Outside In: The Influence of Rick Owens

In fashion, there's nothing more difficult than positioning oneself as an outsider.  If a designer's signature work really is appealing and comprehensible to only a select subcultural few, the label isn't likely to last long.  On the other hand, if those cutting-edge designs have broader marketplace appeal, key elements are likely to be absorbed into the vocabulary of fashion -- and their creator is no longer an outsider with a unique vision but a mainstream trendsetter.  How edgy are Alexander McQueen's signature skulls when they appear on a collaboration between Americana-loving Ralph Lauren and the global charity Toms Shoes?  How eyebrow-raising is YSL's androgynous "Le Smoking" when most Western women now wear trousers more often than skirts? 

Today's New York Times chronicles Rick Owens transformation from a "shadowy figure" with a "creepy aura" to "fashion's most imitated designer" -- an overused designation, to be sure, but one that always invites a photo essay.

 Biker jackets by Rick Owens (above), Grai (below left), and RM (below right).  For more images, click here

The more interesting question raised but not addressed directly by the article is where to draw the line between following a general trend in the air -- which, as Owens himself points out, "no one can really own" -- and simply copying, which doesn't do much for the copyist's reputation, even it if boosts his/her profits.  (As Counterfeit Chic readers know, that line between general inspiration and slavish imitation is also one of the issues addressed by the pending Design Piracy Prohibition Act.) 

The imitator's dilemma is captured nicely at the beginning of the NYT article, which opens not with Owens himself but Maya Yogev, a former Owens apprentice who now offers similar leather jackets under the Grai label:

"I've been told it's kind of copycat," Ms. Yogev said of her work. "That can be kind of frustrating at times." But comparisons to Mr. Owens "can also be useful," she added. "Once you mention his name, everyone is automatically drawn."
True design pirates, of course, are not intent on building artistic reputations and thus flaunt rather than cringe at cries of "copycat," a limitation for an industry that in the absence of law relies in part on social norms to control copying.  For professional designers, however, the line between inspiration and imitation -- or being on trend and being a mere copycat -- has real effects, and not just when the source is recent.  As Teri Agins notes in today's Wall Street Journal, "[D]esigners have a way of tweaking older styles so that they always look newer on the next go-round."  

As for Rick Owens, his growing influence raises a different question:  How does a self-styled outsider respond to becoming mainstream?  Let's just hope it doesn't involve reality television.