Photography by Ryan McGinley
Vivienne Westwood got her start styling the Sex Pistols. Marc Jacobs modeled his 1992 Perry Ellis collection on the grunge look that Nirvana popularized. Green Day now brood in ads for John Varvatos suits. Rock and fashion have long been symbiotic, but today they seem more inextricable than ever, with designers like Karl Lagerfeld extending their reach to less mainstream artists such as newcomer Azealia Banks and indie nu-disco group Chromatics, both of whom the designer invited last year to perform at Paris fashion events.
In recent years, no one’s gotten off more on the fashion-musician-muse relationship than Hedi Slimane. The designer and shutterbug has shot everyone from Amy Winehouse and Courtney Love to Pete Doherty and Beck, and now, after taking the reins last March as Saint Laurent’s creative director, he’s found inspiration in a singer whose star has been on the rise for the past three years: Christopher Owens, the reedy crooner formerly of indie-rock darlings Girls. Slimane photographed him for the label’s fall/winter 2012 campaign, marking the San Francisco–based artist’s first turn as a professional model. “I was nervous about it,” Owens says. “I didn’t see myself as someone who could be in a high-fashion ad, but figured Hedi wouldn’t ask me if he didn’t think I could do the job.”
Perhaps it was Owens’s newfound image that convinced Slimane. When Girls first made waves around the time of their 2009 debut full-length, Album, Owens was sporting a somewhat androgynous look.
“I was trying to express myself in a genuine way with how I acted, but I wasn’t thinking much about what I was putting out, image-wise,” he says. Now, having split up the band to pursue a solo career -- he’s just released his first record, Lysandre -- Owens opts for a more dapper, traditionally masculine look. “I kind of want to be like a young Gore Vidal now,” he says. “I’m wearing suits and thinking a lot about the way I look. I’ve been reading Vidal’s novels in the order that he wrote them. He had this masculine quality; he was very strong and incredibly put together. Something about his persona is very appealing to me.”
Listen to "Lysander's Theme/Here We Go" here
Owens’s life could be a Vidal novel. At 16, he ran away from the nomadic cult he was raised in before stumbling into drugs, a relationship with a millionaire benefactor, punk rock, and, eventually, indie stardom. He identifies as straight -- his new album is named after an ex-girlfriend -- but admits past affairs with men have influenced his work. The opening line of the Girls song “Lust for Life” goes, “Oh, I wish I had a boyfriend/ I wish I had a loving man in my life.” Its video features two of Owens’s male friends naked in bed together. “I was brought up in an environment in which gay culture didn’t exist—I didn’t even know what it was,” Owens says. “But when I went out into the world as a young adult, I had some experiences with guys. I’ve had significant relationships with men -- some much older, some my age -- and they’ve always been with people I look up to very much.”
The musician has tried on more identities in his 33 years than most people do in a lifetime, and it’s that ability to experiment and reinvent himself that makes him not only a captivating subject for Slimane but a fascinating songwriter. Lysandre, a bittersweet collection of 11 tracks -- 10 of which he wrote in a single night -- recount Owens’s experiences on Girls’s first tour. (He plans to record a second solo effort later this year.) “To me it was all about firsts,” he says. “The first time on tour, in New York, performing in front of people, having an affair with a girl in France… I was looking back on it as a really incredible time.”
After years of donning his mysterious skins, Owens is ready to lay things bare, with both his modeling and the stripped-down-but-affecting music he creates. “There are parallels,” he says. “There’s an aspect of opening up, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and shy when people see it. My name is on all of it. I have to own up to everything; I can’t hide behind a band.” He adds, “But if I don’t feel vulnerable doing something, I’m afraid that means it’s not any good. I like that vulnerable feeling. It makes the whole thing seem more valuable.”
See Christopher Owens in the Saint Laurent campaign video below: