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Late Bloomer on the Cutting Edge

At 40, Rick Owens is receiving accolades usually reserved for younger designers

June 16, 2002|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Piles of fabric drift across the raw concrete floor like sand dunes, their flow impeded only by a few spare pieces of furniture, a stuffed monkey on a pedestal, a skull perched on a lamp and a gleaming black grand piano. Paint flakes from rough walls in the intriguingly decaying work space that designer Rick Owens also calls home. In a trio of disheveled storefronts off Hollywood Boulevard, the designer lives and works in a seamless aesthetic that melds dingy luxury with gothic glamour.

Here, behind dusty windows and mysterious gates, is the future of American fashion. It was so declared by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a New York-based trade group that two weeks ago handed Owens its Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent. Though he's been working as a designer for nearly 10 years, six under his own label, it took two New York fashion shows, an endorsement by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, raves from retailers and celebrities and a few compelling photos to grab fashion's attention.

As a congratulatory bouquet of lilies scented a corner of his apartment atelier, Owens still basked in winning the equivalent of a fashion Oscar. "It was pretty heady," he said. His well-wishers have included the likes of David Bowie.

"At the beginning I was a little embarrassed," said the designer, 40, of his nomination along with decades-younger Zac Posen, Behnaz Sarafpour and Peter Som. "I felt I was a little old for that. Like I was this old vampire with all these other young nominees. But I have to admit that it's nobody's fault but my own, because I never let myself be visible until fairly recently."

His potential was obscured by his lifestyle. Owens matter-of-factly calls himself "a skinny, white, vodka-swilling Goth" who realized that being drunk every night hindered his progress. His desire for all-night parties went away when his self-abuse got ugly some years ago. Now he's a muscled picture of health, and his clothes are firmly on high fashion's radar.

"It's very elegant, but it's street," said Maxfield buyer Sarah Stewart, who has bought his line for five years and appreciates how Owens pulls from the gritty side of Hollywood. Though his $500 to $800 crinkled silk skirts, $1,200 washed leather jackets and $200 overdyed cotton T-shirts have been a fixture at Maxfield, Henri Bendel in New York and Maria-Luisa in Paris, Owens is the glamourista's secret.

That changed just a year ago, when he signed with Eo Bocci Associates, a Turin-based sales agency that has arranged his manufacturing at a nearby family-run factory, Olmar and Mirta, and within a year boosted his distribution from 10 stores to 90, including Barneys New York. "If it took a while, it was only my own natural reticence," he said, while settling into a lunch of salmon and buttered bread at Les Deux Cafes, the Hollywood hot spot that faces his studio and is operated by his muse and partner of 13 years, Michele Lamy, who is 17 years his senior.

"I think there were people who were interested, but they didn't detect a level of commitment in me," he said. Now he spends weeks at a time in the remote Italian village of Concordia, overseeing production and designing until midnight. "I'm taking it super seriously," he said. "This is life and death for me."

He knew that showing in New York would be like stepping over a divide. "I was intimidated by the whole lifestyle issues it entailed," said Owens, dressed in his signature shadow-gray tank top, overdyed slashed pants and high-tops.

"Once you start, you can never stop. You're looking at this financial burden for the rest of your life." Worse, he sacrificed a contained life that he called idyllic. Working and living across Las Palmas Avenue from Lamy's restaurant has helped create a comfortable nucleus that includes Lamy; her ex-husband and business partner, filmmaker Richard Newton; and their daughter, Scarlett Rouge Newton, 20.

"He's very family-oriented," said friend Anne Crawford, an L.A. publicist. "When he's here, his time is really precious. He'll be at the restaurant every night because that is kind of their cafeteria, and that's their family time."

It's easy to see Owens as a gentle, shy artist, but that image is incomplete. He's also the provocateur who grins when he shows you a self-portrait that he sent to several publications as his press portrait. It shows a naked Owens urinating toward a kneeling man. That was just one picture that he sent as an introduction to photographer Annie Leibovitz, who later shot him for a Vogue photo essay. The other showed him in bed with the scoliosis-afflicted dwarf transvestite Goddess Bunny.

"When people are a little too prim, I get impatient," he said. "And there's something wonderfully adolescent and rebellious about doing things like that."

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