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  • Sean Holley

From Dunks to Kiss Heels: The Mythology of Rick Owens

There’s not much to say about Rick Owens that hasn’t been said before. But let’s start with a refresher. Dark, dusty, flowing fabrics that simultaneously obscure and reveal the body, garments that are dainty yet built to survive a nuclear winter. As Rick would put it: the ultimate luxury is that of being able to wear your clothes into the ground. Blacks and browns mask stains and disrepair, and worn the way Owens intends, whites are meant to end up the color of parchment and piss.

In his early collections, Rick adhered to his “glunge” aesthetic, fusing the 1990s Hollywood underworld with ancient power and haute couture poise. Color palettes are minimal, a portmanteau of black, grey, and brown with occasional splashes of white. Models are dressed like dilapidated gladiators, the elongated drawstrings on their drop-crotch shorts providing an oasis of light in an expanse of dark fabric. And the models themselves are pale, alien, and paper-thin. In the words of Owens, “totally un-fuckable”.

Runway looks from Rick Owens Anthem SS11

For more than a decade, Owens’ work in menswear was undeniably innovative, yet undeniably similar from collection to collection. The period from 2003-2014 can be defined by 3 staple pieces: the Pod shorts, the blistered lamb leather jacket, and the Geobasket. All indispensable elements of a dark, strange, and fascinating uniform that fused skater culture with a prehistoric essence, creating a new tribe in fashion that still exists today.

Enter Spring/Summer 2015. First Stephane Mallarme, then Debussy, then Nijinsky, then Rick. Inspired by Nijinsky’s 1912 ballet that was itself inspired by a classical composition inspired by a poem, Owens joined a nesting doll of artists that modernized their respective mediums, bringing his own work into the future with Faun SS15.

When it was first shown in Paris in 1912, L’Après-midi d’un faune caused an outrage among the French cultural establishment for its graphic sexuality, chiefly centered around a single moment in the ballet: The faun, overcome by unfulfilled desire, simulating sex with a scarf dropped by the nymph he has pursued throughout the story. Fast-forward to the present day, and Nijinsky’s work is considered to be one of the first modernist ballets because of its innovative choreography and boundary-pushing subject matter.

Vaslav Nijinsky as Faun, photographed by Baron de Meyer, 1912

Just as Nijinsky’s ballet upended traditional dance, Rick sought to revolutionize his personal oeuvre with Faun. For the first time in his menswear collections, Owens incorporates bold patterns, brighter colors, provocative graphics, and a more overt depiction of sexuality. All of these motifs would reappear prominently in Rick’s subsequent collections.

Runway looks from Rick Owens Faun SS15

In Faun, Rick rejuvenated his work while retaining elements of his core design philosophies, ensuring that even though he presented an updated aesthetic, it was still unmistakably a Rick Owens collection. His enduring fascination with the mystique and power of ancient cultures persists, albeit in a more primal and immediate form. Many of the models are painted grey, evoking the severity and permanence of marble statues. These statuesque models are a fitting analogy for Rick’s intent with Faun: a crystal-clear statement that his brand was moving in a new direction, a monument to the old and a harbinger for the new, an immense moment frozen in time.

The collections immediately following Faun build on Rick’s revamped aesthetic, blending an increased appetite for theatricality with the innovative fabric selection, mastery of tailoring, and structural silhouettes he made his name on. While pre-Faun collections were certainly eye-catching, the period afterward features a distinct flair for the absurd. From the perfectly (barely) obscured nudity of Sphinx FW15 to the hair hoods of Cyclops SS16, Rick took increased liberty with his designs and never looked back. After taking a leap forward with Faun, Owens has been a designer liberated from expectations, free to be as outrageous as he pleases. This freedom gives his later collections an undeniable charm because they never take themselves too seriously.

Left: Runway look from Sphinx FW15, Right: Runway look from Cyclops SS16

In 2017, the beginnings of a second transformation were starting to take hold, though its vision would not be fully realized until the present day. Tyrone Dylan was brought on to Rick’s intimate design team. 2 years later, he walked the runway for Babel SS19. He has gone on to feature in every menswear show since, opening every show since Tecuatl SS20 and being the sole model for the Phlegethon SS21 shoot, a collection without a runway presentation due to the pandemic.

Now we’re all caught up: Welcome to the era of new Rick. Colloquially dubbed as his glam period, a brand once known for its sneakers and drop crotches is now associated with transparent heels, action-figure shoulders, and a bronzed, blonde, lean Aussie. There are now two faces of the brand, both of them looking like Iggy Pop, the way Rick always wanted it to be.

Tyrone Dylan for Rick Owens

Though the difference between Faun and its preceding collections is more pronounced than the modern shift toward drag and glam-influenced style, both changes are equally as important to the development of Rick Owens as a brand. Rick has likely been on a trajectory towards his present-day output since 2015, but the advent of the pandemic catalyzed the arrival of his full-fledged exuberance, forcing the glam developments to happen immediately instead of gradually.

“When you’re under threat, you want to lash out and express your most extreme creative urges while you can. I sense that a little bit in this collection. and I sense probably, getting a little closer to sexuality than I ordinarily might just because it seems the opposite of self-pity.”

This quote aptly describes Rick’s approach to design over the last 4 years. Rick said this during a discussion about Phlegethon SS21 womenswear, which was held in person without an audience in the summer of 2020. Covid was a wake-up call of sorts for Rick, and now that the pandemic has subsided (to a degree), the recent memory of having everything we normally take for granted taken away from us has encouraged him to continue being as extravagant as possible. Sexuality represents both empowerment and defiance, giving strength to the wearer and giving a middle finger to the banal, the oppressive, and anybody or anything else standing in the way of self-expression.

