn’t believe in that whole uniform thing. Is that culture still around? I wonder if the kids still need that kind of thing. I mean: it was born out of shame and…shame, wasn’t it? That was the kernel of the whole bondage discipline: oppression, a master/slave kind of thing.
I don’t think it’s particularly popular anymore.
It’s kind of a vintage fantasy now. If people do the leather thing now, I think it’s just nostalgic.
Here in Europe I never thought of punk as a very gay thing, but in LA punk and gay were really connected, weren’t they?
Very much so. I thought it was like that internationally. It was a very affectionate scene – very comfortable and charming.
Maybe it’s the combination of sunny weather and being punk?
Yes, and having beer busts outside. In the ’80s there was one party called The Theoretical, which was held in leather bars, and it was very mixed – there were girls and guys. At least half was heterosexual. It was a very healthy thing. They had bands play. There were always a couple of leather queens in the corner. The Cock in New York was a little bit like that for a minute. They had the back room, but they had girls there, which was nice. It was nice seeing everyone mix. It seemed like something from the ’70s, like a Studio 54. What I like about the leather scene is the whole ceremony part: the simplicity of those uniforms, the desire, the longing, the romance. It’s very romantic. Trying hard to look tough when you are in a completely vulnerable moment. It’s super vulnerable. That mix of vulnerability and toughness is irresistible. Top it off with alcohol and music, and it’s magic!
Do you ever do that in Paris these days? Standing around in a leather bar, drinking beer.
No, that’s a hundred years ago. I don’t really go to parties; I don’t even drink anymore either. Back in the days, the only reasons to go out were to get wasted, to get laid or to get noticed. I don’t need any of those anymore. I love to go dancing, though. Michele and I go out to dance, or when she’s not in town, I go on my own. I went to the Rex, this techno club in Paris. It’s not gay – I mean it’s half-gay; it doesn’t matter at the Rex. So I get there at like 3 a.m., because I know nothing is going to start before then. So the bouncer is like: ‘Stand over here for a minute.’ He keeps letting people in, and I’m standing there. I don’t speak French, so I can’t really argue with him. So I walk over to the people with the clipboard, and I go: ‘I don’t know why they won’t let me in. How do I get on the guest list? Who do I pay to get on the guest list? What do I have to do? I live in Paris and I just want to come this club and I don’t know what the problem is.’ So finally they’re like, ‘Okay, go in.’ What was that about? Did I look too old? Was it because I was a single guy and looked like I was going to start trouble? Did I look like a drug dealer? And another time Michele and I went to another after-hours club and they wouldn’t let us in. And I was, like: ‘Fuck this; I don’t need this shit. Let’s just open our own club.’ So we opened our own club.
Oh, what’s that?
It’s called the spotlight. We do it once every so often in this restaurant under the big bus station for Air France on Place des Invalides. It’s a nice restaurant, actually – all banquettes and cushions. Diplomats go there for lunch, and we’ve been going for years as clients, so we know them and they let us do our club night there. It’s perfect because it’s underground and you can make as much noise as you want. We do it with the guys from Club Sandwich. It’s really, really fun. The second time we did it, we flew in Christeene from Austin, Texas. Christeene is incredible. Super raw. Do you know her?
No. Sounds like I should.
Christeene’s amazing. I was little worried that they would tone it down for Paris, because they’d never been to Paris before. I don’t know why I was so condescending. So they come out, and she’s hog-tied and the guys that are with her have panda masks on. The first thing that they do is piss on her face. And I thought: ‘Oh good, everything is going to be fine.’ It was messy and aggressive and smart and loud and trashy and completely politically incorrect. I haven’t seen anything like that in Paris. I miss that. Paris is kind of straight.
Where did you get the name the spotlight from?
There is a famous crystal-meth bar in Hollywood that Michele and I used to go to.
Doing what? Meth?
No, we didn’t do that.
So do you DJ at your club?
Oh no, I’m dancing! The whole reason for this exercise is so that Michele and I can dance for three hours with really fun music. Dancing is one of the simplest expressions of joy. It is the easiest and most wonderful thing. I think dancing is fantastic.
Totally. But to get back to the link between your work and fetishism: I remember a show for which you had shaved the front of all the models’ heads into this really awkward hairdo, which had something sadistic about it, and something I imagine you must have fancied.
It wasn’t because I thought it was sexy. I thought that by doing it to all the boys in the show, they became some sort of cult. I like that word: cult. I don’t mind it at all. I like the idea of people unified, coming together towards a certain aspirational goal. When I shaved those boys, first there was the perverse fun of getting a bunch of pretty boys and abusing them. It was also to suggest commitment: I’m putting them in my uniform and in my cult. I like the idea of people completely submitting themselves to me. It’s certainly not meant to be taken seriously. I just like the idea of it – the idea of sacrifice and aspiration that we don’t see very often in fashion. A uniform that suggests service is very appealing to me. I hope that it doesn’t come off as too earnest.

