Making Monsters With Rick Owens

Rick Owens was concerned on Thursday morning. The rest of the world was delirious with the promise of positive change following the previous day’s inaugural events in Washington, DC, and here Owens was on the Lido in Venice about to unleash a show that was steeped in the bad dream of the years that culminated in the storming of the very building where Joe Biden had just been hailed as optimism’s global standard bearer.

You could see where Rick’s head was at. He named his new collection “Gethsemane,” after the garden where Christ retreated to prepare himself as best he could for the mortal challenge that awaited him.

“What Gethsemane means to me is a very suspenseful period, waiting for something to happen,” Owens mused. “And even though one decision has been made, this is still a moment of suspense. The suspense of waiting is an almost Biblical drama.” He’s right, optimism still hangs in the balance – there is still the climate crisis and the health crisis, and never mind that the dark side almost won. The show soundtrack, “Hellrap” by Ghostemane, was an extension of Owens’s musings. He said its violence and aggression spoke “to suppressed male rage on every side of the moral divide.”

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His work has always cast a dark shadow, as a kind of elemental counterpoint to the rest of fashion. And Owens claimed that was especially true with his menswear: “My men’s runway shows are always about men’s worst flaws and worst urges. They’re very critical because they’re about me examining my own. I would probably veer more towards criticism than adulation when I’m talking about myself. I’m going to indulge it, maybe celebrate it a little bit. Then I step back and think, ‘My God, I am a monster!’”

And it may well be that particular autobiographical insight which accounts for another Owens signature: the articulated, exaggerated, occasionally monstrous proportions of his clothes, sometimes huge, sometimes pared to the bone, and both on show in “Gethsemane.” The new collection was built on a leather bodysuit, which reminded me a little of Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “I saw that when I was 13 and it was a moment of awakening,” Owens recalled. “The party sequence when Frank N. Further comes down in that outfit? I thought I want to go the world where that party is. Then I’m at my runway show looking at the kids backstage and I’m thinking, “Omigod, I did that party from ‘Rocky Horror.’ I’m the Dr Frank N. Furter I wanted to be.” A monster who makes monsters, in other words.

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There was something cartoon-y in that vision, just as there was in Tyrone Dylan Susman opening the show cloaked in a huge padded coat and shaggy goatskin thigh boots, blond hair streaming like a warrior on the cover of Heavy Metal Magazine, with the clincher being his only other item of clothing: white cotton briefs whose crotch was defined by a pentagram. Demon testosterone.

Then there were the hoods which are a regular Owens feature. “I like the Biblical thing that suggests some kind of monastic restraint,” he said on the one hand. “Hoods are about modesty too. But I hate umbrellas, the sense of entitlement of people taking up all that space. And the hood is the most modest, polite thing to do. Self-contained, not getting in anyone’s way, and it does the job.”

On the other hand, Rick’s hoods also zipped up to completely cover the face, and they were often attached to bombers, cinched tight to the waist, with sleeves that ended in gloves. “There are obvious S&M overtones with the idea of restraint and why somebody needs to feel suffocated a little bit. We’re covering ourselves up in this world. We’re afraid, withdrawing. S&M is based on fear, needing to be hurt confronts some kind of fear.

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Becoming your oppressor, taking control of your oppressor, that’s kind of what these clothes are.” Owens added, almost as an aside. “Fashion is all about armour, all about protection anyway.”

After we’d talked for an hour or so, we’d clearly circled and dismissed the notion that “Gethsemane” might seem tone deaf in light of the surge in global good cheer, especially as Owens continues to cast a gimlet eye on whatever might be coming next. But I must also never lose sight of how romantic he is at heart. For his show, his models circled the Ossuary del Lido, the dramatically domed building which contains the remains of 2691 Italian soldiers who died in the First World War. Owens said it was the landmark which guided him home at night when he was returning to the Lido from San Marco, the heart of Venice. A bone house is his evening star. A lovely thought in its own, dark way.

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