Rick Owens and Gwendoline Christie

In early April, we sent the following request to a broad range of fashion designers.

Given the current situation, we would like System’s next issue to focus on long-form interviews led by designers – conversations recorded via video conferencing.

Now feels like a particularly relevant moment to focus on designers, as the industry looks to you to lead fashion towards the future, to capture the moment, and, perhaps above all, to enable us to dream.

What would you talk about? It’s not for us to dictate this, because we feel the project could have an inherent Warholian quality – anything that you say becomes valid when placed in the time-capsule context of this document
of the moment.

Many wrote back, saying they’d like to use the opportunity to connect with a friend, a colleague, a confidant, a hero, or another designer.

We’re extremely grateful that they did. And the least we could do to return the gesture is give each their own System cover.

Photographs by Juergen Teller
Creative partner, Dovile Drizyte

What do we talk about? Rick Owens and Gwendoline Christie - © System Magazine

In early April, we sent the following request to a broad range of fashion designers.

*Given the current situation, we would like System’s next issue to focus on long-form interviews led by designers – conversations recorded via video conferencing.

Now feels like a particularly relevant moment to focus on designers, as the industry looks to you to lead fashion towards the future, to capture the moment, and, perhaps above all, to enable us to dream.

What would you talk about? It’s not for us to dictate this, because we feel the project could have an inherent Warholian quality – anything that you say becomes valid when placed in the time-capsule context of this document
of the moment.

Many wrote back, saying they’d like to use the opportunity to connect with a friend, a colleague, a confidant, a hero, or another designer.

We’re extremely grateful that they did. And the least we could do to return the gesture is give each their own System cover.

‘Being forced to stay inside
has made me go inside.’

Rick Owens and Gwendoline Christie
in conversation, 21 April 2020.

Rick Owens: Where are you?

Gwendoline Christie: I’m with Giles [Deacon] in London; are you in Paris?

Rick: Yes. Have you gone out?

Gwendoline: For exercise. And you?

Rick: I’ve been inside the entire time.

Gwendoline: I have been pretty militant about it, but I have been out for my exercise. I bought a bicycle and I cycle around the city. You entertain dreams about leaving your home, to go somewhere better, but then you realize that there is nowhere better than home. Particularly in the midst of all the chaos. It’s home in an entirely different context. I have a feeling that you have a really beautiful home because I have been stalking… I regularly view your Instagram. So I assume you’re in the Palais Bourbon.

Rick: I feel a little guilty about saying how much I am enjoying it.

Gwendoline: What are you enjoying?

Rick: I can be pretty reclusive anyway, and having the excuse to just stay in; it’s time to gestate, formulate and absorb. And the other thing is, you know, it’s a great place to live. We have this great terrace, and enough space to roam around. It is very monastic. All grey concrete and a couple of cats and this excuse to just sit and appreciate, and be grateful and look at the clouds and enjoy the sun. Our roses are starting to bloom and the jasmine is heavenly. It’s a chance to recharge, regroup and research. Some people on a forum asked me about the future of the fashion system and fashion deliveries, but I don’t feel qualified to give strong opinions. I haven’t really confirmed how I want to move forward. It is a great reset. The part where everybody leans out of the window to clap for health workers,
isn’t that the best thing ever, and a great reminder of unity?

Gwendoline: I’ve never before felt a connection like that with my fellow man; the first time I was shocked by how much I responded to it. That is something beautiful that has emerged. Human beings have become increasingly scared of intimacy and that is an abstract intimate moment we can all share. I never expected that. The pause is interesting. I did think that you might enjoy the pause, because you do four shows a year, don’t you?

Rick: Yes, but I love that sense of purpose and that drive. I’m not collapsing. Those guys who work for the big companies, they have so many voices to listen to and so many different pressures that I just don’t have. It’s a totally different world. I am completely spoiled.

Gwendoline: Remaining independent means that you are your own master. It has always thrilled me the way you have stuck to your own aesthetic and the world has come to you.

Rick: Well – I am sure you went through this – at the beginning you think why am I insisting that somebody acknowledge what I want to contribute? Where does that arrogance or that confidence come from to think that people should stop and respond to me?

