AUTEURS: HELMUT LANG
Helmut Lang brought chic minimalism and sculptural design to the forefront of contemporary fashion. A man who needs no introductions, his sartorial garments mixed with a sense of futurism, have created a cult following amongst new and older menswear enthusiasts. From Raf Simons to Off White, to the larger fashion house of Dior and Celine, Helmut’s Industrial-street sensibility has laid the foundation of menswear for the new century.
Helmut Lang was born in Austria in 1956 and was raised by his two grandparents in the alps. Lang would later leave behind the rural setting of his childhood to partake in the burgeoning art scene of Vienna. Originally concentrated on sculpture and art, Lang dropped out of college to pursue a career in fashion. He began making custom T-shirts and jackets for himself, then for close friends. Word-of-mouth soon spread in his native Vienna and by 1977 he had set up his made-to-measure atelier at the age of 23. After years of laborious work, the designer began to receive a regular influx of clientele within his mother country.
Following this perpetual success, Lang was included in the 1986 Paris exhibition "L’ Apocalypse Joyeuse". This was due in part from the support of the Austrian government, who were happy to have their artists included in the spheres of influence of Paris and Milan. That same year the designer decided to continue exhibiting his collection in Paris, each presentation being a universal mix of both male and female lines, respectively. He called his shows "Seance De Travail" translating to "work in session". Lang found this title to be more modern and would coincide well with the fashion journalist audience who were to cover his collection for the next few months.
\Helmut Lang's debut into the menswear high fashion sphere brought back a look that had been missing throughout the better part of the 60s and 70s. While major fashion houses and other retailers favored colorful suits and plaids Lang brought the traditional color palette of black and white men's tailoring back into the mainstream. He recontextualized this classic monochromatic look for a contemporary generation, creating more uniform silhouettes. A design cue that would later expand to his knitwear, denim line, and other garments he would create. A modern sleekness was adopted, counteractive to the garish tailoring, and lurid design elements of the 80s.
One of Helmut Lang's standout contributions to fashion was his denim line. A decade prior, jeans were still seen as grubby utilitarian wear, devoid of all sense of luxury and high-fashion. Lang spurred the market forward by creating a unique line of earth-toned and monochromatic high-quality jeans. Each pair was constructed in Italy and featured cuts that were flattering to a wide majority of body shapes. This included his Classic Cut, Italian Cut, and Boot Cut jeans among other patterns. He brought street style to denim by adding unique mud washes, rubber paint splatters, and wax treatments to the garments.
The Classic Cut pair of jeans is a reinterpretation of the iconic Levis 501xx 1947 cut. The timeless five-pocket design with metal rivets was the paragon of American made denim. This close to the body cut was in vogue at the time as a fitted seat and slim-straight design had become customary with modern tailoring.
The painter jeans are among one of Lang's most well-known and beloved designs. The rubberized treatment allowed the unique paint splatters to remain intact after each wash. The jeans were shown on various 90s catwalks, but most famously in his Spring Summer 1998 collection.
The jeans were featured in New Order's 2001 record "Get Ready", along with a distressed tee shirt by Lang with photography done by longtime collaborator, Juergen Teller, and directed by the renowned Peter Seville. The cover is famous for showcasing Helmut Lang's propensity for androgyny and unabashed sensuality.
By the time his Autumn Winter 1997 collection reared its head, the designer had relocated to New York from Paris. This move to America would mark not only a significant change to the label’s design ethos, but the fashion calendar as a whole. Lang had turned down a position as creative director for Balenciaga and set his eyes on the new culture that permeated the United States. His minimalist ads were placed on billboards, taxicabs, and unassuming spaces throughout NYC. A marketing campaign that resonated deeply with the fashion sphere, celebrities, and club scenes within the city.
From Autumn Winter 1998 to the Spring of 1999, Helmut Lang released some of his most canonical collections to date. The first of this saga showcased Lang taking the first steps in embracing a new internet age in the world of fashion. This included an online stream of his Autumn 1998 collection via his sleekly designed website. Although the internet was still in its infant stages, Lang’s maneuver to showcase his collection in a public forum has since become the new norm within the industry.
