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Rick Owens’ Brutalist Ethos Remains Relevant 18 Years After His Runway Debut

Rick Owens Spring/Summer 2020 "TECUATL"

Photo by Jason-Lloyd Evans


In recent years, it’s been hard to ignore the rise in popularity of high fashion. With the popularization of Instagram archive pages, and the so-called bastardization of the term “streetwear,” the general young, social media-driven audience has shown their interest in coveted, and oftentimes strange, fashion labels.

From constantly repeated captions of lyrics to A$AP Mob’s song “RAF”, to Playboi Carti being decked out in full Alyx, the spread of avant-garde fashion into the mainstream has been blatant. However, one designer has managed to stay relevant as ever, 18 years after his first runway show; Rick Owens.

The California-born and raised designer has been working in Paris since 2003 and has been creating ever since. Owens’ fan base has adopted the brutal moniker of “The Lord of Darkness” to describe the designer, who despite stating his brutalist inspirations, comes across as a calm and mellow human, just like the rest of us.

Rick Owens in 2020

Photo from Getty Images Europe

As the world has changed since 2003, so have Rick Owens’ collections. From models sporting full-body deep-black coats in his 2007 collection titled “EXPLODER,” to iridescent Bauhaus jackets in 2020’s “TECUATL,” Owens has been slowly adjusting his collections and shows just as the world adjusts around him.

Owens’ collections have always drawn inspiration from the brutal. Runway shows often feature hypnotizing techno. The drop-crotch and sleeveless look that Owens is known for resembles a concrete pillar, a nod to the cold and rigid style of architecture known as brutalism.

While Owens has evolved and explored different collections and ideas throughout his career, he has always retained one thing; a devout following.

Michael Smith runs the Instagram account @_smithstagram, and has developed what he describes as a “modest internet presence.”

Smith’s account showcases a variety of content featuring him wearing different outfits and sometimes striking different gymnastic poses, but most of his posts have one thing in common; his outfit entirely consists of pieces designed by Rick Owens.

This passion for the brand has netted Smith over 3,000 followers on Instagram, and a level of recognition on fashion communities such as Reddit’s r/malefashion and 4chan’s /fa/.

“I think the term [cult-like following] is pretty fitting. There’s a lot of people who are pretty much devoted to Rick as the only thing they wear, but also Rick as a cult-leader type of entity,” Smith said. “There’s some level of worship in there, more than just being a fan.”

Smith attributes the cult-like following to the fact that Owens covers all of the bases when it comes to his ethos. It’s possible to do everything in a “Rick Owens” way.

“If you wanted to live a nearly entirely Rick Owens lifestyle, and you could afford to, most of the options are there. You can get your dining silverware if you need it. You just have to spend a few thousand,” Smith said.

The noticeably colorful shift in Owens’ collections leads Smith to believe that the “Lord of Darkness” tag is a dated term, and doesn’t apply to his modern work.

“Backtracking across the last five or six seasons of Rick, he’s stopped really being all that goth,” Smith said. “He’s like glam rock now. Rick was goth for a while, and now anything Rick does become goth…I think even his “dark” stuff was a little more light-hearted than people gave it credit for.”

Something that keeps Owens’ clothes exclusive is the price tag that comes along with them. With outerwear and shoes often costing over $1000, it’s hard to believe how someone lives in full Rick Owens as Smith does, but he says it ends up being easier than people think.

“I don’t buy anything at retail price, or anything near. I buy things for offensively cheap to Rick. I’m not really helping that guy out at all,” Smith said. “The price tag is what a lot of people see and think ‘you’ve got to be rich to wear that,’ and if I compare myself to a lot of my friends who buy a lot of fast fashion stuff, I tend to be spending less and selling more.”

Smith described his process of building his Rick Owens wardrobe as a sort of snowball effect. It began with a pair of Geobaskets, and from there spiraled into outfit building.

“It all sort of builds. Everything in Rick is sort of meant to piece together in a pretty simple way, and that’s what lead me into owning as much of it as I do,” Smith said.

While Smith understands why some people wear Rick Owens as a means of self-expression or having knowledge about avant-garde fashion, he sees it more as just wearing something he likes.

