The Reading List

What I’m Reading: Mr Rick Owens

On the eve of the publication of his two new books, the designer and bibliophile reflects on the literary masterpieces that inspire him

  • From left: Rick Owens by Mr Rick Owens. Photograph courtesy of Rizzoli. Legaspi by Mr Rick Owens. Photograph courtesy of Rizzoli

“I think I have already written my biography – in my books, runway shows, interviews and clothes. Anything more would just get too cheap and disappointing.”

Though we’d never say no to more content from Mr Rick Owens, we get his point. As a clothing designer, Mr Owens is one of the all-time idiosyncratic greats, having put together a body of work that is virtually unimpeachable. His sculpture, furniture and otherwise unclassifiable art (some of which, including the mixed-media “turd” made up of his hair and sand from his beloved Lido beach in Venice, was included in the retrospective of his work in Milan last year) is singular and astonishing.

His books – large-format, coffee-table tomes – are memorable, and not just because of the imagery. In fact, one might say Mr Owens is among the best writers in the fashion business (anyone who has ever read his show notes, which he writes himself, will recognise the delicacy, sly humour and often profound thoughts illuminated in his vivid, all-caps writing).

This month, Mr Owens is releasing two more into the canon. First up: Rick Owens, a compilation of his lookbooks, with photographs by Ms Danielle Levitt taken from behind the scenes on show days. Then Legaspi: Larry Legaspi, The 70s, And The Future Of Fashion, about the designer who created the signature looks of a range of artists – from Mr George Clinton to Kiss – in which Mr Owens interviews Ms Patti LaBelle among others.

On the occasion of the dual release, we chatted with Mr Owens about his reading habits, why he never keeps dust jackets and who inspires him.

What books do you have by your bed?

Bios of [the designer and architect] Josef Hoffmann, and [the actor Alla] Nazimova, the works of Eliel Saarinen and Otto Wagner, and a gorgeous first edition of the music and words to Richard Strauss’ opera Salome that was given to me by the model and journalist Cordula Reyer. But, I actually never read in bed – I just chain smoke and watch old movies.

How do you shop for books?

I’m not much of a bookstore browser, but, saying that, I can never resist a museum bookstore. I think I follow one book to another. For instance, the James Lord book Six Exceptional Women probably led me to the John Richardson book Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters, which maybe led me to [the poet] Glenway Wescott, and so on. I come across people I want to know more about and then order online. I accumulate stacks of books. I save up for the beach, which is where I really do my reading – there, and on flights and trains where I have no responsibility to answer emails or production questions.

  • From left: Six Exceptional Women by Mr James Lord. Image courtesy of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Eliel Saarinen by Mr Albert Christ-Janer. Image courtesy of Amazon. Mapp And Lucia by Mr EF Benson. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Why do you think you are drawn so heavily to biographies these days? What are some recent favourites?

I think my earlier years were about absorbing impressions, expressions – Mallarmé, Maugham, Colette and, oh yes, a young, earnest Ayn Rand moment – but my current years are about creating my own expressions. And I think my current focus on reading all those creative bios is to check on how others navigated a creative life to see if I’m doing it right. I seem to concentrate on creators from the 1930s and 1940s (my preferred aesthetic period), where I can see a full and consistent commitment to a resolved creative arc. But I do love frivolity. I am currently tickled by the writing of TH Robsjohn-Gibbings, the 1940s architect and furniture designer, who wrote imperious observations on architecture and modern art. I will always endorse the Mapp And Lucia series by EF Benson as a classic in passive-aggressive pettiness. And, in my nineties, I am going to read Beverley Nichols’ work exclusively – giddy 1920s gardening books that are about elegantly bemused living, but occasionally drop a casually profound aside.

We should talk about your aversion to dust jackets – what’s that about?

I always take the dust jackets off books when I buy them because they are now mine and I am going to use them up like toothpaste or scented candles. The shiny dust-cover graphics usually just look like garish advertising to me and I love for the colours on the cloth covers to fade, too. I spill coffee on them and drip seawater on them and I fold the pages as page marks.

Do you exclusively read physical books? You don’t have a Kindle hidden somewhere in your bag, do you?

I can’t get used to reading digitally. I love the idea of condensed convenience, but need the expansive luxury of a book I can smell.

Mr Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel À Rebours was a momentous book in your life. What was it about the book that so struck you? Has your estimation of it changed at all in the time since?

This book gave me license to unapologetically pursue and wallow in selfish exquisite pleasures of the senses. Rigorously. And I liked that the protagonist is based on Robert de Montesquiou, who was also the inspiration for Proust’s Baron de Charlus (which then led me to the Robert de Montesquiou bio, Prince of Aesthetes, which, of course, I had to read). À Rebours has an Art Nouveau shopping list quality similar to American Psycho’s 1980s shopping list vibe, which reminds me that I ought to reread Huysmans’ Là-Bas.

What is the best book about fashion or a designer? Who writes particularly well about fashion?

I actually rarely buy books on fashion, although they are often sent to me. I recently did a preface for a book on Charles James that I was enthusiastic about because it had a great balance of salaciousness and real academic research. He may not be a writer of books, but the curator Olivier Saillard’s perspective is always going to be poetic and smart. And Angelo Flaccavento’s observations are always perceptive and tart without getting snarky. Tim Blanks’ scope of references is thrilling.

  • From left: The Damned by Mr JK Huysmans. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House. American Psycho by Mr Bret Easton Ellis. Image courtesy of 1stDibs. Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters by Mr John Richardson. Image courtesy of Penguin Vintage

Which books would we be surprised to find on your shelves?

There are a few books I have a copy of in each of my places: Dornach Design [by Mr Reinhold J Fäth] about anthroposophical design; Irwin: Retroprincip 1983-2003, a monograph from the Slovenian art collective; Eliel Saarinen by Albert Christ-Janer; Robert Mallet-Stevens: L’oeuvre complète, and The Apes Of God by Wyndham Lewis.

What book do you wish existed?

An English translation of the recent bio of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles.

How did the Legaspi book come about?

The Legaspi book is actually something of an autobiography because I have edited and art-directed his life into the black and white melodramatic theatrical piece I wanted it to be, emphasising the facets I was interested in and callously ignoring the ones I wasn’t. The fact that he took a Fritz Lang futuristic showgirl aesthetic and applied it to black soul culture with Labelle in the 1970s, and then middle-America stadium metal with Kiss after that, thrilled and inspired this small-town sissy to blast free and find his way.

What is the best book you ever received as a gift?

The super stylist Panos Yiapanis has stood by my side for 60 runway shows. I have always called him “Pansy” and he has always called me “Mary”. Knowing this, the brilliant editor and writer Jo-Ann Furniss recently gave me a Joan Crawford autobiography – a deliciously cringe-inducing book – inscribed “To Mary” in Crawford’s own actual handwriting.

Further reading

  • Rick Owens Hustler Oversized Layered Printed Cotton-Jersey Sweatshirt

  • Rick Owens Appliquéd Fleece-Back Cotton-Jersey Hoodie

  • Rick Owens Level Stretch-Jersey T-Shirt

  • Rick Owens Ribbed Virgin Wool-Blend Sweater

  • Rick Owens Quilted Nylon Drawstring Sweatpants