Back in 2001, when Helmut Lang was at the peak of his career, I had the temerity to ask him if there could ever be a Helmut Lang without Helmut Lang. In retrospect, I have no doubt that I was speaking rhetorically. Lang was the most influential fashion designer of the 1990s. Prada had just purchased a majority stake in his company; he was opening stores around the world (New York, Milan, Paris); he was launching fragrances with Procter & Gamble. Yet even as he adopted all the trappings of global-brand stardom, his clothes maintained an electrifying intimacy. The thought of Helmut Lang without him was—for me, anyway—simply unthinkable.
His answer was yes—and no. “Why not?” he replied. “I can’t say that I cannot imagine it. After all, there is Chanel after Chanel. Yes, it is possible, but it becomes another thing.”
A few years later, Lang quietly exited the company he had founded in 1986, decamped to Long Island, and took up life as an artist. Despite his absence from fashion for more than a decade (or perhaps, you could argue, because of it), Lang’s influence can be felt now more than ever. It is in the Crombie coats and lacquered cowboy boots in Raf Simons’s debut collection for Calvin Klein. It is in the fact that Gucci sends both men and women, their clothes almost interchangeable, down the same runway. It is thanks to Lang that the international fashion calendar kicks off in New York rather than ending there. Helmut Lang’s influence is everywhere, it seems, except in the brand that still bears his name.
“There are a lot of brands operating without the designers who started them,” says Andrew Rosen, who became the chief executive of Helmut Lang after Link Theory Holdings acquired it from Prada in 2006. “There are different ways to be successful at that.” His own approach was, he admits, a rather conventional one: Under the creative direction of husband-and-wife team Nicole and Michael Colovos, founders of the denim line Habitual, Rosen sought to make the high-end cult brand more accessible.
“The Helmut Lang business under that formula was very successful,” Rosen says. “But I didn’t believe in its future. The original ethos of the brand gave us the opportunity to be more promiscuous.”
Indeed, like the clothes he designed, which could give the outward appearance of respectability, the codes of rave culture, fetish, and S&M all the while embedded in their details (was that a backpack strap or a bondage strap?), Lang continually subverted the system in which he seemed to play an increasingly vital role. Lang was in fashion—but never of it. He would send cryptic messages into the world by, say, putting his name on New York taxi tops, a low-brow vehicle for advertising no high-end brand had considered touching; similarly, his print ads rarely featured any discernible product.
Lang wasn’t aggressively selling to you so much as drawing you in. (“For me,” he said, “a found audience is better than a targeted one.”) He was someone who followed his own instincts—and those of the people around him. He famously surrounded himself with strong women, including his longtime collaborator the stylist Melanie Ward, the artists Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois, and the photographer Elfie Semotan, who was among the many close friends who walked in his shows. “Women,” Lang said, “are survivors and explorers and bring things forward.” (Fun fact: In Lang’s fall 2000 collection there is a pink pussy hat. Go look it up.) The idea for a Helmut Lang fragrance, a typical strategy for brand growth and global recognition, in fact grew out of a collaboration with Holzer for the 1996 Florence Biennale. Lang conceived a scent to accompany Holzer’s text (I BREATHE YOU/I SMELL YOU ON MY SKIN), which he would later employ when he officially launched Helmut Lang Parfums.
In his contribution to Visionaire’s 1995 Hype! issue, Lang was already poking fun at the naked ambitions of his peers. The fake ad, for Helmut Lang Industries (“The only company that cares for you”), photographed by David Sims, featured a nude model whose wig, tattoo, and foot cream are all credited to Helmut Lang.
Last March, Rosen recruited Isabella Burley, the editor in chief of the British music-and-style magazine Dazed, to be Helmut Lang’s first editor in residence. Her task: to bring back a sense of excitement and urgency. “Basically, I wanted an experience that was much more curated, and represented what I felt was the authenticity of the brand,” Rosen explains.
While the main collection is being designed by an in-house team (the Colovoses departed in 2014), starting in September, Burley will be implementing a new multipronged strategy, introducing a series of artist collaborations and capsule collections by guest designers. “No one is under the illusion that we are going to find another Helmut Lang,” Burley clarifies. “This is how we are getting around that fact. It’s not about finding one designer. It’s a new way of thinking.”
