“Rick Owens. Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman” at La Triennale di Milano
Rick Owens interviewed by Riccardo Conti
With the exhibition, SUBHUMAN INHUMAN SUPERHUMAN, presented by Triennale di Milano, Californian fashion designer Rick Owens shows his twenty-year career in a large retrospective that covers clothes, accessories, furniture, and publications chosen by the designer himself.
The exhibition offers an opportunity to dive into the poetics defined by Owens, starting from his first collection presented in Los Angeles in 1994 up to the present, which tells of one of the most influential designers of our time. In addition to his role in fashion, which was recently celebrated with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2017, Rick Owens is among the most radical and acclaimed authors—even beyond the common definition of fashion designer—due his persistent, innovative, and challenging work with forms and materials.
His work became famous not only for the qualities of his clothes but also for the storytelling built around them, using transversal languages and expressive forms to embody a personal and courageous vision that has anticipated many of most debated themes in fashion nowadays, such as gender fluidity, oversizing, and brutal chic aesthetics. With his memorable fashion shows, Rick Owens has also imposed an idea of body and beauty very far from the static and conservative ideals portrayed on catwalks and fashion magazines, expanding the idea of humanity to unpredictable and sometimes outrageous visions, as the title of the exhibition suggests.
“I wanted to take what a dismissive world might mock and create something fine, empathetic, kind, and inclusive,” says Owens, referring to his work and also anticipating two of his great traits: mental freedom and innovation. In this conversation, we talked with him about these issues, trying to deepen the understanding of his relationship with art and design, body, and rituals…
Riccardo Conti: In recent interviews, you talked about your aesthetics as “artifice as formalized ritual,” referring also to Kabuki theater, ikebana, and tea ceremony. How did you get into Zen culture?
Rick Owens: I’m not really an expert on Zen philosophy, but it’s certainly something I’ve started to appreciate since I was young. At home, my father had a large library full of books on these subjects; even if I could not discuss philosophy with my father, those images became part of my references.
RC: Can you expand a bit on this relationship between artifice, excess, and ritual? In sexual practices even…
RO: I am very fascinated by the contrasts that are created in some practices apparently very different from each other. This kind of suspended time, with a weird combination between menace and vulnerability, need and hunger, and kindness… that part of some cultures. In general, every kind of extreme behavior interests me; every way of thinking outside the box interests me. You know, before you die, don’t you want to try everything? Don’t you want to go as far as you can? There are so many things to experience, and unfortunately there is this false morality that tells you what you should do.
RC: Many of your creations seem to allude to clothing items inspired by S&M practices, such as straps, restraints, and the use of some materials. What does that imaginary mean to you?
RO: Initially, I wasn’t particularly interested in submission or domination, but I do appreciate the ritual aspect of it. I appreciate the idea of taking something very simple, like sex, and turning that in a performance or a theatrical ritual. It’s the same reason why I love the tea ceremony: taking a very simple pleasure and elevating it in a ritualized form. I am interested in the implicit simplicity of satisfying a simple pleasure, of having sex or drinking a cup of tea with other people… obviously, however, to achieve something so simple, the process can be extremely dense and artificial.
RC: I am interested in this continuous process of expanding concepts: You consider simple elements and take them to another level of excess, not as a caricature, but giving them new life and meaning. How do you apply this approach to creating clothes?
RO: I want to extend beyond the boundaries of what you’re supposed to be wearing; a lot of time, my clothes have things that are extended or things that are dragging. I think there is a subtle message in this practice: Why keep yourself within the same limits of the clothes that everyone else does? You can go further.
RC: There is always a relationship between one’s own body and that of others’ that seems to me to goes beyond simple dressing…
RO: It’s what I do, for example, with my t-shirts, which are always longer than normal ones. I do it because I want more fabric, because I want generosity. This extension symbolizes going beyond the rules; it’s a declaration to other people. This is what I want to be, this is what I’m training to become, and this is my ambition. I think that clothes are one of the first codes to affirm what one wants to be—and who you intend to be—and it is a powerful and profound thing.