“If I’m doing any self-expression it’s just expressing that I like someone else’s art,” Smith said. “I’m a canvas at this point. It feels nice to wear art I enjoy but it doesn’t take any effort on my part. I can just sort of finding something I like and present that to the world and go about my business otherwise.”

Smith is a prominent member of the Rick Owens Discord, a community of Rick Owens fanatics, some of whom have a presence in online fashion communities such as /fa/.

“It is very strange to think about the fact that I come to someone’s mind when they think of anything that isn’t me,” Smith said. “I love showing up on /fa/. People talk a lot of shit on there.”

Since Owens has begun incorporating more glam and colorful elements in his recent collections, Smith feels that this change is not a new direction, but a return to form.

“A lot of people point to this as Rick sort of embracing himself a little more in his old age. The heels, the skinny stuff, the slightly sexier glam clothes, those are not new concepts to Rick. These are what Rick grew up on,” Smith said. “I do think he’s feeling positive and feeling more like himself lately, which is nice. It tends to make more successful art.”

With Rick’s recent ventures into color came along a rise in mainstream popularity, in part due to prominent rappers such as Playboi Carti being seen sporting the brand. Smith feels that it’s hard to deny their influence on “who sees Rick and who wears Rick.”

“I think that some people see that and know that Playboi Carti wears Rick, and they’re like ‘oh, I guess it’s cool,’ and they get a little more accepting about it.”

Though Rick Owens is only sold at one retail location in Arizona, his clothes can occasionally be seen fighting the desert heat. Morgan Howell is a Rick fan living in Arizona who had an all-too-familiar stumble into the brand.

“It started out with a few pieces. Maybe he did a really good job of building an entire ecosystem like Apple where you start with one thing. I feel like Rick Owens purists don’t think his stuff looks good without other Rick clothing,” Howell said. “There’s a thought in the community that it’s better to wear all Rick than mixing and matching designers and brands.”

Howell agrees that when somebody gets into Rick Owens, it goes beyond just the clothing.

“There’s a lifestyle to it, which is kind of fucked up,” Howell said while laughing. “When you’re in the community you like brutalist architecture, and everything’s goth.”

Another crucial part of the Rick Owens ethos is the emphasis on fitness. Rick Owens famously said in his 10 rules of style, “Working out is modern couture. No outfit is going to make you look or feel as good as having a fit body. Buy less clothing and go to the gym instead.”

“I know people who have picked up being into fitness after being into Rick stuff,” Howell said.

While the Rick community has accepted the avant-garde clothes into their daily routine, Howell believes it’s good to still be self-aware and realize that the clothes aren’t regarded as “normal” to the average person.

“I like being fashionable but also being self-aware and tongue-in-cheek. I feel like I like the balance of ‘I’m wearing pants that look like a diaper and my crotch is six inches above the ground and my proportions are completely out of whack,’” Howell said. “It makes you look like your torso is extremely long and your legs are extremely short. Rick is self-aware in the fact that you look like a fucking goof.”

Howell says that while he’s aware of how other people perceive the clothes, it doesn’t hinder his enjoyment of the label.

“It’s just something about it. I genuinely like the way it looks. I like to look in the mirror at it and I like the way I look in it,” Howell said. “I feel like there are some people who like Rick and get a little too serious about it and it’s like, dude, we look like fucking idiots.”

While it’s hard to say what the future holds for Rick Owens and his evolution, Howell said he feels that Rick will keep developing his brand and style in ways that haven’t been done.

“I’m sure he would get bored of just doing the same old shit. I think he really enjoys evolving and trying to switch it up and not just repurposing the same old designs,” Howell said.

While Rick’s popularity has only gone up, Howell said he doesn’t see that being a hindrance to the brand, but something helpful.

“I don’t want to shit on it and be elitist and say, ‘I don’t want people wearing Rick Owens, that’s my thing.’ I think that’s a corny mindset,” Howell said. “Would I want it to be the next Vlone? No. Not really, but if you wear it and like the way you wear it even though I might not, oh well, as long as you enjoy it.”

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