Burley, who is 26 and grew up in London, came to know the original Helmut Lang brand not through the clothes but through the advertising. “When I thought of Helmut Lang, I thought of the campaigns and his work with artists like Jenny Holzer,” she says. “That touch point between fashion and art and what it could create blew my mind.”
For Helmut Lang Seen By, Burley is inviting artists, including Carolee Schneemann and Martine Syms, to express their idea of the brand in a handful of images. The series kicks off with some early black and white photos by Walter Pfeiffer. One in particular, of a boy with a jagged haircut, brings to mind the Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of a mustachioed young man with an eye patch that Lang had used to promote his jeans line.
Another typical ad featured Ward, her father, and her brother Anthony, who sports butterfly wings (you can tell from the remote shutter release in his hand that Anthony also took the photo). A new campaign, shot by Ethan James Green, will extend the Helmut Lang family to include the former porn star Traci Lords (for whom Lang made custom pieces for a 1995 Details magazine spread), the model Alek Wek (who walked in Lang’s shows), the 9-year-old activist known as Little Miss Flint, and the Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver, who will also take a turn as the brand’s first guest designer.
“Helmut Lang has been such a big influence on so many designers,” observes Burley. “Why not invite them in to interpret the brand in their own way and to offer a sort of love letter back.” Oliver is a smart choice. Like Lang, he gathered a community around his brand, making a new generation feel they were a part of something from which they had been deliberately excluded. “When I called Shayne about it, he was like, ‘Helmut Lang is mother. He is mother to me,’” Burley says.
Perhaps most exciting, however, are the Helmut Lang Re-Editions. This fall, the brand will begin to roll out a selection of pieces reproduced from the archives. The first volume features 15 mostly unisex items, including the silver Astro Moto jacket from 1999, a ribbed sweater with Lang’s signature slit at the elbow (1997), painter jeans (1998), and a hooded parka (1998). There are also a few quirkier (kinkier) accessories in the mix, including whiplike horsehair earrings (2004) and a key chain (2005) that could possibly double as a bottle opener—or a cock ring.
“We are trying to think of Helmut Lang as an estate of an artist,” Burley says, adding that subsequent volumes, which will appear every four months, will address different themes from the Helmut Lang oeuvre. “Volume 2 is youthful and summery, Volume 3 might be bondage. Volume 4 might be metallic.”
The archive to which Burley has access fills a room about the size of a walk-in closet. In 2009, Lang began strategically gifting pieces to fashion, design, and contemporary art collections. And then, in the wake of a fire in the building in SoHo where his studio was located, he said he became intrigued by the idea of destroying anything that remained and using it as raw material for his art. (A few months before Lang left his company, I gave him back a latex-and-lace top from 1994 that had calcified on the hanger, with a note saying, “I can no longer wear this. Maybe you can use it as a sculpture.” Little had I known…) What was left, about 6,000 pieces spanning 25 years, he shredded to create the works that comprised “Make It Hard,” his solo show at the Fireplace Project, in East Hampton. He described the experience as “cathartic.”
Far from being a coherent catalogue raisonné, the archive as it stands exudes a sense of what has been left behind. Some of the pieces are unremarkable; others are obviously commercial (what Ward would probably describe as “something Prada made us do”). But many have aged well (I, for one, hope Burley puts a certain acid pink tank dress back into rotation ASAP), and a few, like a silk-organza gown with horsehair epaulets, are simply breathtaking. Burley is working to fill the gaps, buying things off eBay, or borrowing them from private collectors. “Given the way we are trying to invite different designers and artists into the brand, we need to have something for them to respond to,” she says.
While I am admittedly thrilled to be able to replace that threadbare slit-sleeve sweater, and am eyeing those painter jeans, what I am most nostalgic for are the pieces that Lang hasn’t yet designed—and never will. I remember the frisson that went through the room when the first look came out on the runway and it became clear where he was taking us next. All we can do now is speculate.
“It’s different to feel and work in the spirit of someone; it is more limiting,” Lang said in that same interview from 2001, finishing his thought. “If you work on your own piece of history, you are able to be continuous but also take unexpected turns and create turbulence and contribute newness and excitement. You free your mind of the expected and then do exactly the opposite of what people expect from you the next season. I feel that is only possible in the first lifetime of an artist or a trademark. It’s only fashion that allows this anyway. Can you imagine an artist producing artwork under the trademark of Jackson Pollock, or a director doing movies under the trademark of Alfred Hitchcock? Well, think about it.”
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