Fashion provocateur Rick Owens tries his hand at furniture design

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Fashion world rock star Rick Owens talks about designing furniture inspired by land art and brutalist architecture, and raising existential questions on the runway.

The fashion designer Rick Owens loves to break the rules. His runway shows have become notorious, and his reputation for dramatic black clothing has earned him the nickname “the godfather of brutal chic.”

Owens was raised in Porterville, California, studied at Otis College of Art and Design and LA Trade Tech, and launched his own company here in LA. Then he moved to Paris in 2003. It puts him in the center of the high fashion universe.

“I could be anywhere, though, to tell you the truth, because I live in my own little bubble. And it’s the same bubble I lived in in Los Angeles. And it’s about work, it’s about going to a gym close by, it’s about a couple of restaurants, and traveling back and forth to the factory in Italy. So that could be anywhere,” Owens said.

Owens has not been back to LA since he moved away, not even for the opening of a show of furniture he designed, currently on view through April 2 at the MOCA Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

The chairs and benches have a raw quality similar to his clothing. The project began after he moved to Paris with his wife, the former fashion designer-turned-restaurateur Michelle Lamy, famed in the late ‘90s and early oughts for her Hollywood hangout Les Deux Cafe.

“The thing about Michelle is that she is a wild animal that you cannot really control. And I think she was chomping at the bit to be free,” Owens said.

After the couple moved to Paris, they began designing furniture together for their home and showroom.

“It kind of developed a life of its own, and what it became was almost this dialogue between her and me,” he said. “And so gradually we built this body of work in the furniture through going back and forth, and that’s what this MOCA show is about.”

Visitors to Owens’ MOCA PDC show will see shapes that don’t bear much in common with traditional furniture. They are monumental, with totems towering almost to the ceiling, and benches extending the length of a room. They don’t look the least bit comfortable.

“Yeah the furniture is a little abstracted, because we’re kind of a theatrical couple. I mean we believe in pursuing an aesthetic ideal as far you can, like going over the cliff with an aesthetic idea,” he said.

The furniture uses unusual materials as well, such as marble, alabaster and bronze, and some pieces are covered with animal skins. There is a primitiveness that is shared by his fashion designs as well.

“I think that I’m speaking to people who have embraced land art, who have embraced arte povera, who have embraced brutalist architecture,” he said. “I describe this furniture as something that I would decorate Michael Heizer’s City installation with… it’s in the desert and it’s kind of an abstract empty utopian futuristic landscape.”

Owens has been watching the 2015 documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art about the land artists of the 1970s, such as Heizer, Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson.

“That moment of breaking out of the gallery space and going into the middle of the desert and making these huge earthworks, that’s just thrilling to me. I have that movie on every morning while I’m showering with the sound off. Just to have those visuals. And when you look at that movie there are these great-looking guys with beards and shaggy hair and they’re going out into the desert with cranes and with bulldozers and they’re creating these landscapes. And it’s just heroic. It’s just on this huge scale and and it’s very moving. It’s very much… about survival and it’s about aspiring to control your environment and manipulate it and triumph over it.”

Owens’ fall 2017 menswear collection also seemed to be playing with ideas of survival. The outfits appear to consist of twisted sleeping bags, a play perhaps on this year’s vogue for puffy jackets. Women’s Wear Daily wrote the collection “was more reminiscent of modern-day nomads, dragging their blankets and belongings around on their backs.” Some Angelenos might see this collection and think of the actual ‘modern-day nomads,’ refugees of Europe or the thousands of homeless on the streets of LA. DnA wondered, does this perception concern Owens?

“I am aware that anything I can do can offend somebody somewhere on this planet. I’m trying to talk about more eternal values. I’m trying to look at our condition from a longer perspective. I’m thinking of the human condition in the context of a million years, not in the context of this year in downtown Los Angeles. I don’t mean to be insensitive but if I was afraid of offending somebody I wouldn’t move a finger. I mean, I would be paralyzed.”

With LA Fashion Week now in the rear view mirror (did you even know LA had a fashion week last week?) DnA asked Owens if LA even needs a fashion week? No, he replied. But he does see the use of Paris fashion shows.

“There’ll always be kind of an elitist top layer. And I think Paris has that. I think that that just happens. But the thing about fashion shows is, people said fashion shows are over but I really don’t think so,” he said. “I think they are contemporary ceremonies. People have gathered together to listen to a story over a fire or go to the movies or watch TV in their den with their friends and family. People need to gather together to experience something together. And I think a runway show can be about beauty, or it can be about ideas of beauty, or explorations of beauty. And my runway shows, I like them to be about considering different options of beauty, considering beauty from a different perspective or considering things that might be considered not beautiful.”

One of Owens’ most buzzed-about shows was in 2014, when he enlisted sorority hip-hop dancers, most of them plus-size women of color, to present his spring/summer collection “Vicious.” The women performed a type of dance known as “step dancing” – they stomped, clapped and made fierce faces. The fashion crowd loved it.

“It was a way of talking about power and confidence… and shown under a spotlight we can all be beautiful in a certain way,” he said. It also hearkened back to the origins of stepdancing, which Owens traces back to school integration in the 1960s and “groups of black students that had to lock arms to get through the riots to get into school. I thought that idea of grace under pressure and unity in the face of adversity, I think those are emotions that any of us can relate to.”

Owens also likes to provoke, even if it’s not politically correct. He was criticized for another runway show in which male models’ penises were exposed.

“The whole exposed penis thing, I mean, first of all, I think the clothes were very beautiful. And if the clothes hadn’t been technically good it would have just been a stunt. The penis thing was, sure, it’s provocative. And you know, when you do a show with makeup and lights and certain kinds of models, the whole thing is theater. To be accused of being theatrical is a little silly under those conditions.

“We’re talking about masculinity when we’re talking about men’s clothes. We’re talking about what makes a man. And the thing about the penis is, it’s the weirdest thing how it can be so sacred and so profane at the same time. But whereas women’s bodies have been exploited forever, I was thinking what if we lived in a world where it didn’t matter, where the penis was not this strange symbol of power but almost vulnerability. I’m raising the question of, what’s the big deal. And that was an interesting question, I thought.”

Rick Owens: Fashion is on display at the MOCA Pacific Design Center through April 2, 2017.