It’s been 15 years since Helmut Lang’s resignation from his namesake brand, and ultimately, his departure from the fashion industry into the art world. Before his exit, the Austrian designer pioneered a new design language, one that championed counterculture style in luxury fashion, from androgynous silhouettes and utilitarian garments to quintessential minimalism and sharp-cut tailoring. While Lang remains reclusive to the fashion world, his legacy lives on in the fashion sphere inspiring an extensive list of designers and brands including Matthew Williams for Givenchy, Rick Owens, and Alexander Wang to name a few.
Perhaps he inherited his affinity for craftsmanship from his father, who worked as a shoemaker in a village near Salzburg, Austria. Originally a business studies major, it was not long before Lang followed in his father’s footsteps and switched over to fashion design. Shortly after in 1977, Lang opened his first studio at twenty one years old, and by the mid-’80s he’d made a name for himself and launched his first catwalk showing in Paris in 1986.
Lang’s innovations extended beyond garments, he excelled in the fashion world with his outlook from the get-go embracing technological advancements of the new millennium with ahead-of-the-curve marketing and design. In an embrace of androgyny, Lang is credited with being one of the first designers to show mens and womenswear alongside each other. In recent years, brands have followed in his footsteps including the likes of luxury fashion houses such as Burberry, Gucci, and Vetements have combined their historically separate mens and womens shows into gender-unified runways.
He sealed his status as one one of fashion’s most forward-thinking designers, when he became the first creative to debut a collection on the internet. The Fall/Winter 1998 collection’s 81 looks–jackets, parkas, sweaters and trousers in his signature neutral color palette–launched online at HelmutLangNY.com, on CD-ROM, and were featured in a video starring the models Kirsten Owen, Tatyana Patitz, and actress Darryl Hannah.
He inspired an entire generation of new designers when he premiered his 1998 collection online. The fashion industry now functions in a ‘phygital’ space, where online and offline environments are combined to elevate the brand experience. The the SS21 fashion month wrapped up a predominantly digital line-up including an ethereal lookbook from Rodarte, a Moschino puppet-show, and a completely CGI show courtesy of GCDS.
Lang facilitated many firsts in 1998 and the larger fashion-scape. The coolest, and most radical young designer decided to switch show venues from the brand’s homestead on the Paris runway, to New York, but also decided to show it first—before Europe, before anyone. He did so with no approval, and asked no one to join him. Regardless, many followed suit such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. Lang effectively created the fashion week schedule as we know it today– with New York first to kick off the season’s latest looks.
Additionally, 1998 was the year he became the first designer to advertise on New York City taxis. Perhaps the taxi ad is one of his lesser-known innovations, but arguably remains an ingenious idea that has since left a lasting impression. More than two decades later, countless fashion houses have adopted the communication and marketing strategy. In 2018, said adverts were even a part of Helmut Lang the brand’s archival re-branding—a fleet of 275 Lang-adorned taxicabs took to the city’s streets.
Regardless of all the time that has passed since his exit from fashion, current designers continue to draw inspiration from Lang’s accomplishments and work, including 34-year-old Matthew Williams, the newly appointed Creative Director of Givenchy and founder of the influential 1017 ALYX 9SM. The latter was founded in material luxury that adheres to the subcultural and industrial, traits reminiscent of Helmut Lang in the 1990s. Williams’ minimalist workwear and sharp-tailoring operates within the metropolitan and utilitarian ethos that Lang spearheaded. Recognizable for his buckles, the Milan-based designer incorporates unique craftsmanship into his creations, in which he unites technical innovations with human emotion.
Williams’ definitive approach and experimentation with technical fabrics is reverent of Lang’s radical garments that elevated ready-to-wear into the avant-garde, and introduced streetwear into high fashion.
Recently, Williams debuted his inaugural collection as artistic director of the French Couture House Givenchy. Williams leant his cutting-edge vision to the characteristically couture silhouettes, creating a synergy of striking urban sensibility and elegance. The Spring/Summer 2021 collection echoed his penchant for hardware, where he incorporated crafty embellishments and chains into bags, shoes and outerwear. Sharp-cut tailoring and architectural qualities frequented the 54 looks; forms popularized by Lang’s quintessential minimalism.
