AS A DESIGNER, HELMUT LANG HAS ALWAYS HAD HIS OWN HIP AGENDA, OUTSIDE THE RULES OF THE MAINSTREAM. BUT HIS ARRIVAL THIS PAST JANUARY IN NEW YORK CITY WHERE HE NOW LIVES AND WORKS, HAS TRIGGERED AN EXPLOSION IN FASHION'S POWER POLITICS.
BY SARAH MOWER
FASHION EDITOR: MELANIE WARD
Fashion is totally collaborative,” says photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who worked with fashion editor Melanie Ward and set designer Jocelyn Beaudoin on “Helmut Lang U.S.A.”, creating images that are “symbolic of America, Norman Rockwell and those old studio portraits where there was always something quirky in the picture.” Mark spotted the two children in the pictures selling lemonade at a parade in Manhattan the day before the shoot. “They brought a little bit of reality into the images,” she says, “and I’m a realist at heart.” Mark is currently preparing a book of photographs of America, from the 1960s to today, to be published by Aperture.
Unless you knew, you wouldn't even remotely suspect that the longhaired guy in the khaki acid‑washed denims and white T‑shirt is one of the most in‑demand and influential fashion designers in the world, a force so strong that a simple decision of his has tipped the order of international collections upside down. When Helmut Lang announced, on July 6, his intention to show his spring collection in New York unprecedentedly early ‑September 17‑ the effect was astonishing. Within days, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan declared they'd show that week, too, setting in motion a breakaway group of New York shows scheduled to go before London, Milan and Paris. That is a big statement of confidence in the international standing of New York as a fashion center. And it's an even bigger statement of confidence in one man: Helmut Lang.
So take a closer look at the cool 42‑year‑old guy everybody wants to be around. His real power comes from his work: He has delivered a convincing, wearable, loved and relied‑upon urban uniform for a global category of men and women. Arguably, his aesthetic has defined our shifting times as succinctly as Armani's did in the '80s and Yves Saint Laurent's did in the '70s. More interesting still, he's done this out of Vienna, slowly, quietly, operating in a closely controlled margin of visual codes and privacy. Not many people can conjure up a picture of Helmut Lang's face. That's entirely intentional. Lang doesn't give many interviews, avoids celebrity and inhabits a self‑determined anti-publicity zone accessible only to a network of trusted friends.
For 10 years, I've known Helmut Lang as the pale, slightly underground gunslinger who'd show up in Paris, score a hit collection and then disappear into the tantalizing obscurity of Mitteleuropa. Yet here he is, on a summer's day, sitting at a SoHo cafe, relaxed and ‑surprise!‑ tanned, absolutely at one with the beat of New York City. He's agreed to talk about his decision to close his studio in Vienna and move his business to Manhattan this past January, a news item that was one of the fashion gossip highlights of 1998. Has New York changed him? How has it been to swap Vienna for the full‑on lifestyle of downtown Manhattan and the Hamptons? How can someone so private live in such a publicity‑hungry city? This is what I want to know.
Dress, about $840, and slides. Both, Helmut Lang.
Over two days, Lang allows me to visit his office and showroom and hang out with him in some of his favorite places. We talk, smoke Camels and do dangerous desserts together (one plate, two spoons, his order). Helmut Lang is one of those unusual men who actually converses, listens to what you're saying, thinks about it before replying, lights your cigarettes, makes jokes, laughs at yours, is considerate, stands up when you come in, values his friends, has a life, is grown‑up, likes women. Needless to say, these are not the behavior patterns you'd expect in someone who keeps himself so carefully at arm's length from the public. And to me, liking women‑really liking, listening to and respecting women‑is the best qualification for any designer.
Lang is also resolutely "normal" about himself and the sensation surrounding his arrival here. He says so many of his European friends have ended up in New York already, he was almost the last to do so. He made up his mind in 1997. "After working for 10 years in Vienna, we'd finally got a huge studio space renovated perfectly," he says. "But the day after we finished it, I went to New York to open a store, and I loved the place. Really loved it. I stood in the store and thought about Vienna and realized: right space, wrong city." Manhattan, he says, has turned out to be a perfect psychological fit for him, both personally and creatively. "When you arrive here, it's like…,” he searches for the right words, "being in love. When you're not in love, you're fine, but when you are, you discover you have all this new energy, an additional capacity you never knew you had, a new dimension in yourself. Moving here just felt completely necessary, and right. I love Vienna and Austria, but when I was growing up, everything great came from the U.S., everything modern‑jeans, music, movies, the casualness. That's what I've been working with in everything I'm doing. For the first time, I feel I'm not living a secondhand life."
On him: Coat, about $725, parka, about $1340, vest, about $225, shirt, about $160, and pants, about $265. All, and shoes, Helmut Lang.