RC: The language of the bodies you imagine and select is fundamental in your poetics. How do you choose them? What meaning do they have for you?
RO: First of all, I think that the use I make of bodies in catwalks is to show beautiful behavior and beautiful emotions. Also, in this case, I want to try to go beyond the limits of what one already expects to see and knows about bodies, going beyond what one believes to be able to use to express one’s self. As a designer, I create clothes that modify something in the body of the wearer, which exaggerates some things and minimizes other existing ones. If I went further than this, I would have to change the real body itself, and that’s what I did with myself.
RC: So are you suggesting that the real goal is to modify the bodies more than to create clothes?
RO: As for myself, I have never changed my clothes. I have always worn a uniform because what I did was change my own body instead; that is much more hardcore than changing an outfit. I do not disapprove of changing clothes because basically it is my job—and I promote it—but for me, personally, the goal is always to go beyond clothes. What I realize during my fashion shows is to explore other physical expressions, rather than having women who wear tight dresses on very high heels…
RC: Your fashion shows are indeed always highly anticipated events by your audience because every time it is a unique experience. Was it a challenge to recreate that emotion in a museum display like the exhibition at the Triennale?
RO: I don’t know if I really felt this kind of challenge. Museums for me are like churches, one of those places where I feel I have to go to on this planet. I didn’t have high expectations for the experience of this exhibition, in the sense that the museum is for me an aesthetic moment where you go to admire the relics. And that’s okay: Contemplating the relics is a way to get in touch with a moment. I didn’t have the feeling of having to recreate the experience at the origin because, for that moment, there are the fashion shows. The essence of a fashion show is to create a unique moment that cannot be replicated—you have to be there at that moment. You can see some photos or videos, as often happens today, but that is physically changing the perception of the lived experience.
RC: About this: Today, the role of fashion shows is increasingly uncertain as a means of communication for a brand for various reasons, above all economic, but also because the fashion audience has changed. What value do these moments hold for you?
RO: Many of these fashion shows are very standard, but on the other hand, I think that fashion shows in some cases can represent very strong moments of participation, communion, and celebration of beauty that, for me, has a profound value. And as I said before, those moments happen only in a certain moment that then cannot be recreated anymore. Then there is an element that makes them even more compelling: the fact that you never know how they will really go. In a video or in a photo shoot, you can control all the elements, but with the fashion shows, there is always this element of risk. I do not mean of accidents or dangers, I mean of very small things that can be gestures or expressions that you cannot completely control. For this reason, I think they are still a great way to communicate and be together.
RC: Still talking about exhibitions and fashion: Was there an exhibition dedicated to fashion that particularly struck you as a project and as an experience?
RO: Well, for example, I really enjoyed the exhibition dedicated to Mariano Fortuny and curated by Oliver Saillard at the Palais Galliera in Paris (Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise). The exhibitions created by Saillard are always interesting because they are not only aesthetic and are not only academic, even if they are always impeccable from that point of view. It has the characteristic of always making fashion culture, showing how much fashion can be relevant for everyone, and you can achieve that when a show is as beautifully documented, researched, and edited as that one was.
RC: Is there another art exhibition that has particularly influenced you recently?
RO: I saw an impressive Modigliani show at the Jewish Museum in New York (Modigliani Unmasked) over Christmas: There was a whole room with only heads, and that room is one of the most beautiful things I have seen for a very long time, together with the Joseph Beuys show at the Tate.
RC: It is interesting, this pair of artists that you mentioned, because in both cases there are elements that also are present in your poetics: exaggeration of the anatomy and use of your own body. By the way, it was fun to see your Allen Jones-style doppelgängers in your flagship stores; where’d you come up with that idea?
RO: I thought it was just funny and weird and disturbing—that’s what it was all about, a kind of novelty because the approach behind my furniture is totally different.