Gwendoline: It’s the duality of not being able to be anything else, actually, and also when enough people tell you no, you want to kick back against that. I’d be lying if I said I don’t really care if they are listening to me, because I do care.

Rick: I do, too, of course. It’s a conversation; you are speaking and people are responding. Everyone on the planet wants to speak and be listened to. We are so lucky. For the people out there who don’t get that response, it must be like being buried alive.

Gwendoline: For a long time I was working, but I wasn’t particularly enjoying my work. Then a genuinely weird, miraculous combination of elements brought along a part that I had always wanted to play, yet didn’t think existed. It was an exploration of the things that I was most scared of in myself. And it happened to become a hit. The reason why I loved it so much was because it was a freak. No one thought it would work; there were no expectations. I wanted people to like it, but I didn’t expect them to. Good things come when you work from the inside out, instead of courting attention, wanting approval.

Rick: It’s not just entertainment. People need it. If people are responding like that it means you are filling some kind of hole. Think of all of the girls who you
have influenced. There is going to be whole generation! It’s moving, isn’t it?

Gwendoline: I can’t connect to that because I can’t be responsible. A lot of it is luck. So much of the world is arbitrary. I was thinking about this newish way of life and what clothes to wear for it, and I thought, ‘Rick Owens’ because it translates from wearable pieces to emotional, sculpted pieces and it works on a bicycle, in your home, at a party, it works at a disco, at a huge global red carpet event. Have you consciously designed that way?

‘The clapping for health workers is beautiful. We’ve become increasingly scared of intimacy so it’s an abstract intimate moment we can all share.’

Rick: A lot is just gut instinct. It’s the same with your work I guess. I try not to overthink things, but I have been using this time to study, going through piles
of books that I had set aside. Go to the Louvre and there are so many paintings of nymphs and satyrs lying in gardens and enjoying their lives. This is exactly what we now have an excuse to do. Lying under a tree, reading in the afternoon. It’s…

Gwendoline: …bliss.

Rick: Every day I can’t believe I get to do this for another day! I have been looking at a lot of art books; my old Joseph Beuys books, interior art deco, art, biography.

Gwendoline: I learned about Beuys through you; I couldn’t believe he even existed. It is my idea of perfection, to live your life that way, as an exploration of an artistic experiment.

Rick: He’s the reason I dropped out of art school. I could never get to that level, so I just gave up and became a fashion designer instead.

Gwendoline: That was probably a good move. In terms of following one’s instinct, I’ve been thinking a lot about Joseph Beuys and Rudolf Steiner, of intuition and the inside. Being forced to stay inside has made me go inside. I have read a lot; more than I have read for years. It took a few weeks for me to be able to sit and digest books in the way I used to, but now I can just sit and read. I’m enjoying having more of a reflective thought process. I have to say that I really love your designs: the clothes, and the shows. I was having a conversation with friends and they said these could have been the last fashion shows we ever see. And I thought, ‘Well, that was a pretty good one.’

Rick: Oh, it was. It was really good.

Gwendoline: It had so much vitality to it, Rick. Then you created that tour bus, which I think more people are going to want to go on after this – a mobile environment they can live in.

Rick: Isn’t that funny? You are right, that was very interesting timing.

Gwendoline: Have you thought any more about that? I think it will take people some time to feel the confidence to dissociate the outside from threat. Have you thought about creating more complete environments? Would you do the shows as a film?

Rick: No, I never would.

Gwendoline: [Laughs] Why not?

Rick: There is no risk in a film, while shows are a whole different story. Throughout the history of the world, people have needed to gather together to share a moment of beauty. That’s not just runway shows; it’s raves and rock concerts; it’s church; it’s a voguing ball. That is never going to go away. People adorn themselves to communicate with each other, to signal who they are or – just as valid – who they want to be. As you get older, you decide who you want to be and you turn into that. Clothes are one of the first steps. When you meet somebody, you can make an effort to charm or put up a wall. Runway shows are a presentation of those ideas, now more than ever, because fashion has become so saturated, like you had to do more and more and more. Some people do more with huge sets and by making things more sumptuous and extravagant; other people do more by talking about elements of beauty that we might have overlooked or not thought about for a while. With the runway show, there is also the commercial element; you are talking about survival in a very primitive sense. You are talking about a risk, a gamble, and watching somebody throw a dice. That is compelling – you are all there to witness something that could go right or go wrong. It could be thrilling or just dull. All of these elements are compelling. A video of a show is never going to have that thrill because it is all edited and controlled.

