Helmut Lang is an Austrian designer who founded his brand in Paris in 1987. He is an avant garde designer who uses exceptional tailoring and highly technical fibers to create a revolutionarily understated minimal aesthetic. Known in the fashion world as a hard working yet mysterious artist, Lang is responsible for creating a new uniform minimalist aesthetic in the 1990’s that continues to be referenced by designers and influence fashion today. By bridging a gap between the worlds of what was considered high fashion and ‘street’ fashion, Lang made jeans and the t-shirt a high fashion item. By moving to New York in 1997 and teaming up with stylist and ‘muse’ Melanie Ward, Helmut lang as a brand became internationally famous and recognized. Helmut Lang effectively dressed a whole generation of creatives through the 1990’s. The Prada group brought a large share of Helmut Lang in 1999 and Helmut lang himself left the brand to pursue art in 2005. These few years saw a downfall in the quality and artisanal precision of the pieces being made and was sold to Link Theory Holdings of Japan in 2006, the same group who owns Uniqlo. Since then, the brand has been directed by Michael and Nicole Colovos. Although ensuring the avant garde brand was successful in the global market, the brand has not been the same since Lang himself left. Despite that, Helmut Lang bestowed the world an androgynous, minimal uniform that shook the American fashion industry to its core. A guide to dress for success for the modern young counterculture professional.
Forming of the Understated Icon
Helmut Lang might be one of the greatest yet most understudied and under appreciated avant garde designer of our time. Born in Vienna 1956, he lived with his maternal grandparents in the Austrian alps in a town called Ramsau am Dachstein after his parents divorced. His grandfather was a shoemaker and young Helmut spent a lot of time alone in his room in the attic of the house. During this time, he took courses in fashion design among other interests at a local trade school. He moved back to Vienna once his father remarried but left in 1974 right when he turned eighteen. At the age of twenty-one he opened his first shop and designed T-shirts and jackets. Nine years after opening his first atelier in Paris, he established Helmut Lang as a brand in 1986 with his fist fashion show in Paris. In 1987 his minimalist design became a household name in his home country of Austria, that same year he made his first menswear line as well.
Helmut lang as a brand is synonymous with minimalism and deconstruction in the fashion industry. Among other avant garde artists and designers of the 1980’s and 1990’s, Lang is seen as one who bridges the gap between fashion and art. With a variety of high-tech fabrics and a highly urban and industrial looks, Helmut Lang exposes the body to resist and experiment with the terminology and theory of what the definition of dress is. Lang is the creator of a design language and aesthetic that is starkly androgynous, and uses monotone palettes while mixing what might be considered ‘high fashion’ with low fashion, like jeans. The Helmut lang 1999 Biker Jean is the perfect example of this expression and design. Between 1990 and 1999 Jeans, underwear, footwear, perfumes, and accessories were added to the brand.
Juxtaposing technical and natural, Lang’s design and fiber techniques have undoubtedly impacted and pioneered its own territory in fashion. In dress theory, clothes show a framed nakedness. Clothing turns sensuality into sense. Clothes turn the natural body into something that is meaningful by adding a spiritual dimension to a purely naked sensual one. Therefore, when experimenting with layering nylon and silk, or incorporating metals reshape how we think about framing the body. In the modern world, the flesh is shaped through body modifications like excessive exercise, tattoos, and piercings such that is as much or more rigorous than the past with pieces like the corset. Within dress theory, Helmut Lang centered his design around this point that questions and challenges the definition of dress. “What he did continues to influence fashion,” says Joanne Arbuckle, Dean of students at FIT. He created the minimal uniform of “the flat front-pant. The man’s three button suit. The low-rise jean.”
This new uniform was novel and groundbreaking for the fashion industry in the 1990’s as it bridged a gap between streetwear and high fashion. Bernard Wilhelm, a German fashion designer is quoted in i-D Magazine saying, “without Helmut Lang, there would be no Céline, no Raf.” On September 18, 2000, John Seabrook proudly stated in the New Yorker that Lang understood exactly what he needed, “a uniform for the new casual world.” According to Katherine Betts, editor in chief for Harper’s Bazaar, “Lang did for T-shirts and jeans what Ralph Lauren did for club ties and tweed jackets – he made them fashion garments.”
