Q&A: Rick Owens on collaborating with Birkenstock, Joseph Beuys and why he’s taking his label with him when he goes
Some brand mashups are confounding from the outset (Cynthia Rowley and Pampers, Ugg and Teva, to name just two), while others sound incongruous when they’re first announced but, when fully executed, actually fit together surprisingly well. In this latter category is the soon-to-be-released collaboration between Paris-based fashion designer Rick Owens and Birkenstock, the German maker of strappy, contoured-footbed sandals, that will be stomping into Los Angeles later this month.
The collaboration is part of Birkenstock’s Box program, a globe-trotting, temporary experiential retail space that consists of two metal shipping containers — stacked one on top of the other — with an interior designed by the partner brand and showcasing the limited-edition pieces. What’s notable about the Owens collaboration — in addition to the fact that the pop-up will take up residence in front of his La Brea Avenue boutique here from April 17 to 21 — is that all of the previous peripatetic pop-ups have been partnerships with multi-brand retailers including Berlin’s Andreas Murkudis, Milan’s 10 Corso Como and Barneys New York.
“The concept was never to repeat a certain format,” said Birkenstock Chief Executive Oliver Reichert of the decision to partner with a single designer for the Box project. “It is about locations, choosing the right creative [partner], product and working with diverse creative fields. Fashion is now one aspect, but different disciplines will follow.” (Reichert wouldn’t divulge the next partner in the series — or where it would be located, only saying: “For sure we will move beyond Europe and North America.”)
Reichert was less circumspect when it came to highlighting what made Owens a good collaborator. “He is unmistakable and beyond fashion,” he said. “The whole Box interior, architecture and objects were defined by Rick Owens. There is so much more than clothes.”
Specifically, there are three classic Birkenstock silhouettes — the two-strap Arizona sandal; the single-strap Madrid; and the slip-on Boston clog — that Owens has served up in novel fabrications that include hairy gray or black cowhide, dirt-brown felt, taupe-colored suede and black full-grain leather. Other tweaks are more subtle; sandal straps have been elongated so far past the buckle that they come dangerously close to dangling on the floor, each one punctuated with nearly four times as many buckle holes as you’d find on a standard-issue pair of Birks.
The collaboration also includes Owens’ riff on Birkenstock’s socks, which will also be stocked in the Box. (Owens has also designed a separate ready-to-wear capsule collection that’s only being sold in the Box space.) Footwear in the Birkenstock X Rick Owens collection will retail from $350 to $525 with hosiery ranging from $94.95 to $149.95.
In advance of the collaboration’s release (the footwear is currently available for pre-order at www.rickowens.eu), we hopped on the phone with fashion’s dark prince for a transatlantic conversation that touched on nudist camps, brands with revolving-door designers and musing on whether German artist Joseph Beuys ever wore Birkenstocks. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
When did Birkenstock first cross your radar?
I remember [them] as a kid growing up in Porterville [Calif]. I remember Birkenstock having a counterculture allure then. The fact that they weren’t frivolously pretty made them the opposite of fashion, which was kind of a little bit more serious and studious. And I don’t think that cool counterculture thing has really changed.
Who was wearing Birkenstocks at that time?
In the ’70s, when I was in high school, I feel like it was the scruffier, surfer/skier kids who wore them. [Birkenstocks] always had a little bit of an outsider appeal. Also, the kind of people that wore them seemed to be a little more active and outdoorsy so that had tremendous appeal too. … The other thing I think about when I think of Birkenstock is those 1930s sun-worshipping nudist camps that I kind of associate with Germany in the ’30s, and that’s one of the first things that comes to my mind. [Birkenstocks] would have been the perfect thing for one of those nudist camps.
Do you wear Birkenstocks?
I do. I wear them at the beach. I don’t wear them in the city. I’m one of those people who doesn’t think that sandals really belong in the city. I’m kind of a traditionalist that way. And I was just thinking about this this morning. I have this weird thing where I don’t particularly like seeing men’s feet.
Ah, so that explains why all the models in the Birkenstock X Rick Owens look book are wearing socks. Did you design those too?