Gwendoline: The reason your shows are so startling, is that they go beyond theatre. There is such a primal element to them. You speak in a raw, honest and
distilled way, which communicates a vital element of human experience. I have felt like I was witnessing a ritual; it had a feeling of paganism and a hymn-like quality. The last show was like being transported into another dimension of thrills and excitement.

‘There are paintings in the Louvre of nymphs and satyrs enjoying life. We now have an excuse to do the same: lying under a tree, reading in the afternoon.’

Rick: Everything that you are saying is so lovely. Thank you for recognizing these things, because those shows are autobiographical. We are all concerned with the same things and beneath it all is insecurity, survival, fulfilment, self-loathing, self-criticism. I am just talking about my personal experiences, but everybody is thinking about those things, so if anything strikes a chord, it is simply that I am speaking to those insecurities, uncertainties and hopes. I’ve been very lucky with staying independent. I’ve had fantastic partners from the start. My CEO, Elsa [Lanzo], and her partner, Luca [Ruggeri], have been with me for 18 years, and they are
more talented in navigating the industry than I am at creating clothes. It is a difficult road to negotiate. There are people like Dries Van Noten who I think has long been the CEO of his company, but I don’t know how he does it. He is a genius.

Gwendoline: Getting the right manufacturer, positioning and stores, and the right kind of press – that is a balancing act. Designing is one brain, but all that is something else. They don’t teach you that at design school.

Rick: They can’t; it’s a talent. Design schools can’t even teach you how to be a designer, but they do put you into a community of people who want to be creative. There is competition and energy, and then you grow up in an industry and maybe help each other out at some point. But no one can teach you to be a designer – you just are or you’re not. It’s the same thing with CEOs. It is a poetic talent, as poetic as being a designer. I was just lucky to have people who protect what I do. I respect what they do, so I hope they are getting as much out of this as I am.

Gwendoline: Those guardians who recognize and protect talent are so important. There are very few.

Rick: Did you have that?

Gwendoline: I am very lucky. I have worked and work with some really wonderful people, but what I have learned is that I have to take responsibility entirely for myself. I can’t say to someone else, ‘Please protect me’ – because no one will. And I have had to view that as a kind of expansion of self, to be able to say ‘no’, or ‘I want this’, or ‘I want something else’. Rather than just saying ‘yes’ because of the fear that comes from thinking you might not work again. I have understood that I have to be my own guardian. I can leave myself vulnerable and raw in the work, but the rest of the time, it has to be a different mindset. It is a blessed relief and freedom to be open and transparent in the work.

Rick: On Game of Thrones, for example, I suppose that someone – maybe the director or the producer – was your CEO. They created a support structure
so you could do your job and you trusted them to do it. Are you working with Michael Kaplan?

Gwendoline: Yes, I have worked with Michael Kaplan, and I love him. Of course, you know Michael.

Rick: He is an old, old friend from LA; he is family.

Gwendoline: I love all of his work. His work with Bob Mackie and on Blade Runner and just about every single iconic film that you love and has meant something to you. He has become a dear friend and I have been looking at his photos as he goes on walks around Los Angeles. He has been peering into the Chateau Marmont and taking photos…

Rick: I don’t really do Instagram.

Gwendoline: Can I ask about that? I know you have the app. I was checking, and I thought, ‘Oh, someone else must be doing that for him. I don’t believe that Rick Owens goes on Instagram.’

Rick: I do every once in a while; I don’t follow many people. I follow Michèle [Lamy].

Gwendoline: How is Michèle?

Rick: She is good. I don’t know where she is… on the other side of the house.

Gwendoline: I saw something with her demonstrating some really amazing pelvic flexibility.

