Rick Owens, the visions
Text Francesca Scotti
«All foxes have supernatural power. There are good and bad foxes », writes in 1984 Lafcadio Hearn, Irish journalist and writer, naturalized Japanese, in his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. « Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps. Possessed folk are also said to speak and write languages of which they were totally ignorant prior to possession», continues Hearn.
A feminine figure with long ears, wreathed in hazy green, lives in the manifesto of Rick Owens’ exhibition at Milan Triennale. Her curved position, her face turned as if she had been surprised while, still undisturbed, she moves in her reign, her crown, or mitre equipped with ears on her head, the ginger shades in her hair and iris, take me back to the fox spirits, to the Japanese legends that see them turning into women or girls with strange powers, enchanters, but also messengers, guardians of the sanctuary, able to protect places and people: Japan taught me to live with an imagination inhabited by ritual, bizarre, perturbing figures. Foxes are an example of this – clever, they have supernatural powers, able to turn from animal into human form to mislead those who meet them, but also wise, benevolent like in the case of the messengers of the Shinto kami of Inari – the kami of agriculture, rice, fertility – and they represent an important presence in Japanese imagination, tradition and mythology.
The exhibition, whose messenger is the fox, is Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman, a retrospective about over twenty years of Rick Owens’ career. Visitors are welcomed by a magmatic sculpture, a work by artist Primal Howl: cement, pulverized lilies, artist’s hair, sand of the Adriatic Sea collected at the Venice Lido make up a black agglomerate. Owens has a house at the Lido and one day he will be buried there, as he has stated. The Owens phenomenon was born in 1962 in Porterville close to San Joaquin Valley, where a social worker and a teacher throw a load of expectations on him. His dad John refuses him cartoon and TV and fills him completely with classic music and the classics, his mom Connie, who takes him every day to the catholic school, is in charge of his practical education. After having attended the Otis College of Art and Design for two years, he leaves the school as well as a kind of ‘intellectual’ approach to art, to dedicate himself to a course of fabric modelling and cutting that will soon enable him to establish a direct and real contact with the materials that will become the ingredients of his idea of fashion. The need in substance and work on the material are also at the basis of one of his iconic pieces, the leather jacket with the asymmetric cut and with the worn-out look, an effect sought-after and obtained thanks to washings. This iconic jacket in the mid Nineties is worn by celebs like Courtney Love, Helena Bonham-Carter and Angelina Jolie.
In1994, Rick Owens launches his brand and his style, in which past and the primeval past are confronted with a present and a future that are both their sound declination and mutation. Some years later, in 2002, he makes his debut on the catwalk, with the first collection during the New York Fashion Week. In this year, he decides to accept the position of artistic director for the French brand Revillon, established in 1723, and this choice will make him move from the U.S. to Paris. Here, he will concentrate his activity, and will share his adventure with a focal figure in his life, veritable companion of his talent: Michéle Lamy. An icon of underground night life of Los Angeles in the Nineties, a creature with tattooed fingers and golden teeth, a designer, a filmmaker, a performer who will become Owens’ wife as well as partner and source of inspiration. Thanks to her, Rick Owens is able to balance the excesses and a creative path marked by pieces in which the limits of time, light and shadow, purity and corruption, faith and superstition creak up to collapse. Pieces in which man, woman, being beyond the gender, are given a new interpretation of sense and shape: the body is a private place and an artificial and biological, subhuman, inhuman, superhuman, perhaps even post-human stage. His maternal Mexican, Aztec, Maya frameworks resound in the neutral tones of his creations, in the use of black, in Poe’s echoes, Lovecraft, but also in the Greek myths, Moebius, L. Frank Baum: they are conveyed into garments that model anatomy, soft and yet geometrical, esoteric and yet natural, close to the colours of the Earth and that have led Owens to be compared with Japanese artists like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo.
Rick Owens’s legendary fashion shows are numerous and thanks to a video-installation that projects them on a double wall they can be revised at the Milan Triennale: the unforgettable show for the 2014 Woman Spring Summer Collection, Vicious, where the models – they are not models, they are step dancers, dance and mix elements of march, tap dance, African dances and the 2016 Woman Spring Summer Collection, Cyclops, in which some models, beyond the pieces of clothes, wear other models on their back or on their chest, supported by their muscular strength and to belts that do not constrict, within an exercise of energy and cooperation.
Owens the wizard, the shaman, the fashion heir of David Lynch or Joseph Beuys. Can Owens-the -alchemist creations be worn by everybody? I think of my Japanese foxes and of the ethnologic charm on the verge of Kitsch – a risk that Owens accepts with a smile, or a smirk, I wonder – and I run across a very young couple wandering about the exhibition. The boy is entirely Owensonian, they wear boots that recall the monks-warriors of the Californian designer. Owensonian are also their destructured trousers and the coat-jacket, replete with draping and pleats and creeks that hide and enhance the body; the girl is a 4th -millennium priestess, wrapped up in a black cloak that hides all her shapes and plays with the same idea of gender. The mannequins with their face studded with glowing fragments, their cocooned heads, their bodies protected and wrapped by clothes that dress and trickle, elevate and defend, featuring wild and yet geometric lines to outline fox-women or Samurai-women, I feel I can also perceive the strain of the metamorphosis, inescapable at any growth.