Lang’s approach upended the established order the moment he relocated to New York in 1997: He showed men’s and women’s clothing together on the catwalk, mixed luxe and casual, posted his collection online way ahead of most designers, and in 1998 permanently changed the fashion calendar when he presented his spring collection before the European shows rather than after them. Everyone else followed suit. And by not turning up to the fashion industry’s Oscars—the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards—in 2000, the year he was nominated in three major categories, he created a mini scandal. “I’ve never been interested in the event when I’m the center of attention,” explains Lang, adding that he would not attend his opening in Hanover either. “I’d rather have my work just be there.”
Lang’s first exhibition comes at a moment when teaming with a contemporary artist has become de rigueur for most fashion designers and when museums display and sell their handbags. But in 1996, when Lang first collaborated with Holzer on an exhibit for the Florence Biennale, whose focus was the marriage of art and fashion, there was little crossover between the two camps. They wanted to see how a designer and an artist could truly interact, “not be silly,” as Lang puts it, by having one of them make clothes and the other an artwork “which doesn’t mean anything.” They came up with I Smell You on My Clothes, a Proustian rumination on how the personal aromas left behind on clothing summon memories of the one who wore them. Lang created the scent for the room—a blend of “clean shirts, dirty linen, sweat and sperm,” says Holzer, who made two LED installations that hung from the ceiling, pulsing such poetic messages as YOU ARE THE ONE; YOU ARE THE ONE WHO DID THIS TO ME; YOU ARE MY OWN. The same text showed up in the Holzer works Lang later displayed in his clothing stores and perfumery, in which he also exhibited sculptures by Bourgeois.
Lang’s print ad campaigns were likewise prescient: Rather than use images of himself or his clothes, as most designers did, he used Bruce Weber’s portrait of a then 85-year-old Bourgeois, as well as a number of photographs from the Mapplethorpe archive, including a sculptural assemblage of hearts and daggers and a 1982 photo of Bourgeois with her latex sculpture of a phallus tucked under her arm, each of them “personal angles of American beauty and a way of life,” he says. “I never saw it as advertising. It was just another dimension of the work.” Either way, his association with the art world gave him a kind of high-minded clout rarely extended to fashion designers. In 1998 he collaborated with Bourgeois and Holzer on an exhibition for the Vienna Kunsthalle. (His contribution, a video of his runway shows projected onto a large mirror, invited the viewer to be both participant and spectator and is included in the Hanover exhibition.) Later Lang teamed with Bourgeois to design T-shirts and scarves. He even used two songs she’d recorded in the soundtrack for his fall 2003 presentation.