Rick: We have been doing our moves. No, I love my Rick Owens Online Instagram account, and I am very attentive to that. I do consider what we put up. I work with Luke from my office on all of the visuals, but it isn’t the spontaneous personal thing it probably is supposed to be. It is very curated; it is very thought out. I don’t want it to get too commercial, but I don’t want to ignore that, and I don’t want to get too impersonal, but I don’t want to get overly personal. I mean, everybody curates and presents the story of who they want to be. So it’s a little formal and it’s a little bit uptight, but that is kind of who I am. I’m not the most spontaneous guy; I don’t blurt things out that much. But I will check out Kaplan’s Instagram.

Gwendoline: He is a real dream. And, of course, you know Anne Crawford.

Rick: Oh, Anne is perfect.

Gwendoline: Isn’t she? Anne sent you photographs of me in the store in LA trying on things and shopping and getting really over excited, and she’s, like, ‘I’ve got to a send a picture to Rick!’ She is a dream. Giles has known her for years and he said to me, ‘There is someone in LA you’ve got meet.’ One day we did and I feel like I fell in love with her. She is the most fun.

Rick: She is perfect. She is elegant and raunchy and fun and real.

‘Joseph Beuys is the reason I dropped out of art school. I could never get to his level, so I just gave up and became a fashion designer instead.’

Gwendoline: And just naughty. Recently, I was at the San Vicente Bungalows, and she bowled in wearing a red leather jumpsuit with cherry-red boots and I nearly screamed because I so wanted that jumpsuit. She looked incredible with her old Hollywood curls, and she was just being phenomenal. She is very motherly towards to me, and almost nobody other than Anne is, and I very happily submit. She spoils me rotten. How did you meet her?

Rick: She used to work with Michèle’s ex-husband, 20-something years ago. And I used to work for Michèle and so we just knew each other from that group
and we all just kind of grew up together. She used to be a journalist in LA and she would come over. She also has perfect tits, and I was working on these cups for a bra kind of thing, so I used to fondle her tits a lot.

Gwendoline: [Laughs] Haven’t we all!

Rick: She’s so elegant, and elegantly knows how to enjoy life. Just her happiness. She’s sensible and reckless…

Gwendoline: All at the same time. I really like her; I feel like I have permission when I am with her.

Rick: That’s a good way of putting it. That’s a really nice thing to say about someone and it’s true.

Gwendoline: Do you think of this as a pause before things resume as they were, or will things change?

Rick: There will be a change. Isn’t that great? There will have to be. I was wondering when something like this was going to come along. I’ve always been a pessimist. How can it be with all of this, with so many people and so much discord, how come we haven’t reached some kind of crisis before? I mean, how come there hasn’t been a world war? We are a generation that has never really had that kind of threat. Well, here it is. It’s happened, a different kind of war. War brings out the best and the worst in people, and things happen after wars and people adjust. I don’t mean to trivialize, but I was thinking about fashion, and after World War II, Dior’s New Look hit the right chord because there had been such a long period of deprivation and people were ready to rejoice in sumptuousness. This is going to be different: we are not going to feel entitled to sumptuousness. We have been through that kind of careless consumption in the past few years; like, ‘Let’s
put this plaid coat over this floral, and let’s put on a crown and jewellery and platforms.’ There has been this casual consumption, which I found amusing at first. I thought people were enjoying themselves and it was fun. But with me there is always this puritan thinking that I prefer things to be more focused and a bit more chosen. I can appreciate the careless ‘I threw everything on’ kind of thing, but there is something disrespectful about… I mean, I am just a fuddy-duddy. I can only handle one thing at a time. It is a new generation. This generation is absorbing information in a very different way. It is thrilling, the way that it has changed in our lifetimes, but with our evolution, people are just absorbing a lot more. I don’t want to be the disapproving old guy, but this constant consumption… This is what this is all about in some ways. The word responsibility is used more than it was 10 years ago, and that is such a good thing. I’m in an industry… I mean, I have polluted
more rivers than anybody, probably, so my authority on anything about conservation is from a cesspit. But it’s not specifically sustainability that I think is exciting; it is the idea of responsibility and change. If someone like me can start thinking about responsibility more than I did 10 years ago, that is a tiny change. It’s a baby step, but in the right direction. I am talking about sustainability in my business and in what I do and what I promote. It can come off as virtue signalling, as hype, but so what? That’s good hype! I’m doing my best. It’s not easy to change your life.

