In fashion, as in love, a feeling takes a human shape, and then a story starts. This one is about a man with a hand like a door handle. Every time I grab it, I fall. Into love and delightful new worlds.
Whoever says fashion is superficial denounces their body. No parent or lover will ever hold you as much, or as intimately, as your favorite shirt.
The man I’m dating tells me about Deleuze, brutalism, and fashion designer Rick Owens. And then things start shifting.
I’ve never understood sneakers outside the gym. It’s just the saddest thing to see people standing still in something meant for movement, but one day I find myself considering Geobaskets; they’re Rick Owens’s take on a sneaker, and they’re meant as much for speed as they are for marching. This could be the shoe of a modern-day urban army. Its high shaft and thick, padded tongue turn my feet, those delicate creatures with their countless tiny bones, into stronghold towers. I’m a sucker for magical thinking—I believe my crystal necklace has special, quaint powers—but these shoes are powerful beyond astrological or new age scheming. They seem to make the wearer unstoppable.
I fall, I fall, and the man I’m falling for, he pairs his Geobaskets with black, low-crotch pants of the softest satin I’ve ever felt. I had thought low crotches were only worn by djembe hippies and nineties skater boys. What modern Western man wears satin pants? It is, however, a thing of beauty to see a hard-on in satin.
Some things are better understood by skin than by intellect. When slipping into my first Rick Owens shirt, I understand his powers by touch and I never want to take it off. It’s not just comfortable. It’s also safe. Even my insurance plan doesn’t feel as good as these clothes.
A black, glittering turd on the white landscape of conformity—this is what Owens once called his work. Owens understands that darkness and humor hold hands. He gives men a chance at cleavage with peeping penis holes in his draped creations. In his Parisian store you’re greeted by a pissing wax figure in his likeness. It’s the fun of creation, like I knew it as a child. Of sun-baked mud cakes, patted by hand, the delight of dirt burrowed too deep underneath your fingernails to wedge it loose again. Of trying to cut open dead birds to see what’s inside.
The darkness in his designs is not so much to creep or shock, but more an acceptance of frailty. Despair is as much a part of love as death is a part of life. I lie awake when my love is not here. I worry when it takes me too long to reach him.
Owens calls himself an old queen, though his only major relationship has been with a woman. If we talk about love and fashion, up pops Michèle Lamy, twenty years his senior, and my devotion to Owens widens like a spotlight on stage that reveals the band behind the singer. Who’s leading who? The French Lamy is an icon in her own right, with fingers dipped in black paint, a gold grill flashing and a sardonic smile to match. She studied with Deleuze, joined up with the Parisian student rebellion in ‘68, quit her law study to perform in stripclubs with a transgender girlfriend, and ran two restaurants and a fashion label. She occasionally designs furniture for Owens now, or records songs with her band Lavascar. Please find the video for the song “Butt Muscle” by the “terrorist drag” Christeene, watch Lamy and Owens blissfully writhe around each other, and assuage yourself that age doesn’t mean you must resign yourself to a prison of sensible hairstyles and shoes. You can still enjoy a bath of lube and semen, dressed in an ostrich-feathered cape, any day of your life.
I grew up looking at my mother looking at herself and frowning. Strapped in, high heeled, and high haired, giving her best to the outside world but dejected by mirrors. I saw my aunts dieting, sucking in their guts, sitting upright, smoking instead of eating, trying to be modest in size, modest in grandeur, and yet still, somehow, trying to be the prettiest woman in the room. Goals doomed to fail.
I wanted to break free from that noose of femininity. So, I became a secondhand shopper. A tie dyer, a sewing machine queen, opposed to “fashion” that really meant consumerism, greediness, mass production, petty prettiness, and constricting sexuality. Why would anyone want to look familiar and agreeable, when they could be outrageous, wild, dangerous, and monstrous? I did still hold my breath though, when I inspected myself in the mirror. Something to do with old habits.
My current preferred looks range across preppy alien, fluor Buddhist, obstipated opera singer and psycho-killer girl next door. It’s the spectacle of life, walking into a supermarket and treating my fellow humans to a theatrical experience, shaking them and waking them up, with only the step of my boot or the colors on my face. There was so much space and freedom in my own body I’d forgotten to explore.