Rick Owens S/S21 Phlegethon

The recent glam shift has been very contentious among diehard fans of Rick. Supporters are firmly in two camps: those who disagree with the recent direction the brand has been going, and those who love the shift toward more color and sexuality. I firmly side with the latter. Regardless of your thoughts on the clothes, the shift has been beautifully executed from an artistic perspective, a business perspective, and any other perspective you want to evaluate it from.

Anyway, the glam shift has been a stroke of genius because Rick established the foundations of his new work in earlier collections, it’s a genuine development rooted in Rick’s personal experience, and the constant subtext of empowerment makes the clothes meaningful to their wearer.

A short note on empowerment before we continue. Rick’s empowerment is not typical. It is not political, hegemonic power meant to control others. It is a freeing power that exists in its own ecosystem, it deliberately positions itself so it has no currency within the establishment. His clothes are meant to bewilder and offend those in power, which is the complete inverse of trying to earn their respect. Over the lifetime of his work, this distinction has become far more pronounced. Wear a Suckerball blazer to a meeting, you probably get a few side-eyes. Wear a Performa blazer to a meeting, you’re getting kicked out of the room.

“Indifference is the greatest aphrodisiac – that’s what really sums up style for me.”

The glam transformation may appear to have emerged out of nowhere, a sudden pivot away from the Rick Owens of old. However, there are numerous instances in Rick’s past work where he experimented with designs that have evolved into signature pieces. These bits of foreshadowing make the transition entirely logical and explain why the recent collections have felt fully-formed from the outset: they had been germinating for decades prior to their realization.

The use of “feminine” footwear in Owens’ menswear shows is a prime example of Rick doing trial runs of a garment to perfect his process later on. Though the concept of featuring women’s shoes is commonly associated with the period after Larry FW19, the first show to feature the Kiss heel, it has been present since Rick’s earliest runway collections. In Island SS13, models walked the runway in open-toed flats which are extremely similar to mules recently released for Fogachine SS22. Even the infamous Kiss heel is predated by 14 years in Scorpio SS05, with a prototype of the style appearing on all 8 men’s looks in the collection.

Left and Right: Footwear from Fogachine SS22, Middle: Look from Rick Owens Island SS13

The early integration of currently prevalent styles served 3 key purposes: it made the glam transition less jarring for fans, it allowed Rick to perfect these ideas under the radar, and in hindsight, these instances demonstrate the amount of meticulous planning that Rick puts into his collections, a trait that adds additional weight to his legacy as a designer.

Left: Men’s heels featured in Scorpio SS05 Right: Kiss Boot in white calf hair, from Tecuatl SS20

Unlike the many brands who see “queer fashion” as a trend to capitalize on, Rick has approached his transformation with a longstanding appreciation and respect for transgender and drag culture. Rick’s status as a longtime member of these communities gives him an insider’s perspective that imbues his collections with an air of authenticity. He was frequenting bars like Sally’s Hideaway in Times Square and the Spotlight in Hollywood back in the 1980s, a time when being associated with queer culture was a PR nightmare instead of a marketing tactic. Rick is also openly bisexual and has been for most of his life. He publicly shared this information early in his relationship with Michèle Lamy: “I was going to say it first. I didn’t want anyone to think they could embarrass me, or Michèle.” Of course, anyone can align themselves with a culture and say they support it, but utilizing your platform to unselfishly celebrate another artist is an entirely different story.

Larry FW19 is bigger than clothes. It represents everything great about Rick Owens’ modern transition, from the inspiration of the collection to the meaning behind the outfits. If it weren’t for Rick Owens, multiple major news outlets wouldn’t be writing articles about this man, and I would have no idea who he was. Larry LeGaspi died in obscurity, homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. A name forgotten until Rick decided to help the world remember him.

Larry LeGaspi

Larry was an openly gay costume designer who rose to fame in the 1970s designing on-stage looks for KISS, Labelle, and Grace Jones, among others. His costumes are striking, futuristic, flamboyant, and powerful. Sound familiar? Along with the release of his collection dedicated to LeGaspi, Owens also released a book covering Larry’s life and work, ensuring that his legacy would live on beyond the fleeting interest of a single fashion season.

Left: Gene Simmons of KISS, 1970s, Right: Runway look from Larry FW19

As for the clothes, Larry FW19 marks the first appearance of the Kiss heel, by any definition the landmark piece of Rick’s new era. A prophecy initiated in 2005 finally made real. The heels are inevitably associated with femininity, but to reduce them to an “androgynous style” does them a great disservice. "I've always proposed heels for men. I don't mean them as feminizing, but more as a kiss, heavy-metal kind of thing. It's gender bending, but it's like Marlene Dietrich wearing men's suits to exaggerate her femininity. When kiss wore heels, it was meant to challenge — 'Just try and call me feminine, motherfucker, I'll kick your ass.'"

Rick said it better than I ever could: they’re about empowerment. And transformation, and the beautifully grotesque, and an awe-inspiring degree of exaggeration, and stinking of sex.

“I am fascinated by women who recreated their beauty, more than naturally beautiful women.”

Transformation represents a deliberate effort to be something different. With a pure intent, it’s not escapism, it’s a process of self-realization and discovery. A transformation is freedom from gender, age, social class, race, reality: you sculpt your existence to your liking. The more bizarre and twisted, the less you have to care about pleasing anyone, you’re free from having to keep up appearances. Existence becomes effortless because you’re an unapologetic, self-proclaimed outcast. In other words, it was always bigger than the clothes.

Correction courtesy of @gofreemoonstone on Instagram: Larry LeGaspi was not homeless at the time of his passing, he lived the final year of his life with his family and passed away in April 2001 due to AIDS. Long live Larry <3

Writer: Sean Holley

Editor: Isaac Davis


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