Gwendoline: And to change your suppliers and all of that is not as easy as people think either.

Rick: But the point is – you start somewhere. Instead of being like, ‘It’s too overwhelming, I can’t do it’, you take baby steps and then the people after you will take further steps and it will make a change. So that is what I am excited about, about this new conversation on responsibility and sustainability. You know, it might be too late, but it kind of doesn’t matter. The whole point is that we can all do better. That’s the whole point of life. I mean, you grow as you get older, and you just want to get better, you want to do better, get better, be better, think better. You never get a prize at the end, but the glory is in making the effort and the movement forward.

Gwendoline: Everybody is going to be craving life…

Rick: …and quality.

Gwendoline: It’s what Vivienne [Westwood] has been saying for such a long time – choose wisely, buy less.

‘People always need to gather together to share a moment of beauty. Runway shows, raves, rock concerts, church, voguing balls. It’s never going away.’

Rick: I totally agree with that and that is what I hope will be the mood after a life lesson like this, for all of us.

Gwendoline: Is it true that you wake up to Alla Nazimova in Salomé?

Rick: It is one of the movies I wake up to. I do watch a lot of silent movies from the 1920s just because visually they are so beautiful and they put me in the right mood. Looking at something so old helps put things into perspective, like my aesthetic decisions of the day. It’s all been done in this long line of creative expression. It makes me feel insignificant, but also a little reckless. You’re following a tradition of creative expression and you’re a miniscule part of it, so don’t take yourself so seriously. You can afford to be reckless. Who cares?

Gwendoline: That is often when the best things come about, when you stop self-censoring. Where are you now? I want to see everything.

Rick: OK, this is my office…

Gwendoline: Oh, wow! Are those ideas there on the table? What’s that?

Rick: This is pre-collection, some stuff on the pre-collection.

Gwendoline: Any more shoulders?

Rick: Oh, always. I am going to be milking those shoulders for a long time.

Gwendoline: I love a pagoda shoulder.

Rick: I haven’t really figured out the timing on shoulders like that, because they are about defiance and a certain amount of humour. Yet there is also an earnest search for heroism in that kind of silhouette, like, a superman. When I did this retrospective in Milan, I called it Subhuman, Inhuman, Superhuman, which relates to Nietzsche’s philosophy. I don’t read that much philosophy, but it sounded right to me. We consider ourselves subhuman or inhuman or superhuman. I am talking to our insecurities and inadequacies, which you gradually learn to deal with; you learn how to make up for them and forgive yourself.

Gwendoline: And how to capitalize on the inadequacies, and build on them.

Rick: Accept them instead of trying to force yourself to be someone you are not. You learn how to balance them out and make yourself a better person. That
is what those shoulders mean! [Laughs]

Gwendoline: Jerry Stafford, who I work with – a wonderful friend and collaborator, stylist, just a phenomenal person – showed me this look, and I said I’d definitely wear it. I love it, but I was scared because it is an aspect of me that I fee inhibited about. Often what I feel inhibited about, I will enhance.

Rick: Accentuate the obvious!

Gwendoline: Always! As Leigh Bowery said, if you’ve got a spot, put a big red ring around it. Do you have a pool there?

Rick: Oh, no!

Gwendoline: I imagine that your house is sort of endless, into the sky and down into the earth. Somehow parts of it are like Metropolis and parts of it are like…

Rick: This is this weird garage space, which we use for dinner parties. It’s like this super huge hallway when you enter, then there is this room we use a lot, where we eat, and hang out.

Gwendoline: I love this. What’s on the wall there?

Rick: That one is a mural by Michèle’s daughter, Scarlett Rouge, who’s an artist. I asked her to do that for Michèle as a surprise one time. And then those
are some marble sculptures by Barry X Ball.

Gwendoline: Are those wires connected to the heads?

Rick: They’re hanging. And this room has these wonderful skylights.

Gwendoline: Where do you work out?

Rick: I’ve never put a gym in this house because I need to leave. A gym gets me out – walking through the Tuileries to the other side of the river. If I had a gym
in the house I would never leave.

Gwendoline: You would have everything you needed at home.

