Rick Owens SS21 Womenswear “Phlegethon”: a grim gaiety

Designer Rick Owens. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Rick Owens is a designer who works entirely in a little world of his own creation. Each collection pushes the boundaries of this world ever so slightly, but never wanders too far from being gothic, muted, brutalist and somehow deeply glamorous. His newest Spring Summer 2021 womenswear collection might be one of his more vibrant, mottled with bubblegum pink and urine yellow. But the title itself, “PHLEGETHON,” is a reference to one of the rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology, which Owens interprets as “not quite the center of hell but on the way there.” To be clear, Owens’ work has always been apocalyptic, but now he truly has a reason to be: In reaction to this situation, he has chosen to include the gaudiest colors I’ve ever seen him work with. It’s an attitude best summarized by his show notes, which he most generously uploads for every collection: “a grim gaiety.” 

It’s fascinating how Owens interpolates two great crises, COVID-19 and climate change, into the staple pieces of the collection worn by every model in every look presented. The first piece is a version of his towering platform heels where the leather upper has been extended up past mid-thigh, nicknamed “waders” for the imaginary protection they would provide from sea level rise. After all, the show was held in Venice. Dante’s Inferno, also mentioned in the show notes, describes Phlegethon as a river of blood that places sinners at a depth in accordance to the level of violence they committed, at which point it’s important to note that the all the “waders” come up to different heights, a few of them colored red… The second piece is the face mask, which fits Owen’s aesthetic so effortlessly that it barely seems out of place, given that he’s previously included them in his runway shows, most notably with the tentacled face mask in his Spring Summer 2019 “Babel” menswear catwalk. 

Owens constantly references and repurposes his own previous work, and the masks from his Fall Winter 2012 collection “Mountain” are upcycled into fishnet knitwear for “Phlegethon.” He also continues to extend the limits of shoulder pads, going a little beyond his previous efforts in Fall Winter 2020 “Performa,” a choice which he calls “an exaggerated middle finger to doom.” It’s this move that makes the finest silhouette of this collection an extremely skinny upside-down triangle, best illustrated by look 13 (my personal favorite). If his penchant for mythology holds—and given the amount of cotton poplin tunics and togas included, it does—this emphasis on aggrandizing the shoulder might well be an allusion to Atlas holding up the sky on his back for all of eternity, a punishment which Owens is more than happy to help alleviate. 

“Phlegethon,” however, is hindered by lack of variation. Of course, Owens is always going to work within his signature style, but past collections have been more imaginative. The constant use of the “waders” and micro-shorts, though thematically consistent, becomes stale halfway through. This is partly because such a thick platform equalizes all of the models’ walks into clunky stomping. It also gives the bottom of half of almost every look the same silhouette, such that after a certain point, all of the interesting material comes draped only from above the waist. His shows generally use the same footwear throughout, but the combination of repeating  the same shoes and the same bottoms throughout comes across as laziness rather than adherence to aesthetic continuity. 

But maybe this dogged adherence is purposeful, even if its effects are harmful. The show’s first inspiration came from Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice,” a novella in which the main character is so ascetically devout to beauty and youth that he, as Owens puts it, “ends up dying on the beach from cholera during an epidemic with desperately age-defying hair dye running down his face in the hot sun.” With this in mind, Owens might be portraying himself. He spends his summers in Lido, the very same place where both the main character stays and where the presentation was held. As he’s pushing 57, I very much doubt that his mane of pitch black hair doesn’t also contain a copious amount of dye to run down his face should the days get hot enough. It’s not an insult—is his own situation not the same? Owens is an author of clothes, whose most important contribution to fashion is the statement “Working out is modern couture,” who is willing to risk putting on a show in the midst of a pandemic for the sake of beauty and youth.

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