I took their [sock designs] and altered them, made them longer. Because one of the things I do, when I look back on what I might represent [in the collaboration], a lot of the basic stuff I’ve done it’s always going a little bit too far. The T-shirts are a little bit long. The shoes are little bit too big. It’s the very kind of literal, almost innocent, interpretation of thinking outside the box. It’s a subtle way of suggesting that the rules that we’ve been told don’t necessarily [apply].
And that’s kind of what I was doing with Birkenstock. I thought, ‘Well, you know, I could put sequins on them. I could make them in cordovan leather or alligator or something,’ but I thought it would be more profound to actually alter their shape. So I extended the straps because when I first started doing clothes, my women’s day dresses had trains and things were trailing, and things were falling off and so that’s kind of what I did with [the] Birkenstocks. I made the straps a little too long and when things are a little bit too much to me, there’s a subtle note of extravagance and impracticality. … So to be able to do that to something that’s very practical like a Birkenstock was what made our collaboration make sense.
One of the materials you used is long-haired cowhide, which seems sort of impractical, but how else did you add that sense of extravagance?
I also added more holes for the buckle than were necessary because those holes add a note of confection. In a very abstract way, it’s on its way to lace, which is a confection, and it was just enough of a decorative element for me.
Was there any specific inspiration beyond that?
No, that was pretty much it. I just thought, ‘How can I give the Rick Owens touch to something so solid and with such a sense of honor?’ It seems like the brand has maintained its integrity and stood the test of time by not laboring. … Who wouldn’t want to be a brand like that?
Birkenstock traces its roots back to 1774, which means they’re 244 years old. Do you think the Rick Owens brand has a core aesthetic that could sustain it that far into the future?
I’d like to think so. It’s a weird period that we’re living in though. I think people might be used to the idea of brands being a revolving door of designers. Maybe that’s the new reality, and maybe that’s what this generation needs. I’m not saying this disapprovingly. Maybe it’s just evolution because of so much stimulation [from] the internet that people just need to move faster now — and maybe that’s a good thing. How can brands stand a chance of standing the test of time like that?
Is there a brand you could see yourself taking the creative reins of someday? Or, alternatively, is there a designer you could envision taking the helm of your label some day?
I never would consider that. I could never work for another brand. At this stage I’m just too spoiled. How could I ever be an employee again? And employing someone to interpret me? That would kill me. I wouldn’t like that either. So I’m just going to take it with me. I’m going to take my brand with me when I go.
In addition to the footwear and sock collaboration, you designed the interior of the actual Box space — the two shipping containers that will be stacked outside your La Brea Avenue store. What inspired the look customers will find inside?
When I think of Germany, I [think of] Joseph Beuys and I wondered if Joseph Beuys ever wore Birkenstocks. You think he would — that would have been great. I use gray felt in my collections all the time because of Beuys, and it’s why I used felt as one of the fabric options in the Birkenstocks [in the collection]. So I thought the store could be a little bit of a Joseph Beuys temple. The interior [also] includes some of the furniture that I’ve been doing, upholstered in gray felt, to create a kind of nice, cocoon[-like] environment. My other thought when I looked at that space was one of my all-time favorite places in the world — Le Corbusier’s summer cabin in the south of France. It’s a small, one-room cabin, but the way it was constructed with the wood interior makes it the ultimate Le Corbusier womb. So when I was thinking about the Box, I envisioned a cross between that cabin and a Joseph Beuys temple.
Will you be in town for the April 17 party that kicks off the collaboration?
No, but Michèle [Lamy, Owens’ wife] will be there. And Birkenstock is introducing these moisturizers and foot creams so I asked Paul Kooiker, a wonderful photographer we’ve done stuff with in the past and who has this kind of fetishistic side to his photography, if he would take pictures of our guests’ feet after they’ve been lubricated with this moisturizer. And Paul agreed to do it. And Michèle will be hosting a one-night-only Les Deux Cafes evening, with her presiding over the kind of food she used to serve there.
When The Times last interviewed you in 2015, you hadn’t been back to L.A. for 14 years. And you said you’d probably be visiting in the not-too-far-future. Have you been back?
No. I was just being polite.
You used to live in Los Angeles and you began your career here. Why haven’t you been back for nearly 17 years?
I’m afraid that if I came back to L.A. I’d be seduced all over again and never leave. So that’s why I have to resist temptation.
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For more musings on all things fashion and style, follow me at @ARTschorn.