Rick: That part was added on in the 1950s, but this is the 19th-century part. This is the office, and there are some big pictures of Michèle, and this is kind of
a storage room. Then this is the administration office on the étage noble of the building. It overlooks the square.

Gwendoline: The proportions! Oh, can I see the square; it is so beautiful.

Rick: Yeah, and that’s the Assemblée Nationale, which is the… I don’t know, it’s a civic thing. I am trying to remember what it is…

Gwendoline: [Laughs really hard]

Rick: It will come to me. It’s where all of the congressmen go. Congressmen?

Gwendoline: Is it like parliament?

Rick: Yeah, it’s like parliament.

Gwendoline: You can keep an eye on what’s happening, which isn’t much at the moment. Is that a sculpture or a monkey?

Rick: It’s a monkey, a painting by a Yugoslavian art group. I never come in this room actually, because it is admin. I didn’t take this room because it was too grand for me, and I didn’t like it overlooking the square; it would be too distracting. My office is at the back of the house, overlooking the Ministry of Defence’s garden. It’s just trees; it’s just beautiful trees. I’ll show you in a second.

‘Manufacturing, press, positioning, stores – it’s a balancing act. Designing is one brain; all that is something else. And they don’t teach it at school.’

Gwendoline: And where is the pool?

Rick: I’m a beach guy, I’m not a pool guy.

Gwendoline: You’re a beach guy?

Rick: You see that’s the garden of the Ministry of Defence from our terrace. We have all that green. It is very peaceful and so insulated up here; it is hard to believe that we are in the middle of the city. What was it you said about Anne that was so nice?

Gwendoline: That she gives you permission.

Rick: Well, you are one of those people.

Gwendoline: Oh, bless you. That is really lovely of you.

Rick: You’re very easy.

Gwendoline: Anne has this farm in Ojai that sounds phenomenal. I think she has something insane like 600 acres there with turtles and flying zebras and
prehistoric animals. She’s got dolphins swimming. She’s got everything.

Rick: Oh, wow. Where are you going next? What is your next project?

Gwendoline: No, I don’t know. I have got some things that I am working on. Not to be flippant about it, but I decided I’d worked a lot, really consistently – and I love working a lot and travelling all of the time – but I had to recharge. I needed some space to find what I wanted to say next. That is another reason why I love you, because of these ideas of exploring different forms of beauty. I wanted some time to think about what that is now. Not necessarily in a literal way, but in the ideas I want to explore next. Money is wonderful because it creates options, but you also have to feel truly fulfilled and stretched. I like to feel scared, and I like there to be an element of shock. Extravagance means lots of different things to me creatively and that’s what I’d like again. So I am working with some writers to create things,
and I’m talking with some directors and we’re starting to generate things. There are a couple of people, who I truly love and who enjoy subverting… I mean, I love mainstream things, I love big mainstream movies and the idea of me being in that environment still shocks and entertains me. I don’t think it will ever stop entertaining me. I haven’t stopped working, but I’m working in a different way – not travelling and filming all of the time, or modelling, which is my real passion. [Laughs] So, this period is allowing me to take that pause, and already I feel like I have more life in me. I have done a lot more hard physical exercise, too, which I always think is good for grounding and getting in touch with your essence. Just going through that process and that change; they are all things I feel excited about. At best, I am halfway through my life and I want to feel that I am fully inhabiting it. Particularly in the context of the way the world is now.

Rick: You have got a lot done already, so it will be exciting to see what is coming next. But what you’ve done is already fantastic.

Gwendoline: Thank you, Rick, thank you. I can’t wait to see your next show.

Rick: Whenever that is! We will find an excuse for people to come together.

Gwendoline: And to experience something.

Rick: Together, because that is one of the most primal urges on the planet, for everyone to gather and to hold hands and to feel something.

Gwendoline: It’s so wonderful to speak to you. Thank you for speaking to me.

Rick: My pleasure. I don’t go to London any more, but when you come to Paris, you know how to find me. We’re easy; we’re very homely, so if you want to come by for dinner or something, then just invite yourself.

Gwendoline: I will; I would really love that. Give my love to Michèle.

Rick: And give my love to Giles.

Gwendoline: I will. So much love to you, Rick. Stay well, take care. Bye.

Rick: Bye.

Taken from System No. 15.