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Helmut Lang

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An anomaly in every sense of the word, Helmut Lang’s upbringing was as unusual as his ascent into fashion hierarchy. Born in 1956 in Vienna, Austria, Lang’s parents divorced shortly after his birth and he was sent to live with grandparents in Ramsau am Dachstein, a small village in the Austrian Alps. Lang was raised without a phone or radio in the house, leaving him no ties to the world outside of the mountains. His grandfather was a cobbler, with Lang learning the trade by helping him resole mountain boots for the harsh winters. Lang lived this simple mountain life until age 10 when his mother passed away and he moved from the Alps back to Vienna with his father and stepmother.

Lang graduated high school and left his father's home in 1974. He began working as a bartender in Vienna and became involved with the local art and club scene. It was during this time that Lang began designing his own pants and T-shirts. When his friends began to take an interest in his designs, Lang had a local seamstress reproduce his creations. By 1977, Lang’s designs created enough demand to warrant establishing a small studio. Over the next 10 years, Lang developed his own aesthetic, drawing particular inspiration from the art world. In 1986, Lang was invited to present his debut in Paris, off-schedule, as part of an exhibition on Viennese modernism at the Centre National D’Art et de Culture Georges-Pompidou. The collection received high marks—a predecessor to the birth of the Helmut Lang label.

Fall/Winter 1987 was a landmark collection for Helmut Lang, as it marked the brand’s first official fashion show during Paris fashion week and the introduction of menswear. The collection was impactful on the fashion industry in two ways. The show featured the men’s and women’s collections presented together, an unusual practice at the time. It also introduced what would become the suit structure of the ’90s: jackets with wide shoulders and soft panels and pants that were straight from the top but tapered below the knee.

Suits wouldn’t be the only thing Helmut Lang made a major impression on. Along with Juergen Teller, he practically invented the genre of backstage photography. In the fall of 1998, Lang decided to show his collection six weeks early, which caused Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs to do the same. This move changed the scheduling of New York Fashion Week forever. Keep in mind: Lang never intended to be a disrupter; he changed things because he simply thought he could improve them.

Lang’s childhood in the Alps greatly informed his collections. In his youth, Lang essentially had two small wardrobes: his everyday clothes—meant to brave the temperatures of his environment—and his traditional Austrian clothing, typically reserved for the holidays. The combination of these two types of clothing, the functional juxtaposed against the ornamental, would come to define Lang’s work. In his Spring/Summer 1998 collection, there were bulletproof vests: an item with a very clear function and purpose, used instead as a decorative layering piece. The Fall/Winter 1999 collection featured a parka with bondage straps on the inside for added support. It’s this combination of dark, edgy decoration with beautiful, minimalist design that made Helmut Lang the fashion icon he is.

By 2000, Helmut Lang was a massively successful brand and still rising. At the same time, fashion conglomerates like PPR (now Kering) and LVMH were building their armies of luxury houses. Prada, not wanting to be left in the cold, purchased 51 percent of Helmut Lang. Following the sale, Lang himself thought he would maintain the same creative control he’d had through the years, but unfortunately he did not. During the brand’s rise, Helmut Lang Jeans was introduced as a relatively affordable diffusion line, becoming a massive success that eventually made up over 50 percent of sales. While Helmut Lang’s mainline pieces could retail for thousands, Helmut Lang Jeans’ products could be had for $200. The new majority owners were not fans of this affordable line, and in turn replaced it with what Prada did best: accessories.

“Accessories Vêtements”, as it was known, marked the beginning of the end for Helmut Lang the designer. In the next five years, the company's revenue plummeted. The accessories line failed to excite customers the way Helmut Lang Jeans did and by 2004, Lang had seen enough. In 2005, Lang sold his remaining shares and left the label entirely.

Today, Helmut Lang owned by LTH, a Japanese holding company that also owns Theory, which many have compared recent Helmut Lang collections to. Though the brand still lives on, at one point hosting guest designers like Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver, it is ultimately missing the groundbreaking energy it carried in the 1990s.

Lang’s departure naturally led to the clothing he created in his heyday to be glorified by archivists. To this day, his iconic Painter Denim, Cowboy Tee and other pieces are heavily sought after to this day.

Who is the designer for Helmut Lang?
The current head designer of Helmut Lang is Mark Howard Thomas.

Where is Helmut Lang manufactured?
Helmut Lang is currently manufactured in China.

When was Helmut Lang founded?
Helmut Lang debuted his first collection in 1986.

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