BUTT - Rick-owens-reference
PISS: For the presentation of his Autumn/Winter '06–'08 collection at the Pitti Uomo trade fair in Florence, Italy, Rick installed this wax statue of himself pissing on the audience. (Photo by Giovanni Giannoni)

Maybe the idea of abuse in general turns you on?
I like the idea of sacrifice – I like the idea of self-sacrifice and commitment. I like the idea of something devotional.
All you wear is black and maybe some gray?
Well, yes, I only have this outfit, times 20. That’s all I ever wear. It’s very practical – it’s suited for the way I live my day. I go to the gym everyday, so it makes sense to wear my gym look. I’m working all day in my house and studio and I’m cutting fabric and I’m making things and I’m going to the gym, so what I wear is what I feel is exactly appropriate for that. It is very rational. You may not always think so, but I try to be somewhat rational in the clothes that I propose, with just a certain amount of flamboyance. I like 80 percent rationalism, 20 percent flamboyance.
Do you run at the gym in your own massive sneakers?
Oh, I don’t run. I can’t run. I would drop dead in a pool of vomit if I would run. I just work out and I wear what I’m wearing now, minus the sweater.
When do you go to the gym? Morning, afternoon or night?
I usually go around noon. I’m not very good at talking to people all day long – it’s not something I’m naturally comfortable with. One-on-one I feel fine, but I reach a saturation point maybe sooner than somebody who’s a little more gregarious. I was an only child. I didn’t socialize much when I was younger; I was always kind of a loner. It’s not that I’m shy; I’m just not a team person and I never learned how to collaborate. I can’t have a team of assistants who have ideas, because it confuses me. I can only be a complete fascist. That’s why Rick Owens is a one-man show. I have wonderful assistance, but if somebody came here wanting to be creative they would wither up and die. This isn’t the place for that. I tried, and I just couldn’t do it, and I’ve learned how to accept who I am. So going to the gym at noon affords me an escape everyday. In the morning I get everything done that needs to be done with my team, then I run to the gym and put on those earphones that pound your system like no music ever did before when we were young. God, technology is great! Every day I have this great disco moment at the gym.
Nice. What sort of music do you play at the gym?
I have a whole bunch.
Is it more disco or rock?
I don’t listen to rock at all anymore. I used to listen to rock all the time, but now it’s all techno-y and hardhouse-vogue remixes. There is nothing new. I’m just turning into a cranky old man. That’s what happens when you turn 50. I don’t listen to anything new except for Christeene. Really, I urge you to get Christeene’s music. It’s super good and super fun. Here, I’ll play you some. (Rick plays a Christeene track.)
It’s super gay!
Super gay, but I don’t know…it’s weird gay, because it’s not really a defined sexuality. She’s playing with both. One of her songs is called Tears from My Pussy. It’s about when a man is beating you down and what are you going to do? That’s what so great about it: it’s not all about cock sucking; it’s about tears from your pussy, too, you see? It embraces everything. I mean, this whole gender-fuck thing has been done before, but I like it that it’s so ‘everything goes, I’ll fuck anything’. I also love Cazwell. I was listening to Cazwell for a while because he did remixes of those old disco songs like Is It All over My Face? Remember that? It’s just a super classic disco song that I love. He re-did it in a whole nasty, gay way. It’s up there with Donna Summer.
Okay, so you go to the gym every day around noon. And then?
When I get home I have lunch and take a nap. Then I start all over again. This is the way I’ve learned to use my energy the best. It’s a great setup; it’s wonderful.
Do you actually go back to bed after the gym?
No, I take a nap on the sofa, or on a daybed, or in the library. I like to take naps around the house. It’s really good to give yourself time to let go and let things happen in your head. It is the time where things happen. It’s super useful; I really recommend it.
Thanks for the tip.
With pleasure. Is there anything else I can help you with? How’s your love life? Do you have a romance?
I do, thank you.
Is it your colleague Jop?
No, no.
I’m sorry, I don’t know much about you. I thought maybe you’re a couple and you make BUTT together.
Oh no, just imagine! How long have Michele and you been together?
Twenty-one years, and we actually got married three years ago. I always resisted the idea of getting married because I resented the idea of being conventional. But then, for all sorts of reasons, it made sense. It wasn’t to make our parents happy or anything. I won’t say it was purely for tax reasons, because that doesn’t sound very nice. We really like the commitment. I’m very happy; I can’t imagine being with anybody else. Can you imagine being with anybody else but your partner?
No, but it’s a big world out there.
Well, sure, you look around… You know males – we obviously think with our dicks. I think that’s biological. But, you know, rationally, if I slept with that person, it would mean I would have to talk to them afterwards or I would have to avoid them. Why would I want to put myself in that situation just for a fuck? That’s the dumbest thing. If you’ve had plenty of sex in your life, what would that one fuck add to your life? It just seems so dumb when it’s just about recreational sex. I can’t imagine having a relationship or a romance of that comfort level with anybody else but Michele. I already look forward to dinnertime with her. It’s great being old and married.
