Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The cat in the black: Rick Owens' flight from Porterville to Paris

My first Paris show this week and what a cool name: Exploder. That's the name of the collection as written on the model card backstage here at Rick Owens - the frequently-dubbed 'avant-garde' American designer who shows out of Paris, has now opened a Paris store and who has also (well, according to his mate Courtney Love) purchased property here.

I guess the main reason why Owens gets that perennial tag is because an avant-garde American designer is a bit of an oxymoron. The US is not a market that takes too kindly to conceptual fashion. A case in point The New York Times review of Rodarte's spring/summer 2007 collection, dubbing the collection (words to the effect) "some of the silliest clothes that ever walked a runway".

The same show made the cover of trade 'bible' WWD, with the headline "Can we keep the dream alive?" Probably not may well be the answer - which is presumably why designers like Owens feel the need to move away.

In spite of the at times freakish silhouettes and wacky soundtracks - the show this time last year was staged with the ear-piercing sounds of machine guns firing - it's relatively calm here.

Girls are sitting and standing around with black headbands on, just out of makeup - which is very pale.

En route into the venue I passed Owens' new protege, Gareth Pugh, wearing one of the coats from his London show two weeks ago. And lots of black eyeliner.

About 15 pairs of khaki-coloured platform suede ankle boots are lined up down the centre of one of the two dressing areas. They are covered in long fur - which I am told is goat hair, and has a sort of wildebeest effect. I later hear Owens telling someone that the boots had been inspired by the cartoons of Dr Seuss.

Coco Rocha is having an oversized black beanie fitted. It sticks up at the back like a chimney stack and yes, she does look like Marj Simpson.

Dutch model Iekelienne Stange - dubbed "the face of the season" by Karl Lagerfeld last season due to her overnight runway success (a bit like Catherine McNeil this season) - is standing with me and Belgralian photographer Sonny Vandevelde. Where is Belgralia? Somewhere between Palm Beach and Antwerp, which is where Sonny spends a lot of time (he's Belgian, but grew up in Oz).

Stange has a very cool, kind of dorky, style. She is wearing blue skinny jeans, a silver sequinned long-sleeved T-shirt, black converse sneakers and what looks like a man's pinstriped waistcoat that is covered in rock badges saying things like 'Rock is Dead', 'Love Sucks', 'Ja til Gnu' and 'The Projects'. There's also a red plastic heart-shaped pendant inscribed with the words "Love is...Kisses".

Stange dishes some model goss from Milan. She wound up doing the Dolce e Gabbana show at the last minute, she says, after a Russian model fell during rehearsal and refused to do the show proper. Those skyscraper silver stilettos didn't just look dangerously high - they were. Especially on a mirrored runway which Stange reports is so dark, models can't see more than a few feet in front of them.

Stange, who is not very tall but very lean, didn't do Versace however. She seems to think her weight may have had something to do with it. Not specifically because of the 'skinny model' brouhaha per se, she thinks - but because of the fact that Versace's own daughter Allegra is anorexic.

Stange is probably just imagining things. And with every other big runway model of the moment in the Versace show, it's probably also just a complete coincidence that we didn't see Snejana Onopka in Versace as well.

Owens wanders around the models and racks. He's got a kind of Goth/Rock look: long straight black hair reaching down below his shoulders, tight black long-sleeved T-shirt which accentuates his muscles - he looks like he does a lot of weights - black skinny pants and high-heeled black boots. Not 'high' as in a woman's heel, but definitely higher than your average Cuban if you get my drift.

On the racks hang a series of draped wool jersey dresses in khaki, black and white. There's lots of fur and a fuzzy-looking fabric which appears at first glance to be synthetic. Olya is sitting on the floor between some of the wildebeest boots writing in a journal.

The girls start to get changed.

Sofi is now in a khaki 'fuzz' coat with matching leather gauntlets - yet another collecton with gauntlets - with a matching hood and wildebeest boots. Once the girls are dressed, makeup artists start applying shadow under their eyes.

With the most popular of these models averaging three hours of sleep a night for the past few weeks due to castings and fittings, as has been the case with Stange, you wonder why they need to apply any cosmetic dark shadows at all.

I run out and take a spot near the end of the runway. The music starts - it's unusually soft, kind of dreamlike - and the girls come out in their 'Exploder' clothes.

The fulcrum of the entire collection is a draped, asymmetric wool jersey skirt or dress. It is topped by some extraordinary jacket or other. They range from deconstructed black leather biker jackets with exaggerated peplums and gargantuan funnel collars to intricately-panelled leather dusters and voluminous cocoon coats in furs and shearlings.

The silhouette at once Medieval and futuristic. It's that post-apocalyptic Flight of the Navigator look. Needless to say you probably wouldn't see many of these coats walking down the main street of Porterville, California, where Owens hails from.

After the show I grab a few comments from him:

The collection was called 'Exploder' - why?
Rick Owens: Oh because there were a lot of pieces... there were jackets that had things sticking out, so exploder, I liked the name.

But the silhouettes were actually quite streamlined - certainly a lot of the jackets, with tailored bodices.
Yeah I mean if it didn't have a place to start from, there was no place to explode from so I mean yeah, you have to have a base and everything exploded. I mean it was silly but I liked the name because it sounded like 'Transformer', it sounded very glitter 80s rock, or 70s rock.

