How Rick Owens Is Using Sneakers To Fuel His Growing Empire

Rick Owens
Rick Owens works on a fall '16 men's look.
Courtesy Image.

Years before his label amassed a big sneaker fan base, Rick Owens remembered a time when shoes were still unfamiliar territory.

“Like I’ve done with everything in my life, you fake it until it comes true,” the designer said in an exclusive interview with Footwear News. “I actually used to mold rubber soles myself, because at the time I couldn’t afford the minimums. The construction was completely wrong.”

Flash-forward to today, and Rick Owens sneakers appear on a diverse range of brand devotees who worship his clothes like a religion. They’re a hard-to-miss clan that’s equal parts glam and goth, typically dressed in all black and wearing one of his signature leather jackets.

“Rick Owens has cultivated a passionate and loyal following who wear the collection like a uniform,” said Federico Barassi, menswear buying manager for Ssense, an e-tailer that focuses on luxury and independent designers.

Rick Owens fall 2016 Rick Owens works on a fall ’16 look from his Mastodon collection. Courtesy Image.

Yet in the beginning, Owens was simply a designer making clothes out of old T-shirts, operating from a grungy storefront off Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. “It was very much a Scotch-taped approach,” Owens said. He originally launched his label as a women’s collection in 1994, adding menswear in 2002.

Now, his private Paris-based company, Owenscorp, is a $120 million business — one the designer still owns without outside investors and runs with the help of his enigmatic wife and partner of 25 years, Michèle Lamy — or as Owens calls her, “a no-bullshit magic witch.”

Together, Owens and Lamy have extended the brand beyond ready-to-wear clothing, also dabbling in furniture and interior design. Owens has also tackled sportswear, fostering a partnership with Adidas that has spurred ongoing footwear collaborations.

No matter whether he’s designing Adidas sports shoes or lace-up combat boots and architectural sneakers (which he produces in Italy), Owens said he crafts his pieces with a certain sense of practicality in mind. “I like things that function and that are logical,” he said. “The commercial side is one of my favorite parts. I mean, no one would ever assume that.”

rick owens adidas sneaker A fall ’16 Rick Owens x Adidas men’s style. Courtesy Image.
Superhero Shoes Rick Owens Geobasket sneaker. Courtesy Image.

Owens’ distinctive footwear styles have ignited a healthy consumer appetite for his brand, one that luxury retailers can’t deny.

“His range is vast, producing everything from trainers that work for everyday [wear] to statement pieces like thigh-high boots,” said Tom Kalenderian, EVP and GMM of men’s and Chelsea Passage departments for Barneys New York. “Regardless, the aficionados who buy the most extreme footwear likely wear it every day confidently, as though they were a basic.”

Roma Cohen, co-owner of the Alchemist, said Owens’ sneakers have served as a driving force in launching a now-burgeoning scene. “He was one of the first to design a leather sneaker in the $1,300 price range many years ago, which paved the way for millennial clients moving toward the designer-sneaker world,” he said.

One of his greatest sneaker hits includes his signature Geobasket style, a bulky sneaker that aimed to exaggerate — and somewhat parody — iconic Nike, Adidas and Puma motifs. “Sports shoes were never my thing,” said Owens. “The only reason I started making them was because they frustrated me. They were a little too prosaic. I wanted to exoticize them.”

When the designer launched the Geobasket in 2008, he promptly received a cease-and-desist letter from Nike, claiming the style’s side swoosh design was too similar. “I was just flattered to death,” said Owens. “I swooned.” As a result, the style has been redesigned and continues to be its best-selling shoe. (The original design still pops up on eBay for more than $2,000 a pair.)

rick owens spring 2017 Rick owens spring ’17 Walrus mens’ collection. REX Shutterstock.

No Stranger to Controversy

Insiders can’t think of the designer without conjuring up images of his many buzzy — not to mention divisive — runway shows.

Where several fashion houses are competing for the most extravagant venues to host their presentations — think Chanel’s cruise ’17 show in Havana or Christian Dior’s cruise ’17 show at Pierre Cardin’s Palais Bulles — Owens aims to disrupt rather than play into the industry’s indulgent nature.

There was the spring ’16 women’s show, where models carried other models as accessories. Before that, the fall ’15 men’s show, where models braved full-frontal cutouts. And who could forget the spring ’14 women’s show, where Owens forwent models and enlisted African-American step dancers from various American sororities.

For Owens, who showed his spring ’17 men’s show, Walrus, in Paris last week, runway theatrics convey a personal feeling and statement for the season. “I don’t think it’s possible to really shock anybody anymore, although I’m surprised sometimes,” said Owens. “I don’t want to waste people’s time. It’s a busy calendar, so if you’re going to do a show, do a show.”

Rick Owens Spring 2016 Paris Fashion Week Rick Owens spring ’16 runway collection. Giovanni Giannoni/Fairchild.
Rick Owens Spring 2016 Paris Fashion Week Rick Owens spring ’16 runway collection. Giovanni Giannoni/Fairchild.

The shows often spur much conversation, and their front-row crowds certainly highlight Owens’ wide-ranging clientele. His fans include icons such as Iris Apfel as well as rappers A$AP Rocky and Kanye West.

Owens’ fall ’16 men’s and women’s shows, titled Mastodon, featured an ecological focus. The collection aimed to tackle an anxiety he was feeling at the time — an anxiety about the end of the world, about fashion’s tendency to drive overconsumption. Details included eerie touches such as bulbous masses of mohair and bleach stains dripping like magma.

