Aggression runs in Rick Owens’ blood. He describes his younger self as arrogant, alcoholic and aromantic, and his collections periodically revel in this state. For his menswear Fall Winter 2021 show “Gethsemane,” Owens has pared down his typical looks in order to better explore a side of anger that functions on a primitive level. The show’s title references the garden where Jesus agonized the night before his crucifixion and for Owens, Gethsemane is an analogy for our reality, where we nervously await some kind of resolution to our own agony. These connections are represented via the overwhelming use of olive colored garments as the sole contrast to his normally black and white palette, as the Biblical garden is notable for its olive groves. The particular shade simultaneously evokes a militaristic connotation of overarching violence.
In an interview with Steff Yotka for Vogue Runway, Owens worries about the timeliness of the theme of aggression, since the collection premiered just a few weeks after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and just two days after Joe Biden’s inauguration. The examination of his own aggression—his menswear shows are self-described as autobiographical and critical, while his womenswear shows are all about appreciation and respect—has incidentally become a deconstruction of the past four years of male hostility. He clarifies that because his menswear shows are autobiographical, they have always included some element of defiance, and though “aggression can also be kind of a joyful release… this time, I was more disturbed,” referencing the riot. Of course, the collection was designed far before the events on Jan. 6, but the root of his horror started with the fact that the election was not won in a landslide, and that in itself is terrifying enough.
But not all of Owens’ concerns with aggression are political. The Ramones’ simplistic punk energy pervades his collaboration with Converse, calling back to the revelation of attitude that the band represented for so many teenagers when they debuted. For fans, it is a moment of resolution, as years ago Owens designed both a parody and homage to the iconic sneaker which he dubbed “Ramones.” The shoes have since become one of his most popular designs. Along the same lines Owens has said that he has included more “regular guy clothes” in the new collection, both in an effort to be more inclusive and to draw attention to a sense of raw minimalism.
Yet this is all prefabricated context. What do the actual garments say? Unfortunately, not that much. Being Rick Owens, it’s by no means bad or boring, but in trying to include those more regular-guy clothes, he also undid what makes him such a special designer and such a special designer for men in particular. Many of the looks are built on classic skin-tight jeans, relatively inoffensive bomber jackets and tighty whities. Even though these are adorned with pentagrams, they also represent just about the most basic piece of clothing there is. Womenswear runway shows have historically been spaces for wild, imaginative and beautifully impractical creations. The catwalk becomes a theatre. Menswear runway shows are typically relegated to variations of the classics: the suit, a t-shirt, pants and shoes. There is no Iris Van Herpen for men; the closest that we have to her is usually Rick Owens.
Some of my favorite moments of pure spectacle are from his Spring Summer (SS) 2019 “Babel” collection. The model looked like he had crashed into a goth tent, and the tent had become a part of him; or from that same show, where another model stepped out wearing Birkenstocks-turned-boots, a skirt cut from the baggiest jeans imaginable and a wraparound mask that sprouted long glittery tentacles from his mouth. As long as I’m referencing his past designs—especially those that scream belligerence and flamboyance—Owens’ SS2014 “Vicious” had an Estonian hardcore band play a ten-minute song with an ever-increasing tempo. The whole time, the band’s two drummers were strapped, along with their drum sets, to a wheel spinning perpendicular to the ground. And halfway through, the singer and the three other guitar players were swung by their feet upwards to hang and play their instruments upside down for the rest of the show. That is what I would call an act of truly bitter, cathartic and playful aggression.
Despite this, the show does have its moments. There’s a particular hooded coat whose sleeves end in gloves, which holds several layers of meaning. It has zippers running down the bicep and forearm, giving the wearer the choice of using the gloves or not, a reference to the constant shift between the presence and absence of human touch nowadays. The tip of the gloves’ index finger and thumb is also cut off, a reference to our obsession with a contemporary design ethic that prioritizes technology over all else. And there’s something about the structure and length of the garment that also gives the timely feeling of a hazmat suit. Another amazing addition are the thigh-high “wader” boots, which were featured in the SS2021 Womenswear collection, except now they have been reupholstered in olive colored fur. The chunky platform and clear plastic heel give the appearance of hooves, and at a glance they transform the wearer into a satyr. These boots are so transformative and so fantastical that they almost make up for the lack of innovation elsewhere.
Rick Owens has never made a collection that inspires true apathy. Considering his track record, I doubt he ever will. Nevertheless, FW21 “Gethsemane” has proved to be somewhat disappointing, as even though it claims to be aggressive, it’s his past work that really bites the audience. This one just pretends to.