Helmut Lang: The Enduring Legacy of Fashion's Greatest Artist
Helmut Lang: The Enduring Legacy of Fashion's Greatest Artist
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date February 15, 2017
There are many Helmut Langs. There is the brand that upended the entire fashion world before suddenly caving. There is the artist who, to this day, presents contemporary work in some of the most renowned galleries in the world. Then, there is the man, who lives in relative anonymity on Long Island. While Helmut Lang, the brand, is firmly in the fashion sphere, and Helmut the artist clearly in the art world, Helmut the man knows no borders. A creative bar none—and I do not use the word lightly—Lang blurred the lines between art and fashion in a way no one had before or has since.
Lang was, and very much still is, an enigma; a man that came from rural obscurity and rose to international acclaim. A mountain boy that built a hundred million dollar business from nothing, sold it and then watched it crumble from the sidelines. An autodidact whose only formal fashion training came from helping his cobbler grandfather in his workshop. A perennial outsider whose influences were derived from everyday uniforms and abstract artists, seldom his fashion predecessors. A man who managed to question the very nature of clothing. Lang dared to ask what is fashion, why was it defined as such, and, most importantly, how could he change it? The most astonishing part? He succeeded.
The Lang legend, while exhaustively documented, still bears telling. Born in 1956 in Vienna, Austria, Lang’s parents divorced shortly after his birth, and an infant Lang was sent to live with his maternal grandparents in Ramsau am Dachstein, a small village in the Austrian Alps. Growing up in a home without phone or radio, Lang’s childhood was entirely removed from outside influence. As a child, he played in the shadows of towering mountains without a care for trivial things. His relationship to clothing was limited to assisting his grandfather in the aforementioned workshop, braving the elements. Fond memories of helping to resole tough leather mountain boots and dressing for the harsh winter conditions of the blistering Alps would go on to be fundamental to his oeuvre.
By age ten, Lang’s mother had passed away, and he moved to Vienna to live with his truck driver father and stepmother. A young Lang, with his rural upbringing and village customs, was wildly out of sync with his middle-class schoolmates. To make matters worse, his stepmother forced him to wear her late father’s ill-fitting suits on a daily basis. The culture shock must have been striking to the young boy who, after years in lederhosen, was suddenly forced into drab, blue collar wears. While army surplus and leather jackets flooded the Viennese streets, with the ’60s in full swing, Lang anxiously watched from the sidelines, tugging on his too-large polyester trousers, both metaphorically and literally waiting to rip free.
After finishing school in 1974, an eighteen-year-old Lang left home searching for direction. Working as a bartender in Vienna, he became involved with the local art and club scene. While working late nights, he would focus on the varying uniforms of individuals from each end of the social spectrum, from the working class to the aristocracy. While fashion was merely an afterthought, Lang began designing his own pants and T-shirts. When friends began to show interest, he met with a local seamstress and started to reproduce his wears. Demand quickly rose and by 1977, Lang had established a small made-to-measure studio in Vienna. Quietly making a name for himself, Lang spent the next decade developing a unique aesthetic: a chic minimalism that drew inspiration from the art world rather than capital-F Fashion. In 1986, Lang was invited to present his debut collection in Paris, off-schedule, as part of an exhibition on Viennese modernism at the Centre National D’Art et de Culture Georges-Pompidou. Following rave reviews, the house of Helmut Lang as we know it today was officially born.
Fashion moves in twenty-year cycles. Any cursory search into its history will show you as much. It’s why for the last few seasons, the nineties have felt so relevant and Lang’s work so prescient. Lang’s triumphant entrance into the fashion world came at a similar time. The glitz and glam of the 80’s were waning. Gianni Versace’s gold-sequined corsets were becoming gaudy. Dolce & Gabbana’s rhinestones too opulent. Jean-Paul Gautier and Christian Lacroix had more tutus between them than a ballet. Amidst this rejection, Rei Kawakubo quietly infiltrated Paris with her then boyfriend Yohji Yamamoto. Dark, deconstructionist fashion was having a moment. The arrival of their “anti-fashion” perfectly set the stage for a generation of minimalists such as Lang and, to a certain extent, Martin Margiela.
Minimalism—as both a concept and style—is so broadly defined and over-used that it bears little resemblance to its original meaning. Lang’s clothing is not minimal in the sense of Scandinavian Minimalism like early Acne—I mean, this is a guy who made sequin encrusted moto parkas with bondage straps. But it is minimalist in the sense of the art world. Artists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt are more suitable contemporaries.