This is just one of many collections that illustrates the conjugality of Helmut’s military-inspired garments, fine tailoring, and street-style approach. A majority of the looks favored a monochromatic color palette with only slight variations in hues. Some noteworthy pieces were the beige flamethrower jeans paired with military-style shirting and tailored coats and sneakers. At the time this blend of distressed garments with tailoring and working-class uniforms was unheard of. Today, outfits like look 34 of the catwalk have become ubiquitous in menswear and streetwear circles.
The following year, Lang had decided to show his collection six weeks ahead of New York Fashion Week. Effectively changing the calendar to include New York first instead of last. While it was not his intention to up-end the industry, his decision did just that. A year later and all American fashion labels had moved on to the new calendar, exhibiting their shows ahead of Paris and Milan.
Come the end of the century and the dawn of a new Millennium Lang sought to embrace the futuristic and space-age culture of the states. His Fall Winter 1999 collection showcased the conception of a new favorite Helmut Lang uniform, the Space-Suit. Models wore padded outerwear and bottoms reminiscent of NASA suits in shimmering silvers, bright orange, and military greens. The garments were each constructed out of unique cotton blends, sequin fabrics, and sturdy ballistic nylons. The monochromatic colors were well in-line with Lang's minimalist aesthetic while at the same time displaying his affinity for American culture, utilitarianism, and otherworldly chicness.
Spring Summer and Autumn Winter 2003 exhibited Helmut's love for tactical-wear, workwear, and their relationship to S&M culture. The designer saw himself and his clientele veering away from minimalism. Instead, he embraced an older vision of punk rock stylings with distressed garments and T-shirts mixed with geometric stylings. The models wore layers of unique fabric blends, from wool coats with leather sleeves to string-like tank tops layered over with sheer and mesh tracksuits. The street-style and wrap-around bondage details of the catwalk resonated well with the club and techno culture of Europe at the time.
Helmut Lang's final Spring 2005 collection for the label felt like the beginning of a new design language by the artist. Though elements of simplicity and elegance were ever-present, long gone was the chic minimalism of the 90s. The designer elevated his looks with draping and knotting techniques suggestive of fisherman and sailing cultures, while never once being inculcated by a thematic component. Painted trousers and flared mermaid dresses with knotted abstract prints completed the beach and summer looks.
In 1999 Helmut Lang had sold a 51% stake of his company to the Prada group. They spearheaded the development of new accessory lines during the early 2000s and let Lang handle the advertising campaigns as well as design for the brand. Prada would also be responsible for cutting the once extremely profitable denim line, causing a dip of over 60% in revenue.
After a few years of clashing with Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli about the direction of the brand, Helmut Lang decided to sell his 49% remaining shares of the company to Prada in 2004. A year later dejected and unhappy with the direction of the label Lang would leave his own brand. Following Lang's departure, Prada would go on to sell the label to Tokyo-based Link Theory Holdings who is still running the brand to this day.
Following his departure from the fashion world, Lang felt a rush of renewed vigor to pursue his original passion and began fresh as an artist. Throughout the mid-2000s Lang began archiving a lot of his old work in fashion. It was only until a fire in 2010 had damaged much of the archive that he decided to rid himself of it altogether. He used the charred remains and scraps he made for his "Make It Hard" Exhibition.
The exhibition showcased 16 pillars made up of natural and synthetic fibers from his former archive. Each pillar is sculpted and dyed to create a new form from what was once soft, mailable, and fluid to now, more rigid and austere. The pieces themselves are a call back to Lang's former profession while at the same time signifying his new shift towards the art world with an unrelenting attitude.
A figure whose work quite literally rose from the ashes of his former triumphs, Helmut Lang is not to be boxed in. The last few decades saw the man lead a menswear evolution through his austere sartorial prowess. He brought new life to American fashion, moved the industry forward, and set the standard for innovation in fashion ads and campaigns. Now he sets about instilling his creative sensibilities within the world of art.