Teaming up with British stylist Melanie Ward and then moving to New York in 1997, proved to flip a switch within the fashion industry. Ward discovered Kate Moss and put her of Face Magazine in 1990. More importantly, she was the creative director and muse of Lang’s for thirteen years; she was integral to the ushering in of a new era of minimalist design with Lang. By moving to New York together and showing ahead of season, to this day New York designers show first. That Fall Winter show in 1997 is arguably one of Helmut Lang’s most important collections and is essential to the brand’s uniform minimal aesthetic.
In 2000, Lang was nominated for all categories of that years American Fashion Awards, something that had never happened before as well. As a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the precedent and aesthetic set by Lang was greatly appreciated by the council, and the nominations were proof of that. Being the golden boy of the night, the work ethic and epic of Helmut Lang that he had been recognized for continued at the buffet-afterparty when he simply did not show up because he was back working on his spring 2001, menswear collection. Because of this, editor-in-chief of Interview went on stage to accept the award for Lang and thanked the council of fashion members in the crowd for “changing the rules of fashion,” which did not sit well with many in the tent full of said rule makers. Cathy Horyn that New York Times fashion critic was sitting next to Oscar de la Renta and other New York big shots and later reported that de la Renta repeated “changed American fashion?!” in an incredulous tone. Both Andre Leon Talley and Anna Wintour described Lang’s absence as a mistake and somewhat childish. The fashion community thought that Lang had gone too far this time. By mixing men’s and womenswear collections together, mixing high and low fashion, dropping out in 1998 to produce a show on the internet; editors were given CDs’, and now this. Although Helmut Lang was the first designer to stream his show on the internet in 1998; a massive first for the industry, and it is easy to see his brilliance in this way, the American fashion industry was not pleased.
In 1999 Prada bought a large stake of Helmut Lang. Joe Craven of Vogue says Prada took while 49 percent, while Highsnobiety states 51%. At the time in 1999, Helmut Lang’s revenues were roughly 100 million, but a few years later in 2004, that number dropped to about 30 million. Many attribute this decline to the cutting of the successful denim line. Regardless of what numbers tell us, Lang was clearly not pleased with the creative and economic liberty taken away from him. In 2005, Lang left his brand to focus on his life as an artist. he now focuses primarily on sculpture and industrial art. Regardless of his seemingly short-lived career in fashion, he holds a prestigious position in the fashion industry and in dress history. In 2006, Prada sold the Helmut Lang brand to Japanese, Link Theory Holdings who also own Uniqlo. They brought in Michael and Nicole Colovos to experiment with fabrics and continue the legacy of minimal design. Link Theory’s president Andrew Rosen has made it public that “the door is always open for Lang if he chooses to return.”
However in decline the brand was in, or however the American fashion industry regarded Lang in his first years after arriving in New York, he is a revolutionary figure in fashion. With the reputation in the end as a hardworking and somewhat mysterious artist, Lang did indeed set a new standard for the whole fashion industry, not just the local New York scene. His advertising included a “fearless and intellectual appearance,” as a Helmut Lang ad campaign once read. His skin scented perfume is also a perfect example of what Lang’s aesthetic. In addition to the extremely minimal web page in the early 2000’s, the perfume ads featured distinct phrases that scrolled past the reader’s eyes: “I walk in-I see you-I watch you-I scan you-I wait for you-I tease you-I breathe you-I smell you on my skin.” His sophisticated approach to uniform utilitarian wear set the stage for many great artists and creatives to come. His minimal design and exposure of skin is one of the most copied and imitated aesthetics in fashion to date. Lang’s avant garde fashion has been imitated and referenced by the likes of Kanye West, Rick Owens, Balmain, Alexander Wang, Yang Li, Lee Roach, and Calvin Klein. As moderate and natural the color palate is, the focus of tailoring, exact exposure of skin versus dress, and use of bondage straps and industrial clothes design like bulletproof vests landed him the title of one of the most influential designers of the past three decades. By experimenting with new boundaries in fashion, Lang is one of the most respected designers in fashion and is a founder of minimalist design, further bridging fashion and art.