To comprehend Lang it is critical to understand he never strove to be a fashion designer. He fell ass backward into the profession. Akin to the farm boy who becomes a Michelin star chef without stepping foot in culinary school, Lang developed his skills as a child. Sewing a pair of pants or creating a pair of leather boots was second nature. Like the farm boy who learns to butcher in order to make dinner, Lang learned to sew in order to mend his clothes and survive winter. Upon discovering the art world in Vienna, it remained his underlying passion. While he eventually became a top-class tailor and cited various uniforms from police to military as reference points, his design approach always felt more like artistic exploration rather than fashion design.
In the year following his exhibition at Georges-Pompidou, Lang introduced menswear and presented his first full-fledged fashion show as part of Paris Fashion Week. Showing men’s and women’s collections simultaneously well before it was the norm, Lang’s F/W 87 collection consisted of slim tailored looks with straight leg pants and made-to-measure footwear. Prefacing Hedi Slimane’s skinny suit, Lang restructured blazers and trousers like no one prior, with perhaps the exception of Giorgio Armani. Jackets had strong, wide shoulders, but soft panels that contoured with the body. Trousers were straight and narrow, with a taper below the knee. In just his first season, Lang laid out the suit template for the next decade.
After establishing a Parisian presence, the brand quickly became a highlight of the fashion calendar. By 1989, Lang grew tired of the traditional fashion show and introduced the concept of “Séance de Travail,” or “working session,” which 10 years later would define arguably his most famous collection. Lang viewed each session as a further rumination on his core philosophy. While he continued to pull inspiration from totally disparate themes, from Couture to Techno Jungle, each presentation felt quintessentially Lang.
Helmut Lang, the brand, owned the 1990s. While Calvin Klein may have had more pop-culture cache, and McQueen theatricality, no brand epitomized style quite like Lang. A short list of accomplishments in no particular order: bondage straps, latex, sheer, visible hosiery, Japanese denim assembled in Italy, interior straps, iridescent fabric, paint splatter, metallic fabrics, metal inserts, distressing, unconventional fabrics, neoprene, police swat gear, motorcycle pants, thermal leathers, technical fabrics, wet looks, paper dresses, live-streamed fashion show, CD-invite, exposed breasts, modular flaps, interchangeable pieces and a trans-continental relocation. And that’s all before 1998.
During the ‘90s, there were few fashion rules Helmut didn’t break, but perhaps more that he in fact established. Backstage photography? His work with Juergen Teller, who documented Lang’s working sessions behind-the-scenes, became monumental. Artist collaborations, too, were all Lang. He worked with Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer extensively, from gallery exhibition to store design. And unlike the haphazard capsules that designers do nowadays, Lang’s efforts were art pieces in themselves. Even New York Fashion Week was moved after Lang decided to show six weeks early. Following the switch, Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs moved their slots as well, and since 1998, New York has been the first stop on the women’s ready-to-wear calendar.
Like many of Lang’s actions, the move was inadvertent. Lang never set out to change the fashion schedule. He didn’t question the nature of clothing because of some pre-conceived notion of what fashion was or should be. He was a creator in the most basic of terms. He asked why things were done a specific way and thought what he could do to change or rework them to make them better.
Clearly, Lang came from humble beginnings. Until the age of ten, his wardrobe was defined by temperature, hot or cold, his only alternative being traditional festive clothing for holidays: deerskin lederhosen festooned with piping, patches and added trinkets specifically for the purposes of ornamentation. This duality between utilitarian and celebratory— the juxtaposition of ornamental elements with basic functional necessity— is at the core of Langs' work. His seminal S/S 1998 collection is a perfect example. What was once functional, like velcro, bulletproof vests and cummerbunds, became strictly ornamental. Then, for F/W 1999, he showed exactly the opposite, with bondage straps on the inside of parkas—fetish gear that provided additional support and wearability. This is precisely why his clothes were, and still are, as conceptual and outrageous as they were street-savvy. Lang kept his designs minimal, but his palette was exponential. Every detail deserved a second glance.