The chief architect of ’90s minimalism reimagined everyday basics, through a sophisticated and geometrical lens. Lang’s masterful handling of light fabric and construction resonates with contemporary designers such as Alexander Wang. The American designer started his namesake label in 2005, the same year Lang left his own—over the years Wang has consistently channelled Lang’s signature deconstructed shapes and transparent layers; from sheer t-shirts that were a staple to his Spring 2019 runway, to cut-out dresses for Spring 2017. Wang has even created an entire line dedicated to delivering casualwear necessities; T by Alexander Wang features clean cuts, lightly structured tailoring and muted palettes, eliciting the urban polish of Helmut Lang archives.
Bondage and fetish-wear were among Lang’s most recognizable designs, as he incorporated straps and harnesses into the interiors of jackets. Similar elements appear in the work of the gothic Rick Owens, who has previously strung the fetish accessory across entire collections creating an industrial and militaristic aesthetic. Lang’s reference to bondage is evoked in new renditions and current trends such as fashion floss; strappy detailing adopted by the Gen Z cult brand I.A.M.GIA, and other younger fashion houses such as Craig Green and Hood By Air.
Lang’s innovations don’t stop there. The trailblazer invented designer denim, initiating jeans into the catalogue of high fashion items. He splattered a range of pricey jeans with rubber-based paint, so it couldn’t come off in the wash—mimicking painter’s workwear, exploring his own affinity for uniform garments. On others he integrated the seamed, ergonomic knees of motorcycle pants—now, the biker jeans made by luxury house Balmain are one of the brand’s most beloved and distinctive pieces. Frequently worn by the likes of celebrities such as Kanye and Kim Kardashian West, and routinely knocked off by smaller labels. Their origins can evidently be traced back to Lang.
In 2017, Isabella Burley, Helmut Lang’s first editor in residence launched a multi-pronged strategy to revamp the brand. Inspired by Lang’s iconic campaign collaborations with feminist artist Jenny Holzer, Burley invited a number of artists, including Carolee Schneeman an Martine Syms, to express their interpretations of the brand in a series of images.
Pieces from Lang’s tenure at his namesake label turned into their own cottage industry, which the brand mined to deliver its Re-edition collection. The label continued to celebrate its heritage; the range was rolled out in three volumes including an assortment of pieces reproduced from the Lang archives. From painter jeans, and his ribbed sweater with the signature elbow slit, to bondage themed styles such as a pleated skirt with corset-like ties. However, even with the archival re-issues, restoration of the brand’s original logo, and renovations to the website and social media channels; Helmut Lang has yet to reassume a leading position at the forefront of fashion innovation.
Lang has momentarily returned to fashion for a collaboration with Saint Laurent’s ongoing Rive Droite initiative. The designer-turned-artist reunited with the French maison, to join forces with creative director and long-time Lang stan Anthony Vaccarello. The pair question luxury and function through sculpture, drawing from Lang’s deconstructivist skills. YSL’s surplus clothing and accessories are mixed with resin and cast in aluminum ‘to breathe life into otherwise forgotten goods.’ The series of sculptures are set to be on view first at Saint Laurent Rive Droite in Paris before being showcased in Los Angeles.
“Helmut was the first to stand up against artificial promotional messages,” said Vaccarello in an interview. “His vision and his art direction brought everyone back to the real and meaningful essence of fashion.”
Even when he reached the pinnacle of his design career, Lang worked within the intersection of fashion and art where his designs could be perceived as art installations. Lang was ahead of his time, he embraced the unconventional with his forward-thinking marketing, minimalistic designs and use of high-tech fabrics, in a time where everything in fashion circulated around maximalism and big production setting a precedent for the future of fashion. Lang’s garments and ethos have and continue to be the object of cult worship across the fashion industry. Not many can make just a t shirt look chic, but such designers like Lang with inimitable talents create fashions that outlast trends and succeed in everlasting style.
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