“Italy Is Where I Create, and Paris Is Where I Am Judged”

By Balthzar Malevolent


This season Owens showed outside of Paris for the first time in forever. It was a presentation that was “reductive,” as he put it, in at least two senses. His “skeleton” crew of around 20 colleagues and 20-ish models showed a livestreamed collection in part as pragmatic negotiation with life in the times of coronavirus: “It feels like we are able to orchestrate something with fewer instruments.”

Rick Owens' Venice.

As he said in an outtake of the filmed interview: “There is a reclusiveness, an isolation that I’ve found here that appeals to me. The beach never becomes crowded. I’ve had the same cabana for the past 10 years…and I go every morning with my coffee and I have my computer and I just work there all day. I jump in the sea and then I work and then I jump the sea.… And that’s my summer. And in recent circumstances I’ve stayed here even more: Paris has been a little bit difficult. And I decided to really buckle down and stay in Italy and kind of focus and be with the factory more…the minute the factory was able to reopen, I came right away.”That factory is in Concordia, Modena, around a three-hour drive from here—and where Owens also has an apartment (plus an Owenscorp cafeteria) to base himself in during periods of sustained focus on production. For this show, though, Owens had his team make the short hop back to the Lido to present his collection against the rationalist architecture of its Palazzo del Casinò. Aesthetically, this building’s facade is a Venetian cousin of the Palais de Tokyo, Owens’s usual Parisian venue (which was this season snapped up in his absence by Chloé). Unlike the Palais de Tokyo, the Casinò, a little like Owens himself, is a structure whose monumentally imposing exterior—“graphic severity,” as he puts it—belies an interior marked by humor and abundance: “I didn’t realize it was going to be so extravagant. There’s murals and there’s crazy Murano chandeliers, and the proportions are extreme…”

All of the fittings and last-minute prep work took place about 100 meters down the road, in the Hotel Excelsior. This is where Owens first stayed when he became a regular here. Even now, settled as he is in his nearby apartment, he maintains that Excelsior-operated cabana (which is one among hundreds being dismantled along the beach to mark the very end of summer). Built in 1908, the Excelsior is a Moorish fantasy whose starting point was the true Venetian articulations of that Arabian style, including most famously of all the Doge’s Palace: This more-ish update was built as a Disney-fied pleasure palace for the sybarites of the early 20th century. “Its legend has always captivated me,” said Owens, who cited Nijinsky dancing on the beach here as one favorite point of reference. Today both the Lido and the Excelsior are famed for playing host to the Venice Film Festival, but outside of season and festival time the hotel and its surroundings are quiet. The beachside restaurant where Owens flexes his Italian is the only one open, and only remains so because he asked its owners to keep his team in victuals during the run-up to the show.

Rick Owens' Venice.

Reference-wise, the Lido is probably best known for its key role in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. “It always struck a chord with me,” said Owens, who added that the book (and film) “is one of the reasons that I moved to the Lido.” Owens added: “Here’s this ascetic creator who retreats to the Lido because he’s got writer’s block. He sees a youth and he is inspired and euphoric. And then gradually, that turns into some kind of obsession…. But I think the part that resonates with me is the part about aging, and that’s a big part of the storyline. [He’s] recognizing a moment in this youth that he misses, that he misses deeply and profoundly, and maybe which he never even experienced. And he’s seeing that this golden moment is out of reach, and that he’ll never ever experience or capture it, and it turns into a degrading experience. So you have this full arc of euphoria and inspiration and stimulation that gradually corrupts until it becomes this torture.”

Parts of the beach—the beach where Mann’s Aschenbach fulfills the novel’s title—seem to be constituted entirely of dead shells. They crunch underfoot. The water is flat and limpid, and there is no visible line of horizon where it meets the sky. The air is salty, even a little dank, and seagulls bicker as diggers trundle up and down dismantling cabanas. In Death in Venice Mann describes “the limbo between creation and decay,” and his description of why Aschenbach is so drawn to this place could as easily be projected onto Owens. As Mann puts it: “His love of the sea had profound roots: the hardworking artist’s desire to rest, his longing to get away from the demanding diversity of phenomena and take shelter in the bosom of simplicity and immensity; a forbidden penchant that was entirely antithetical to his mission and, for that very reason, seductive—a proclivity for the unorganized, the immeasurable, the eternal: for nothingness.”

Of nothingness, Owens observed: “I’m not one of the pessimists who thinks that we’re going to destroy the planet. I feel like it’s going to evolve into something else, and I think it would be arrogant of us to think that we have that power…I think death is part of all of our lives and everything needs to evolve into something else. Anyway, that’s my fatalistic attitude.”

The show started five minutes after its advertised start time. The models each had two changes, which saw them becoming gradually more clothed: There is no way that Owens’s “wader” boots, platformed thigh-highs presented as a coping mechanism for the Phlegethon (river to hell) after which the collection is named, can be changed mid-livestream. Michèle Lamy watched on as Tyrone Dylan Susman and the rest of this pared-down team worked through the rack, replenishing the looks as the models returned from their fierce circuits of the piazza. Behind the rope, that straggle of spectators included an elderly couple in pastel puffa jackets, with a poodle: Owens later said they are his downstairs neighbors. Lights pulsed from inside the palace. A drone moaned above. Judd’s mix built and built to the crescendo it would never reach.

Rick Owens' Venice.

“During quarantine,” said Owens: “I noticed that speaking to a lot of friends, a lot of relationships had evolved. Our relationships with loved ones deepened, and relationships that were inessential kind of fell away. Everybody was able to have a minute to define what was most important to them, which was maybe a silver lining to that cloud.”

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