In 1998, Lang moved his studio from Vienna to New York. At this point, with the added success of Helmut Lang Jeans, introduced in 1996, business was booming. By 2000, the brand’s annual revenue exceeded $100 million. All the while, the larger fashion conglomerates were beginning to take shape. PPR (now Kering) and LVMH were snatching up luxury houses. Prada, at the time an independent Milan-based house, wanted in on the action, buying Jil Sander and 51% of Helmut Lang. Although Lang gave up his majority stake, he was under the impression that he would still be under full creative control. Miuccia Prada and then CEO Petrizia Bertelli, however, thought otherwise. The duo, who had made billions selling handbags and perfume, believed they had unlocked the secret to luxury success in the accessories market. They felt that the relatively affordable Helmut Lang Jeans line was far too commercial and, thus, unrefined. And although it made up more than fifty percent of sales, Prada and Bertelli were convinced that doing away with it and focusing on purses and scents was the key to taking Helmut Lang to new heights. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
The juxtaposition of high and low defined Helmut Lang. It was a brand for the people. As such, Lang made clothes for everyone, not strictly for some antiquated notion of the bourgeoisie many houses still cling onto today. This unique approach allowed Lang to sell jeans at $200 and distressed cashmere cardigans at over $2000, and no one batted an eyelash. Helmut Lang Jeans was not a diffusion label in the modern sense; it was a continuation of a core philosophy. To this day, Lang believes that everyone should own a pair of Levi’s 501s and he did his best to recreate them. Unfortunately, this idea did not fit the Prada mold.
From 2000 to 2005, Lang’s business plummeted, with revenue dropping to a low of $30 million. While Prada and Bertelli chalked the losses up to Lang’s failed attempts to create an “it” bag or successful fragrance, the lack of Helmut Lang Jeans was obviously a key factor. Although his accessories line, titled “Accessories Vêtements,” was often interesting, it paled in comparison to his clothing. It did not help that the public began to lose interest in minimalist fashion. And yet, despite all this, Lang remained fiercely committed to his vision and aesthetic. He became decidedly less involved with the money side of the business, preferring to focus solely on its collections. Sources speculate that Lang and Bertelli had a tense relationship. Though Lang maintains that he respected Bertelli, they simply failed to form a true working partnership between both the creative and business sides. While Lang’s later collections proved just as revelatory—the astro moto pant (2000), bottle-cap painted leather perfecto (2003), aviator pant (2004), the iconic nipple tank (2004) are just a few examples—they became more risqué, and, in retrospect, foreshadowed his eventual retirement and move towards art proper.
In 2004, Lang sold his remaining shares to Prada and, in 2005, decided to leave the label. Always somewhat of a recluse, he virtually disappeared, barricaded into his $15.5 million East Hampton home. From there, the brand took a nosedive. Following his departure, Prada sold Helmut Lang to Japanese holding company LTH, the owners of Theory. After acquiring Lang, Theory CEO Andrew Rosen attempted to stage a comeback. In the decade since, designers such as Alexandre Plohkov and Siki Im have taken stabs at revitalizing the label to varying degrees of success. Nowadays, the brand is more comparable to Vince or Rag & Bone than, say, Maison Margiela. Without the man, Helmut Lang lost its luster.
Following his departure, Lang famously shredded huge portions of his archive for an art installation. Hindsight bias aside, it seemed painfully clear that Lang would eventually move to the art world after his unfortunate end in fashion. His work with Holzer at the Biennale, “I Smell You On My Clothes” (1996), and presentation with Louise Bourgeois at the Kunsthalle (1998) clearly show a passion for installation. Again, this was a man who opted to advertise in National Geographic rather than Vogue, and ran fashion ads without clothes; a conceptual guru who created a scent reminiscent of clean shirts, dirty linen, sweat, and sperm, and stamped his logo on every taxicab in New York City. He always was an artist first and a designer second.
In 2008, Lang finally resurfaced to present “Life Forms”, mounds of smoldering fabric and ash, created from the remnants of his archive. Nowadays, he occasionally presents art pieces in various galleries around the world, and has, as of now, officially ruled out a return to fashion altogether. In his wake, an entire generation of designers sprouted. Craig Green, Raf Simons, Rick Owens and Yang Li, are all clearly disciples of Lang.
Two years ago, a decade after Lang quit the business, Vogue published hundreds of runway photos, documenting his ‘90s glory days. Skimming through, between photos of Amber Valletta, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Moss, you notice something: A majority of the clothes look relatively tame, normal even. This realization is a testament to Lang’s genius. He created a guideline for how we dress to this day. His approach to fashion was so revolutionary that, regardless of the fashion cycle, his influence still dominates the street. He was miles ahead. He did it all first. He was an artist and fashion was his medium.