The hourglass ideal that haunted me since before puberty is set free by Owens. I can finally look in the mirror and not hold in my gut. I can march, twist, protest, sleep, run, and attend a gala dinner in his clothing. This is a revolution in itself.
My favorite Owens quote: Shyness is a form of vanity.
Eighty percent rationality, twenty percent flamboyancy, is how the designer describes it. Owens’s clothing lures you closer to the wearer. You don’t fully understand what you’re seeing, but you like it.
Owens appears regularly in solid platform boots and both his male and female designs carry see-through tops and drapings. He’s currently the only designer that’s still inventing new types of clothing. There’s a shirt that’s also a jacket, a dress that’s somewhere in between a scarf and a wrap around.
The body I’m in love with comes to me in different lights, moods, clothes. I touch the fabric of life and undress him of the textiles he wears. I wash them for him in his absence, by hand, like some holy, humbling ritual. I wear his clothes when he’s gone. We play, we try on titles, we put on little shows for ourselves. To become each other, to share and give bodies and “looks”—it is the best kink play I’ve ever known.
There is a little dent in his auricle, as if the chef that made him put his thumb on the skin when he was done baking and pressed it with a little blessing.
This could be anything. Blissful obsession, leaching nightmare.
Owens doesn’t follow hypes. He adds to his universe with every clothing article he thinks of. I can effortlessly match a skirt from the last season with a jacket from twenty years back. Is this how true love could be? Blending tender memories from only yesterday with something that happened decades before? Seeing the shy, young lover in the hands of his experienced older self?
He sees me as a stronger, bigger version of myself that overshadows the played-out version of myself I know too well. One allure of love is seeing yourself anew through the gaze of the lover.
Strong and tender, that’s how I’d describe Owens’s designs. He mixes hard fabric—coated denim, different types of leather—with soft textures like chiffon skirts and cotton dresses. His designs leave the lines of the body but follow the falling of the fabric. It’s not about the fit, but about how it hangs or stands off the body. Extreme silhouettes, instead of enlaced waists. There’s room for breathing and dreaming.
At his exhibition in Milan, I see a simple video of the master at work. He drapes fabric on a doll. Takes some distance, blesses a crease with a needle, takes some distance, crease, needle, distance. It’s meditative to watch someone realigning themselves to their work, and it’s something I crave as a writer. Too often I’m distracted by conditions. Deadlines, paperwork, social obligations. I spend too little time simply together with the words in front of me. How can I arrange them just so that they become sticky and stay with you as you read on? Grow inside you like a new little kingdom of meaning and metaphor? Crease, needle, distance.
Trying to find an ethical designer in a time of fashion moguls who overproduce and recycle trends faster than McDonald’s can greenwash its chain of hamburger patties is like looking for true love under your swiping thumb—yet they are there; waiting to be found. I buy a ring for the boy I fancy. Owens was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He bought his own factory in Italy to guarantee quality of manufacture and labor. When I think about sexy, I think about playing in his clothes, and he in mine; about strong leather against tender chiffon and Rick and Lamy bathed in lube and semen as they dance around Christeene; about being able to move in my clothes, and not holding my breath on my way to the party after the gala, or knowing where the mirror is before I enter a room so I can hide from it, or dressing like a psycho at the grocery store. I think of hard-ons under satin. But what really gets me going is honesty. There’s nothing as sexy as honesty, transparency, and fair pay.
What if we just let go and did whatever we wanted? Owens muses in an interview. For grown-ups, this is a premise for horror movies. But for children, this means wild, fantastic fairy tales.
Life can be too hard, too prissy. Every day we sit at a table and remember which hand holds the fork and which the knife. and forget we are holding the tools for a revolution. Rebellion is always an option, Owens reminds me. We can turn over the table, stand on its flat, bare belly between its upright legs and holler. Tell me about your new rituals, your new religions, your new ways to believe and to love. New ways of carrying yourselves and holding each other. New costumes. Times are wild and scary. When it feels like the center won’t hold, hold each other. Decorate yourself. Hold yourself. Carry your body the way Rick Owens would carry you. That shirt, how is it still the safest thing I’ve ever known.