Lang redefined the face of modern fashion largely by listening to no one but himself. When asked if he fears taking his work public, he replies with Yoda-like equanimity: “It will mean something or nothing—but that is also part of the purpose. It’s time to grow, and eventually, it is what it is.”
At 52, Lang is tan and buff in his trademark uniform of black T-shirt and jeans. Only today, “funnily enough,” he notes, an amused smile lighting up his sober demeanor, “they’re by Levi’s, not Lang.” His dark brown hair, graying at the temples, is swept back and covered by a black cap that spells out swat in faded letters. Gentle and cerebral, he’s reluctant to probe or reveal, and his answers are often elliptical. Isaac Mizrahi he’s not. “I’m really bad at describing my own life,” he apologizes sweetly in accented English when asked whether he tends the organic garden out front. Taking the measure of the man can prove elusive, even for Lang’s closest friends. “Shy, reticent and mysterious,” is how sculptor Louise Bourgeois describes him. Artist Roni Horn goes further: “Helmut isn’t somebody you can approach head-on,” she says. “‘Enigma’ is a great word for him. He follows his own rhythms. He feels the undertow of his sensitivities, and that’s really more what’s directed him.”
To do something “slightly different,” points out Lang, “doesn’t mean that your personality goes away.” Horn says she wasn’t surprised by Lang’s latest move. “His clothing design was always sculptural in nature—very material based, very physical, and then sensual and sexual,” she says. “It’s his way of living and relating to things.” Asked for her appraisal, Bourgeois says in an e-mail, “Helmut is always experimenting. The subject is never the materials, but what you want to express.”
Just what Lang wanted to express as an artist took him some time to discover. He’s never been one to rush things. Preferring to experiment away from the public glare—just as he did when he started out as a designer in Vienna in the late Seventies—he moved to his house in East Hampton and told friends he was doing nothing. For a while he did. “The second you say something, everyone says, ‘When is it going to be shown?’ It’s this constant thing of ‘What’s next?’” he says, noting that he imposed this self-isolation to allow himself to think differently. “I wanted to take all the time I needed to feel comfortable with what I’m doing now, to transfer my voice to a different medium, to different proportions.” No longer ruled by the fashion calendar, he began archiving the clothes he’d designed and the notes and objects he’d collected.