Fashion designer Rick Owens creates drapey, esoteric clothing, often asymmetrical and mostly in black. His clothes are not cheap and are favored by the likes of Courtney Love and Michelle Obama. On a recent summer day, I ended up in his unmarked Soho boutique, and, somewhere between his coveted skinny leather jackets and covered wedge ankle boots, I discovered that the man loves books. His personally curated selection of rarefied titles sits on an open display, each volume available for purchase at regular bookstore prices.
The Gentle Art of Making Enemies by James Whistler
Serious Pleasures by Philip Hoare
La-Bas by J. K. Huysmans
Whistler and Montesquiou by Edgar Marshall
The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck
Man Enough to Be a Woman by Jayne County
Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell
Bunker Archaeology by Paul Virilio
I hadn’t read a single one, but to give you an idea, this is how Owens once described the main character of J. K. Huysmans’s Against the Grain:
“Des Eissantes locked himself in an ivory tower collecting Gustav Moreau paintings, ivory snuffboxes and perfumes. I love the idea of an obsessive and sickly queen tucked away in his silk-lined bedroom.”
Upon request for an interview, he responded, in all caps, “I’M TICKLED PINK TO BE INCLUDED IN THE PARIS REVIEW BLOG.” Owens, now based in Paris, is currently preparing to debut his spring/summer 2011 collection on September 30, 2010 (this Thursday) at the Palais de Tokyo, during Paris Fashion Week.What is the first book you loved?
Well, my father wouldn’t allow a TV in the house, and he read to me as a child instead. A rather sensitive, fey only child, I remember the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs vividly and assume I owe a lot of my aesthetic to the alien space princesses by Frazetta on the book covers. My father had a big library, so over the years I picked through a lot of it. I resented the TV thing at the time but of course see the benefits now … I don’t know if as a parent I would have had the strength to be that severe. I doubt it. I remember reading everything by Ayn Rand in my early teens—perfect for fierce adolescent idealism.
What did your father do for a living? And why did he have such a large book collection?
My father was a social worker who interviewed applicants for welfare benefits to determine if they qualified. He was an only child raised in the Depression who indulged in a book and music collection when he was finally able to.
Is your father’s literary influence the reason you’ve included a collection of books for sale in your Soho store? Are there books in all your stores?
There’s a similar selection in all the stores—I shop for them myself. For better or worse, I wanted to create my own world in the stores, and the book and DVD selections help complete the total picture. The big picture is important to me. I want people to know and feel that it’s a very personal expression they’re experiencing. Not a committee or team decision.
You’re originally from Porterville, California, a town near Bakersfield, which, as a native southern Californian myself, strikes me as dusty, flat, and unglamorous. How did you go from there to where you are now?
Since we lived in a small, very conservative town, I clung to the exoticism and sophistication of the French stuff—Pierre Loti, Proust, Huysmans, de Sade … I never even had the imagination to dream that I would someday live in the same neighborhood as Montesquiou had.
Were your schoolteachers impressed by your precociousness?
Impressed or repelled. Sometimes it blurred.
Your store carries the autobiography of poet Edith Sitwell, who writes of “black capes and black Andalusian hats” and was once described by Evelyn Waugh as “swathed in black like a sixteenth-century infanta.” To what extent are your fashion designs influenced by literature?
I can’t think of a specific example of being inspired regarding fashion, except for my having gone to Catholic school; I think I see the influence of all those saints dragging their robes through dusty temples, focused on spiritual purity. I’m not spiritual at all but love the romance of longing for and working toward it.
Describe your reading habits.
I’m kind of stuck in the past. After years of frustration and sweat in trying to survive as a designer, once I got going, it was like stepping onto a freight train. I haven’t had the focus to sit and really read in years. I keep buying books and putting them on the shelves for “later.” I can only absorb soft things like biographies—Eileen Grey, Albert Speers, and Sarah Barnhart being the most recent … and I skim a lot. I’m not complaining. I had wonderful years to read and now I have the opportunity to act and express, and I’m taking full advantage of the moment. I hope that when it’s over I’ll be able to slow down and enjoy the library I’m building and maybe re-enjoy the library I’ll inherit from my father.