On her: Cape, about $840, sweater, about $2145, and pants, about $200.
All, and shoes, Helmut Lang.
THE TENDERNESS IN LANG’S WORK IS SUBLIMINALLY TRANSMITTED BY HIS LOYALTY TO HIS MODELS “WHO LOOK LIKE THEY HAVE INTEGRITY, OR MORE LAYERS THAN JUST BEAUTY.” HE NEVER SHOWS WOMEN WITHOUT MEN, OR MEN WITHOUT WOMEN. AFTER A WHILE, THEY BEGIN TO LOOK LIKE A FAMILY.
On him: Jacket, about $1120, shirt, about $140, and pants, about $870. All, and tie and shoes, Helmut Lang.
On her: Coat, about $1220, shirt, about $120, turtleneck, about $200, and pants, about $510.
All, and shoes, Helmut Lang.
HIS AMERICAN HEART: “WHAT I DO HAS ALWAYS BEEN INFLUENCED BY AMERICA, COMBINED WITH MY EUROPEAN BACKGROUND,” SAYS LANG. “BEING HERE JUST MAKES IT CLEARER AND MORE FOCUSED.”
You should look at the Helmut Lang store at 80 Greene Street. It's a kind of metaphor. From the street you see a mostly empty space, two rails of clothes. To get any farther, you must enter and pass through a reception area that is dominated on one side by a vast black sculpture of bald eagles that was salvaged from a government embassy and, on the other, an information‑flashing high‑tech installation by Jenny Holzer. If you're not scared off by all that‑if the frisson does it for you‑you'll eventually get to the bays that contain the clothes and, beyond them, the changing rooms, which are ranged behind a slightly perverted thin plastic screen. This store is the prototype, designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects, for the outlets that Lang will eventually roll out in an undetermined number of locations worldwide. "The selling area is set back from reception and the cabines [changing rooms] are even more private," he says. "We all hate being exposed to the selling room when we are changing."
What you'll find in the secluded bays this fall are the best clothes Lang has ever done. Having arrived in New York on inspiration overdrive, he produced a collection of creamy, luxurious parkas, fabulously light but functionally warm coatings of down and alpaca to layer over ribbed cashmere, ivory moleskin jeans and cargo pants. Mixed in with it all‑and this is vital to the service‑oriented part of Lang's game plan‑are his signature black suits, simple‑but‑perfect V‑neck knits and denims, the everyday things most of us live in year‑round. The quality sings but never overpowers the functionalism of his design; the collection is, as Lang says, practical, but at the same time ensures a certain drama: "It's a luxury product, but it embraces all the basics. It's about getting things the way I always wanted them: just one collection, sold all together, with basic things in it like denim that are also great. And the price must be product related."
Such was the excitement surrounding Lang's arrival in New York that there could be no possible resistance to this message on the runway. Nevertheless, the idea of appearing in the New York celebrity spotlight made him balk. As anticipation escalated, he canceled his show on March 31 and threw fashion editors into an uproar by posting his collection on the Internet instead. "I felt the whole focus on what we were doing was building up to a major event, and suddenly it was an issue for me," Lang says. "I'd been thinking about using the Internet for a long time, so it just seemed the moment to do it. It also felt right to keep contact with Europe, because it was the first season we didn't do a show in Paris. We could be global, everyone could see the clothes at the same time. It's democratic. You know‑his look is ironic‑modern communication." The move, naturally, wasn't altogether popular with the press, which has more invested in the traditional formula surrounding the exclusivity of shows than it likes to admit. Even though Lang backed up the fuzzy digitized images on the Internet with a personal delivery of videos and "look books" to important editors, there was ‑still‑ something elusive about the whole exercise. The experiment was a deliberate challenge to the voracious norms of the fashion system, a typical Helmut Lang bid to seize control of his own output and image.
As it turned out, that was just the first shock to the system. Lang's mindset‑his ordered Germanic brain allied with his rebel soul‑made him question another fashion ritual: holding the New York shows after the European collections. It didn't make sense. "It was too late for us," he says. After working it through carefully, he decided to see what happened if he went out on a limb and showed his spring collection before anyone else‑in New York City, and, at the same time, on the Internet. The effect of his decision was to pull the whole international schedule forward, putting New York designers in the exciting and totally unfamiliar position of staking their claim on the season before anyone else. "I have no trouble changing the rules," Lang states. "The point is, who has set out the rules? Often it turns out they were set quite a while ago. I did it just because I thought it could mean a new future that makes sense. I just didn't expect the new future to arrive tomorrow."
