Straight Outta Cali

At Rick Owens’ fall 2008 show, staged near his home in Paris last spring, raven-haired models strode out in his exquisitely tailored, dusty-hued creations like warriors fresh from a battle in Middle-earth. They wore snugly sculpted peplum jackets with off-center zippers, trailing capes, black-and-dung-colored shorts, flared shearling leg warmers and towering metallic wedge boots. The usual words sprang to mind: goth, macabre, apocalyptic, glunge (as in, glamour plus grunge, a term Owens himself coined to describe his deliberately scruffy, quietly luxurious clothes). Surely, one concluded, this designer must be as dark and intense as his work.

Not exactly. Owens’ primary inspiration for the collection was hardly brooding: Gene Simmons of KISS, circa 1974, whom he had seen while watching a DVD of the band’s performances. “I love KISS-—I love the release of it and the Dionysian element of it, and I remember loving it as a kid,” says the 47-year-old in a voice so affable and mellow it belongs on public radio. “It was transgressive; it was sex and joy.”

Owens was particularly struck by a clip of Simmons on The Mike Douglas Show. “He was in this homemade outfit with this cape coming up on top and these wings,” Owens says. “I lifted that silhouette for my collection. There was a cartoonish vampire thing to it, and I wanted to transform it into something couture. “So,” he says, summing up his vision, “there was the ’70s, there was couture, and there was KISS.”

In other words, these pieces are deeply personal, woven through with his rural California upbringing and years in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked (and partied and went into recovery) before moving to Paris. Draped on hangers in his new Manhattan store (his first in the U.S.), his clothes look edgy and architectural but also simple and welcoming. They feel sumptuous and worn yet structured enough to lend any body a lean toughness. Even the plainest items-—black leggings made of a cotton-silk-synthetic blend, $578; a dingy gray cotton tank top, $245—-telegraph otherworldly cool. Owens describes his customers as well-educated and elegant, over 40, with a rebellious, excessive past. He calls his clothes his “diary and biography.” (He accepts all labels with good humor: “Goth?” he asks. “Next to Chloe and Stella McCartney, I’m goth, sure.”)

Owens’ story began in Porterville, an agricultural town in the San Joaquin Valley. The only child of a social-worker father and a teacher mother, he went to Catholic school and recalls “being swept up in Bible stories of people in dragging robes in dusty temples.” He was mesmerized by seeing early Thierry Mugler ads in French Vogue and listening to opera with his parents. “I was raised on Wagner’s Ring cycle.”

After high school, Owens moved to L.A. and studied painting at Otis Art Institute for two years, then switched to L.A. Trade Technical College for patternmaking courses. He worked at various designer-knockoff houses until, at 37, he set up shop in a tiny studio on Hollywood Boulevard with an assistant and a seamstress and began presenting his clothes directly to retailers, store by store. He gained an indie-rocker following ( Courtney Love was an early acolyte) and eventually sold in places like Maxfield in Los Angeles, Louis Boston in Boston and Linda Dresner in New York. “My plan was to keep getting my stuff out there,” he says simply.

During those years, Owens spent time in sex clubs, did drugs, drank heavily and, as he puts it, “really tested my body’s limits. It was great fun, but I’m glad I stopped. It took about three tries.” Then he focused on another addiction: rebuilding his body-—even taking steroids briefly to transform his physique. He credits his longtime partner (and wife since 2006), Michèle Lamy, for his return to health.

Lamy, who is 63 and French, is the former owner of the hot spot Les Deux Café. “She was responsible, for better or worse, for the reinvigoration of Hollywood,” Owens says. “It was a magic time in L.A. when it opened.”

In 2001, Owens’ business took off. He signed with the Italian sales agent EBA to distribute his line internationally, and production moved to Italy. Vogue sponsored his first runway show, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America presented him with the Perry Ellis Award for emerging talent.

He moved to the tony 7th arrondise-ment in 2003, the year he was tapped as artistic director at French furrier Revillon, a post he kept for three years.

“I went from 10 to 250 stores in two seasons,” says Owens, who doesn’t regret the late start. “I had the luxury of growing quietly rather than being thrust into the spotlight at 21,” he says. “I would have blown it.”

Not that age has stifled his penchant for provoking and taking risks. In 2002, i-D magazine published a self-portrait of the designer showing a nude photograph of him urinating into the mouth of a second nude image of himself. In 2006, the Florence fashion-show organization Pitti Immagine asked Owens to do an installation for its men’s fair, and he contributed a shirtless wax statue of himself projectile urinating onto a pile of mirrors. (He had commissioned the statue for his Paris home but offered it up so Pitti Immagine would pay for it. “It was, like, 20,000 euros!” he says, adding mischievously, “Piss is kind of my…motif.”) “There’s a lurid side to me I like to celebrate, but it’s good-natured, not aggressive,” he says. “People think I take this whole thing seriously. They don’t see that it’s done with a wink.”

Owens thinks Paris is currently the place to be for fashion. But the time will come, he knows, when his parents will be too old to visit.

Though he considers L.A. both a paradise and a trap, he grows wistful when recalling his early digs. “I have personal space here [in Paris], where I go back to being on Hollywood Boulevard,” he says. “I have time to myself—-I don’t have to answer questions. I get to be in my studio and doodle.”

Jennifer Tung is the Beauty and Health Director at Cookie. She has written for the New York Times, T Magazine: Travel, Food & Wine, New York Magazine and InStyle.

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