He came and disappeared immediately. Rick Owens had little time – even at the opening of the first retrospective that is entirely dedicated to his own work. Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman is the title of his exhibition at the Triennale Di Milano, which showcases his work of the past 20 years in its entirety: from fashion, furniture, sculpture, and graphics, up to his performance-like fashion shows. When the visitors pass through a narrow entrance – the oblique wall evokes associations with a pyramid – it is followed by a sacral black room, complete with a gate made from vibrant horizontal spotlights.

After that, the exhibition begins. It’s not fashion that gives the first impression but a massive sculptural piece that runs through the entire curved exhibition space. ‘I have installed a black glittering primal howl of ego, self-doubt, love, rage, and joy in the Triennale Di Milano, composed of concrete, lilies, my hair, and the earth from the seaside in Venice where I will someday be buried,’ explains Owens. The structure winds its way on different levels and takes the viewer by the hand.

'Fascinated by primordial rituality, he explores ancestral forces as sources of creativity and innovation, distilling them with a sophistication of rare and metaphysical purity, with deconstructions, assemblages, and contaminations that allude to the multiple world of globalisation in which places, cultures, rites, and images coexist without the distance of time and space,’ says Eleonora Fiorani, curator of the fashion department at the Triennale Di Milano. The exhibition does not follow any chronological order, but examines Owens’ engagement with body and space, colour and materiality. As the designers says, ‘The story I’m telling is about the balance of control and collapse, and the temptation to overdo (it)...I like the idea of idealism, misguided or not, and its inevitable defeat. I like self-invention and even more when it goes a bit morbid.’

Mannequins are raised on metal scaffolding, showing complete outfits instead of individual garments. The course is interrupted by glass cabinets, full of invitations to the fashion shows, photography, accessories, and even a memento mori installation with a human skull. Furniture pieces are not raised on pedestals, but are ready for immediate use on the exhibition floor. Many of them are large-scale, fur-coated modules that can be transformed from seating to tables, inferring in an ambiguous manner a place between Stone Age and Space Age. Here, time does not seem to matter. Even pieces, which are almost two decades apart, blend into a coherent whole.

The final part of the exhibition is devoted to the fashion shows, which are projected onto the walls in large format. Music permeates the entire room and gets louder and louder the closer the visitor gets. ‘Someday, maybe I’ll do a quieter show to focus on the craft – the nuances of every grey I ever deliberated over, the cuts that finally felt right after days of frustration, the textures that seemed to say something authentic and true,’ states Owens. Nevertheless, the refinement and character of his Gesamtkunstwerk can even be experienced in the midst of a black glittering bombast.

Rick Owens. Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman, La Triennale Di Milano, Milan, until 25 March 2018