Our conversation constantly returns to Lang's struggle to do something different within the fashion industry. "The whole question is how to keep your independence and freedom in the best way," he says. "I don't want to be absorbed by the usual system. You realize when you arrive in New York that things work. Somehow you have to respect the structure of the market; you can't violate the system. But I get a sense that people are also up for a change now. You can begin to offer something else."
That determination to do and be "something else" pervades Lang's agenda. Perhaps what's most modern about him is his sane, balanced view about the necessity of making a cutoff between work and life. Maybe this is what one generation learns from another's mistakes. Corporate greed, world domination, workaholism ... how dated is that, even as a style? If you expose yourself too much, you completely kill yourself" is the way he puts it. Perhaps this is a sign of times to come, when a growing group of consumers will identify far more with the power of mystique and subtlety than with the embarrassments of overt branding. On a deeper level, Lang's iron resolve to keep his distance is also about freeing himself up to maintain access to material. Designers who cut their contact with life, friends and (crucially) the time to observe people can lose touch terrifyingly quickly. As far as Lang is concerned, the genius thing about New York is just how perfect an environment it is for striking the balance between staying on the case and out of the limelight. "The fact is, you can live as if you're in a village, and have access to the city at the same time," he says. "You can be in charge of your privacy here. It just depends on how much you want. I've learned to take every weekend off‑whatever is going on. I need time to do nothing. And in that time ‑he laughs‑ "everything is happening."
I hope I haven't made it seem that Lang isn't any fun. The opposite is true. His delight in watching people in restaurants or bars or just passing by is spontaneous and straightforward. "I love that in New York, types of people are more defined than anywhere else," he says. "They are from all over the world, uptown, downtown types." The logic of his aesthetic‑the jeans thing, the casualness‑is completely confirmed and in context here: You see it in action, and the inspiration feeds back into his work. What he really admires is seeing people who have put themselves together individualistically. He admits the biggest kick is when his own clothes are involved, but the pleasure for him is "seeing the same thing in three situations, and how people make it different," he says. "I don't take what people do with my clothes personally after I've released them. It's about how people live in the pieces. The other day I saw a guy in one of the techno shirts we did three years ago. It was completely integrated into what he was wearing and still looking good. I love that."
In essence, that is exactly Lang's gift to modern dressing: His pieces will integrate themselves into so many lives and personalities without bragging about their designer origins. Lang has that analyzed. "For my generation the things you grow up with ‑military things, parkas, jeans and T‑shirts, the punk movement‑ everybody has them in their past," he remarks. "A lot of what I do is just shaping that or finding new forms that are crossovers, that unconsciously remind you of something. Somewhere in their roots they have the comfort of something familiar." After he's delivered this thought, he stops and grins. "And just before I get a Mother Teresa complex, let's face it: At the end of the day, I just want my clothes to look good!"
So here is Helmut Lang, in control and lightened up. New York has done that for him, he says: "It's liberating because ... I tend to be quite emotional. Here I feel like a weight has been lifted. I am not going to make a black‑and‑white distinction between Europe and America. I love both. But in Central Europe things are interesting only when they are complex and deep. Sometimes that's the right thing, but sometimes it cages you without your even realizing it.”
Hooded cape, about $1390, tank, about $185, and pants, about $375.
All, and shoes, Helmut Lang. This portfolio: Hair, James Brown for John Frieda Salon; makeup, Dick Page. See Buyline for details and stores.
“COMING TO NEW YORK IS A BIG EXPERIENCE. IT ACTIVATES AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT PART OF MY BRAIN. I HAVE THE FEELING IT COMPLETES ME SOMEHOW.”
In the entire time I spend with him, there is only one point at which I am shocked by Helmut Lang and what his work might mean in the world. It is the moment I step into his private studio. In that second the scale and seriousness of his enterprise hit me. His business is gradually colonizing an entire building in SoHo. He is considering a women's underwear line, preparing an eyewear collection and gearing up for the big one, a fragrance, due in late 1999. When we consider him now, we should take a reality check; this is not someone dabbling in a small, specialized market anymore. Step back, and the truth dawns: The independent‑minded, antiauthoritarian group he appeals to has grown into a large and loyal bunch of mainstream sophisticates‑age unspecified. What they're paying for is a way of dressing that does just as well for men as for women, but also never cuts out the sex. Narrow suit, T‑shirt, coat‑these are clothes stripped of all ridiculousness and infused with the essence of something we all crave: the inarguable authority of cool. This is Lang's brilliant stroke at the end of a century, when the issues around fashion have become overloaded, confusing and fraught with difficulties. Funnily enough, put like that, the whole Lang project begins to sound very American: simple sportswear; versatile, go‑to‑work clothes. Small wonder that his last word on New York is this: "All my life I've had a feeling that I've been traveling but never arrived. Now, for the first time, I feel I'm home."