It’s one of those glorious, cloudless days of summer, and Helmut Lang, the avatar of stripped-down, urban cool, strides past the restored 1790 farmhouse, the shingled chicken coop, the organic vegetable garden and the assorted ducks scrambling on his East Hampton oceanfront property to greet me. One of the most influential designers of the Nineties, whose cult status endures, Lang has been pretty much ensconced in this bucolic idyll since selling his remaining shares in his company to the Prada Group in 2004 and soon after resigning from the house he created. For the past three years, fashionistas have mourned his departure while speculating about what he’s been up to. But the über private Lang has remained mum about his new projects. All that is about to change: The 22 artworks that recently sat in various states of assembly on Lang’s front lawn, in his barn and inside his wood-beam house are now on view at the Kestnergesellschaft, a contemporary exhibition space in Hanover, Germany, which has just unveiled the first major solo exhibition by the artist formerly known as fashion designer Helmut Lang.
To Lang’s devotees, those who lived by his style dicta and spoke of his low-rise jeans in reverent tones, his shift from the center of the fashion universe to a solitary studio might seem a radical leap. But Lang’s sensibilities have always been firmly rooted in the realm of art. “I always felt that Helmut wasn’t really in the fashion world—he was in his own world,” says photographer Bruce Weber, a longtime friend who regards Lang as something of an outsider artist. In fact, it was Lang’s collaborations with Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois in the Nineties and his appropriation of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs for print ads that helped usher in the current mash-up of art and fashion.
As Lang sees it, his latest incarnation is simply “an evolution, a progression,” not a break. “I wanted to explore everything I knew on a different level,” says the Austrian-born Lang, now seated under a trellis at a simple wooden table overlooking sand dunes and the ocean beyond. “The size of the company kept growing, and I had the feeling at one point that I would become the victim of my own success and get pushed further away from what I worked so hard to be able to do. I did try to do more artistic work in between, but it was not possible to be one of the main players in the fashion world and then to do art at the same time. I was ready to take a new challenge, in part because in fashion, things have become very predictable.” His approach—whether to making fashion or art—is the same: “to arrive somewhere completely different from where you started.” Risk comes with the territory. “Once I’m committed,” he says, “I’m unafraid of the outcome.”