The work of Rick Owens has never been simple - it has always employed ample artifice - and it has grown more complex with his evolution as a designer, and move from Los Angeles' queer and leather circles to one of Paris' most celebrated shows. The show in particular took place at Owens' frequent backdrop - the Palais de Tokyo. The Palais speaks volumes to the motives and thoughts of Owens.
The Palais has a particularly important and lavish history in and of itself. In 1932 , faced with the exiguity of the Luxembourg Museum , and after the abandonment of Auguste Perret's project for a museum on the site of Trocadero, the idea of building a modern art museum in the city of Paris was promoted by Louis Hautecoeur, curator of the Museum of Living Artists hosted, at the time, in the Orangery of Luxembourg. In 1934, the state decided to build a museum of modern art. The City of Paris, owner of the land on which the Palais was built, committed itself to guarantee the loan launched for the financing of the International Exhibition of 1937. In return, the State finally accepted assumption of the construction of two museums of modern art, while committing to hand over one of them to the City of Paris to relieve the museum of the Petit Palais: that of the State to the west and the City to the east. The chosen site includes part of the site of the former Savonnerie carpet factory, transferred in 1826 to the Manufacture des Gobelins and then occupied by the military gentry. Southeast of the land, the land of the Polish embassy - initially spared for project - was ultimately expropriated in March 1935 and the embassy was installed in 1936 in the Monaco hotel located on rue Saint-Dominique, purchased by the State to carry out this transfer.
It is this famed and beautiful building which now plays host to Owens' designs, amongst others (Ann Demeulemester has also frequently used rooms in the Palais to show collections). This season took place between the two wings of the Palais, as it has in past - Owens creations on a lifted, winding runway behind a veil of coloured smoke, and with aggressive electronic music blasting in the background. Owens wished for his show to resemble the spectacle of the famed Burning Man in the American desert; “it feel a little bit like a riot or Burning Man. It adds a sense of play and recklessness. I want to be reckless and dangerous. I want to die a used-up wreck” Owens claimed.
The Palais de Tokyo, showcasing Owens' use of location and runway layout
This desire for the wreck reflected in Owens clothing. Paul Virilio once claimed that "when you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck" (inventer le navire, c’est inventer le naufrage) - so to does the invention of the cloth invent it's destruction. Contrary to the words of Luke Leitch of American Vogue, Owens is wrecked - yet, this is precisely the power of his collection and his work. Owens' work has always been anathema to the fashion orthodoxy of the safe, finished product, which will be replaced next season. Owens' work is a living dialogue of decay and subversion - his work from TRUCKER is as prescient as Thursday's showing of BABEL for precisely the reason that Owens fixation on the accident (in Virilio's sense) of clothing drives his work. The mutability and versatility of this truth is present in the pieces which stole the show - wearable tenting, which will be sold as parkas. “They’re nylon parkas,” said Owens, “and they are going to be shipped as nylon parkas, with the poles separately. So you can build them if you want to. But what you are going to see on the hanger is a nice, soft nylon parka—the poles represent what this parka can be. That’s the idea of hope; that is what the poles represent in a way.”
Owens inspiration was said to have come from the Constructivist trend in revolution-era Russia, later mainstreamed by VKhUTEMAS and Soviet artists. Specifically, a work envisioned by Vladimir Tatlin - the Monument to the Third International (Памятник III Интернационалу) - a work itself based on the Biblical tower of Babel, the Biblical origin myth of language. The work of Tatlin takes it's form from a 16th century painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who rendered the tower in it's most famous form. Owens in particular mentioned the interplay of themes between the Tower as envisioned in Genesis and it's rendition by Tatlin; "A Constructivist tower is about control, and the Tower of Babel is about confusion: everybody splitting up and too much information, too." Indeed, this tension has always been present in Owens' work. His suiting drives a nail into the heart of tailoring conventions, his footwear is the bane of the classical cobbler, and his leather and fur works shun any precedent in either texture (it is also worth noting that the invitation for BABEL arrived in the shape of a black cotton mouth mask that fastened around the ears). Owens work is a work which drives at the tensions and paradoxes inherent in the fashion industry.
Returning to the Tower, we consider Owens intentions with the name of the season. Certainly Owens has shunned many Christian teachings, yet in a subversion which does not escape theological and Christian structure (though we may not say for certain any modern Western art truly does). Owens presentation this season was one which focused on confusion. Indeed, confusion is a theme of the postmodern world - the breakdown of metanarratives and the localization of truth has wrought a general confusion upon the world, one which manifests itself in language, art, and culture - the schizophrenic undertones of the modern West. Yet, simultaneously, Owens attempts to find a balance, reflected in his use of Birkenstock as his collaborator for a large chunk of this season's footwear offering. Owens compared it to "taking muesli with your ecstacy". Perhaps this is the perfect metaphor for modern conventions, which Owens incorporates and twists at every opportunity. The world is decaying under the weight of information, civilization itself seems to have revealed deep faults in it's own structure. Owens confronts the Landian adage; God is nowhere to be found, yet there is still so much light! Light that dazzles and maddens; crisp, ruthless light. Space echoes like an immense tomb, yet the stars still burn. Why does the sun take so long to die? Or the moon retain such fidelity to the Earth? Where is the new darkness? The greatest of all unknowings? Is death itself shy of us? Just as Owens tactically used his collaboration with adidas to expose a deeper point, he uses Birkenstocks to make a point. It is not hard to see why the spectacle of Owens' work has so devoured the minds of the fashion week press - truly it is more than mere spectacle.