You’re not old. How old are you?
I’m going to be 50 in November.
Oh wow, that’s a milestone!
I guess. I feel like I’m too dumb to be 50.
Maybe you’ll be a kid forever.
I can pretty much guarantee that.
Was there a time when you considered yourself more gay than straight?
Oh yes. But I was always a loner. It was a total surprise to find someone to be comfortable and have a physical and emotional connection with. It’s still a surprise. Michele is pretty unusual herself, so it’s kind of a miracle. I actually can’t imagine living with a guy. I don’t know why.
Would you find it boring to be with a man? Too much like you?
Is that it? But then again I can’t imagine living with a woman either.
What would be strange about living with a guy?
I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I never actually lived with anybody before Michele, so I have no references. She had two husbands before me, and lord knows how many more boyfriends, but I never had a relationship before her. She’s been the only one for me. That’s kind of bizarre, isn’t it?
It’s incredible.
I’m not complaining. I’ve had a lot of loose relationships. Very, very loose.
Loose in terms of one-night stands?
More like one-quarter-hour stands.
Would you ever go back to being gay?
When I’m 80? When Michele leaves me for somebody younger? Is that a serious question?
It is, but you don’t have to answer.
Is it about stimulation? I’ve had plenty of stimulation. I’m more satisfied now than when I was looking for a lot more stimulation. I’m very grateful that I’ve found a level of peace and comfort. I’m definitely a lot further ahead than when I was 30. I mean, at 50 you’d better be, or else you’re doing something wrong. I’m not saying I’ve got my shit all together, and I have a lot to improve, but that’s what we get to do in life. Aspiration, self-sacrifice, devotion.
How would you improve yourself?
I think it’s weird that I’ve never learned French at all. I’ve been here for ten years now.
What’s holding you back?
When I moved here I thought I’d be brilliant and pick it up really fast, but then I was horrified in the first week. It was so crushing that it didn’t come natural that I never tried again. Michele doesn’t make it easier either. You know, she’s a mean French woman, and when I mispronounce something there’s a look of disgust on her face – it’s so mean that I’m discouraged from trying anymore. It’s too tedious for her to teach me. She has no patience for it, which is one of the things I love about her.
You don’t speak French, but you don’t understand it either?
No, which is something I quite enjoy. Not knowing what people around me are saying affords me a layer of privacy. I just shut off. I live in a little bubble and it’s great. I love it. I love living a bit isolated.
Is Rick Owens your full name or are you Richard?
I’m Richard Saturnino Owens.
As in the planet Saturn?
Yes. It’s a name that runs in the family. It means morbid, or something close to morbid, which would kind of apply. It was my Dad’s idea to call me Saturnino after an uncle or something, so he cursed me with that name. It stuck, and it did what it did to me.
What an amazing name.
Yeah, it’s funny.
You never use it?
Oh, please!
A diffusion line called Saturnino.
Oh god, could you imagine?
I love your hair, by the way. I keep being amazed by it.
That it’s still hanging on? It’s pretty much all chemicals by now. When I was a kid I wanted to have Cher’s hair. I wanted to have washboard abs and long black Indian Cher hair. But I was a chubby, pear-shaped kid with little-girl tits and buckteeth and brown curly hair. My hair is really curly. I was really very different – I’ve changed it all. My hair would be all white now.
How do you straighten your hair?
I go to London every three months to this place that does this Japanese chemical treatment. It takes three hours. It’s chemicals, drying, chemicals, straightening, chemicals – it’s completely ridiculous. There are a few places in Paris that do it now, but I’m so used to going to London for it, it’s like a ceremonial trip.
It’s a good metamorphosis.
Oh, and it’s changed my life. I used to get it done in LA. They used to do it at Fred Segal. It’s fantastic: you don’t have to do anything to it; you just have to wash it and go. I don’t really like to dick around with beauty things. I don’t like creams; I kind of hate all that shit, so this hair is perfect.
You just brush it in the morning?
I don’t even do that. I do have to comb it through, because it has gotten really thin. I have big wads of hair that I take off my comb. I save it, because there is some kind of wonderful voodoo thing about saving your hair. When we first moved to Paris, people around us started having babies. Whenever anyone would have a baby, I would give them a baby blanket and I would embroider the baby’s initials with my and Michele’s hair. But now everybody is having babies left and right, and I can’t keep embroidering babies’ initials. I did it with the first four and that was it; now they’re just breeding like rabbits. There’s too many goddamn babies.
You have to stop somewhere; you have to draw a line.
Right. All those goddamn babies.
Well, thank you very much for talking to me.
Thank you, that was very pleasant. It’s an honor.
We started with buttplugs and ended with babies.
Isn’t that the way?

Originally published in BUTT 29