RC: There are several examples at the show in Triennale using particular materials.
RO: Yes, I did a lot of pieces using several materials like alabaster, cow fur, concrete. The first observation of most people is that they are not comfortable. Well, that’s the whole point! There is enough furniture in the world that I do not design furniture to be comfortable. I reject this vision of the world totally oriented to personal comfort… through furniture design, I suggest something more disciplined, more formal.
RC: So your furniture pieces, in contrary to your clothes, suggest a harsher view of reality?
RO: We live in the age of greater access to knowledge and all answers, which is extraordinary, but at the same time people confuse what comfort is with having everything and their desires immediately available to them. But life is about care—and it’s not easy—and people think they deserve the best, but I think that nobody deserves the best… if you’re getting the best, you are lucky! So in a way, my furniture is expressing another way to live, less spontaneous and more stylized.
RC: The benches and other furniture in the Triennale exhibition seem comfortable to me… even though I did not lie on it!
RO: But of course they are! With uncomfortable, I mean that for the materials—their proportions and their weight. They’re not made for people who move often but for stable people who know who they are; I did not conceive them for students, but for adults.
RC: What about that suspended giant sculpture in the curved space of your exhibition?
RO: I have always been interested in land art and artists like Michael Heizer, and I wanted for the show something that communicated an idea of shapeless primordiality and eternity that created a contrast with the beauty of clothes.
RC: That sense of gigantism conveyed by it is again a sign of your aesthetics of exaggeration?
RO: Yes, It was a very long process to have it in that way; it took a lot of pushing to get it bigger, bigger, and bigger!
RC: What were your references when you started designing furniture? Do you have any relationship with Italian design?
RO: In my house in Italy, I have armchairs by Giacomo Balla and other objects from the Futurist period, such as the Continuos Profile of Mussolini by Renato Bertelli. I’m interested in the dynamism expressed by those artists. My favorite architect is Luigi Moretti, and I always been a fan of Luigi Colani’s work.
RC: As you said before, if industrial design has been reduced to creating “nice” and comfortable objects for everyone, fashion in recent years is mainly supported by the sales of bags and sneaker. About the latter: You have been an anticipator of this sneaker culture; how did you start?
RO: Well, sneakers have become the corsage of our generation. Before, women put on beautiful corsages and the previous generation would wear hats that were exaggerated and extreme. I think sneakers have become that element of clothing in which one can elaborate as much as he wants in a very controlled part of his figure; it’s a way of self-expression that changes every generation through different elements of clothing. I think it’s simply this. My part in this is kind of odd because I entered the whole sneakers thing as a kind of parody: I thought that sneakers were the clearest example of conventionality, but at the same time, I was wearing them to go to the gym, so I wanted to exaggerate them. The original ones were oversized… they were bombastic! I never really expected anybody to wear them, but the response was kind of ironic.
RC: What method is behind your creative process, and how do you innovate this language every time?
RO: Based on my routine; there is obviously preliminary research and some evaluations on the collections that I have just finished, but I still don’t have a “formula.” You know, two weeks ago, I was working on the pre-collection, and I was thinking, “I should have this figured out. I should know what’s coming next,” but I was irritated. I started to think that I should be better right now. I should be more adult, sophisticated, self-aware—but once again, I was not capable of visualizing this womenswear collection, and that stressed me out! I was kind shocked: After all this time, you know, later in life, you should reach a level of serenity, of imperturbability that can’t be shaken. Well, I was shaken; I was unstable two weeks ago, and that pissed me off—how can I be so stupid!? (Laughs)
RC: You still have a teenaged behavior!
RO: It’s still like that, it’s still like that! (Laughs) But one of the things that I think I’ve learned is to forgive yourself and let it go, because to think that you have no faults is laughable. Therefore, I’m punishing myself and forgiving myself at the same time!
at La Triennale di Milano
until 25 March 2018