What were the fabrics? It looked like a mixture of real and fake fur?
There was real and fake fur, there was mohair, there was washed kind of... we washed it to make it look more like a drowned cat. There were all the sleek minks. So I really liked that contrast, kind of making it messy and refined..

Could you do what you do in America? And what do you think about the term 'avant-garde', with which you usually get tagged?
No I don't think I'm avant-garde at all. I mean some of the stuff is a little exaggerated and I guess in my personal universe that isn't considered that exaggerated. In the real world maybe... Yeah America is pretty conservative, that's why I'm here.

And now you've taken Gareth Pugh under your wing.
Well he worked with me. He interned with me. And the thing about Gareth is... I admire that he's a real technician and you don't see it that much. And when I have interns come to me they come to me with sketches and kind of fantasy collages which doesn't mean anything to me. And he can make something from the ground up. He can technically create clothes. He has a very focussed, concise vision that he's maintained, that I respect a lot and what I see when I see his clothes is a reckless joy. There's no reason for it. I mean he's not doing it to please anybody except himself and he's doing it beautifully and there's that kind of recklessness, kind of anti-establishment kind of just euphoria... You know, I want to help. And so I'm very happy to.

Do you see a little of yourself in him - how you started out?
The part that I identify with is that he knows how to make stuff and I mean, he works and he makes things. And he just keeps making things no matter what. If anyone's going to look at it or not, he'll just be making it. And I really appreciate that and I want to support that.

So what's your workout routine?
My what?

Your workout routine - you look like you do a lot of weight training.
Oh - everyday. I'm like the new generation. There's a generation that like drank and smoked and took too many drugs and then they totally go overboard and they like work out too much, but they still smoke. I'm from that generation. There's so many of us.

So you still smoke?

But you work out?
Yeah. It's just everything. I mean it's nothing special. I just work out with weights. It's been like eight years since I've been doing it and it's like a tension release too. I come up with better ideas when I work out. Actually I figured it out - it's a replacement for dancing. Because I used to love to go dancing and doing like a little line of coke and some martinis and dancing all night. This is kind of another version of that.

Releasing all those endorphins.
I have like those speakers that go inside your brain, they're so loud. And it's that euphoria of dancing.

So you don't dance anymore?
It's too late. I have to get up in the morning, I can't do that anymore. If they could do like an afternoon dance I'd be there.

There are tea dances.
An afternoon dance with an Orangina. I'm there.

Quite unexpectedly, I then stumble upon Owens' proud ma and pa Jack and Concita 'Connie' Owens who just happened to be at the show, and who volunteered some rather fascinating info about Owens' flight from Porterville to Paris.

So you've been over here 11 times to see Rick's shows?
Jack Owens: That's what my wife says. I lost count.

What did you think when he was a teenager and he wanted to be a fashion designer? Did you try to discourage him and tell him to go and be a lawyer or something?
No it was a very gradual thing. So there was no specific point in time when I wanted him to be something else.

Of course he's not just a fashion designer, but quite a conceptual designer. In the broader scheme of things - especially in the US - that is kind of unusual.
Well, one of the things we attribute that to is that we made him depend on himself a lot to entertain himself.

Really? So what, you shut him in his room?
No, no - the big thing is that just about every house in America has one or two, maybe three televisions. He didn't have any.

So you deprived him of tv - a kind of sensory deprivation?
Yes but I didn't consider it really a deprivation.

From what age was this?
Well he would go over to a neighbour's house from time to time and see tv but he didn't have that at home. What he had was a lot of books, a lot of what I consider good music and a lot of advice. For instance we got into Confucian Analycts.

Excuse me?
Are you familiar with that?

Um, no [and I do apologise for not asking him to spell it - I believe that is the correct spelling - I was a bit bamboozled by this stage].
Confucian Analycts. They have writings that come from supposedly directly Confucius. And that's one of the things that we tried to instill in him. But that was just one in a number of things that we worked on him with.

I see. What was the naughtiest thing he did as a teenager?
Broke a lamp in the living room, for which I spanked him and I think that was the only time I did it.

And did he always look like that: long hair, all black, high-heeled boots?
Oh no, no, no no. We dressed him when we went out, with a neck tie and the usual conventional clothing.

Until what age?
Well that's another one of those things where you can't draw a real line. It was a gradual drift.

But it wasn't like 30, surely, was it?
No, no, no.

Connie Owens takes over the answers:

So when did he turn into a Goth?
Connie Owens [heavy Spanish accent]: Probably around 15 or 16 years. He says he wanted me to get him dressed. I used to tell him, 'Why don't you wear this.....' But he said, 'I think it's time for me....you've already dressed me for a long time'.

So what did he start wearing?
Very tight pants.

Was he very rebellious?
Well he was in a way because he didn't want to stay in a small town. He kind of wanted to open his wings and go.

Was he designing clothes at that stage?
He started painting when he was 18, 17 and some of his friends told him, 'Why don't you just make those outfits that you paint?'.

Were you happy he wanted to be a fashion designer?
We wanted for him to have a professional probably that will....

Like what?

Oh well it's not too far from architecture surely?
But he was always very artistic. So I saw it kind of coming.

Are you sad that he shows and spends so much time over here rather than in America?
Not really because if he's happy, we're happy. That's the bottom of it. Because if he was there probably he won't be doing what he's doing now. In fact he was thinking of getting married when he was 17. And we told him, 'You better open your wings. Do something else before you end up...' And now he says it would have been very difficult for him to stay around there because he always had this dream of going some place to do what he wanted to do.

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