“The whole idea of ecology wasn’t as a sermon. It was more a curiosity,” said Owens. “I wanted things to look like they were degenerating and evaporating on the runway. I was also thinking of dinosaurs, and it made me think of exaggerated, weird shapes.

To accompany his fall runway looks, Owens collaborated with Adidas on the shoes. For men’s, he reworked the Adidas Pro Model style, an archival basketball shoe from 1969. “I wanted them to be pumped up and low-tech,” he said. For the women’s offering, Owens created leather thigh-high sneaker leggings with thick rubber soles, a signature of his.

rick owens fall 2016 Rick Owens fall ’16 Mastodon women’s collection. Courtesy Image.

Lawrence Midwood, senior director of design for Adidas Y-3 and Style Collaborations, was drawn to Owens’ uncompromising vision for the shoes throughout the design process.

“Rick is inherently obsessed with not doing what everyone else would or could do,” Midwood said. “He’s also a sports nut, so he wanted to do something to inspire him personally. It was clear he didn’t just want to change the materials and put his logo on it. He started to challenge everything immediately in a really great way.”

Challenging is what Owens does best, after all. It’s a mandate he follows in all aspects of his business.

Considering major conglomerates such as LVMH Moët Hennesy Louis Vuitton and Kering dominate today’s luxury realm, it’s fitting, then, that the designer has maintained his sense of independence and unpredictability. “It’s kind of a miracle in this day and age,” Owens said.


rick owens adidas Rick Owens x Adidas fall ’16 men’s style.<strong> </strong> Courtesy Image.

 

Although his company’s commercial director, Luca Ruggeri, and its CEO, Elsa Lanzo, are shareholders in the company, Owens has the opportunity — and the tall task — of being both the main businessman and designer. He has the ability to call the shots in an industry that sometimes treats designers more like puppets.

But in the early years, he did consider cashing in.

“There was a minute where I considered selling out, because I was offered a lot of money that I wasn’t sure I would ever be offered again,” said Owens. “But looking back, it would have killed me. I can’t really work with other people. I would hate to have to explain myself to anybody. I don’t have a design team because that’s what I get to do — that’s my fun.”

When he isn’t designing his collections, Owens is busy finding the balance between both working and living with Lamy. With her gold teeth and tattooed hands and his long, flowing black hair, they make a striking pairing — but at work, he prefers to keep their roles more separate.

He can be found toying away at the ready-to-wear collections while Lamy handles the bulk of their furniture venture, launched in 2007, and sourcing exotic materials — a domain he calls “Lamy-land.”

“We’re opposites,” Owens said. “Michèle is very spontaneous, and her emotions are a lot more on the surface. When we work together, it’s impossible. She has such a freestyle way of getting things done that it makes me crazy. She respects me for some kind of stability, but also reacts against my straightness.”

Michele Lamy Michèle Lamy. JB Mondino.

Retail is one area of the business where the duo’s different talents are on full display. With more importance being placed on physical retail experience than ever before — customers need a reason to shop in person now, especially with the popularity of luxury e-tailers — Owens and Lamy focus on offering shoppers unique destinations that combine their twisted sense of humor.

For starters, a consumer does not simply shop in a Rick Owens store. One navigates its stark, concrete space instead, usually filled with the brand’s own eccentric furniture and décor. (Be careful: What looks like a bench could very well be an art piece.)

The designer’s Los Angeles store features a fog wall and massive water tank filled with goo. In Hong Kong, the centerpiece is a glass-top table supported by a life-size mannequin of Owens on all fours.

Chris Benfield, an architect at Benfield Partners who works with Owens on his North American flagships, said the designer’s approach to retail mimics the thoughtful experiences found in his runway shows.

“He uses [his stores] to extend larger conceptual ideas,” Benfield said. “It’s like his own gallery. And his spaces coincide with each season he’s showing, which helps the merchandise speak.”

rick owens fall 2016 Rick Owens fall ’16 Mastodon women’s collection. Adrien Dirand / Owenscorp.

In the coming weeks, Owens will reopen his New York store with a new address at Howard and Crosby streets. The store will be double the size — 6,000 square feet — and span two levels. It will sell its full men’s and women’s collections, as well as its furniture assortment.

The project will also mark the first time that Owens will hand over complete creative reins to Lamy for the interior design.

“I’m experimenting with letting go for a minute. It’s kind of a relationship experiment, too,” said Owens. “There’s something special about the idea of [Michèle] going into the space with the construction workers. She physically gets in there with a Stephen Jones hat on, and all of her jewelry and her heels.”

The Owens-Lamy furniture pieces, which are sold through New York art gallery Salon 94, draw a clear tie-in to his sharp, minimalist fashion designs, with items such as behemoth plywood tables and marble benches with moose antler backings.

rick owens adidas Rick Owens x Adidas fall ’16 men’s style. Courtesy Image.

As the designer preps for his spring ’17 women’s show in the fall, one can expect his experimental approach to continue. Owens hinted the collection will feature a more restrained version of his Geobasket sneaker. “It’s a sleeker, lighter, lower skater shoe I call the Geothrasher,” Owens said. The collection will also be titled Walrus.

This sort of abstract inspiration is an enticing part about Owens, positioning him somewhere between a highly skilled craftsman and a complete madman.

Regardless, the designer is content to continue shaking up the industry in fashion, furniture and sports — all with a dose of healthy self-awareness along the way.

“I’m just happy staying in my corner and doing what I do,” said Owens. “And believe me, I’m as surprised as everybody that I got this far.”