“If the ’90s belong to anyone, it’s [to] Miuccia Prada and Helmut Lang” -WWD

It’s no secret that Helmut Lang’s influence reigns supreme. It’s seen throughout menswear, womenswear and several of his innovations were far ahead of his time. And that’s before we even mention the Kanye influence. But, in this age of the context-less snapshot, it can be hard to gain a sense of Lang’s importance to the industry.

Helmut Lang was born in 1956, and according to the 2000 New Yorker profile, The Invisible Designer, his parents divorced when he was five months old, leaving Lang to live with his maternal grandparents. Lang lived in the small Austrian village of Ramsau am Dachstein and his grandfather was a shoemaker. When Lang was 10 his father remarried and Lang went to live in Vienna with him. During this time he said he was forced by his stepmother to wear his dad’s suits. The profile states that “He had to wear them to school as well as around the house. Of course the suits didn’t fit.” In a 2004 Index magazine interview, Lang said “I had the classical stepmother in a bad Hollywood movie.” In 1974, he left his parents’ home, eventually setting up a made-to-measure fashion studio in Vienna during 1977. In the same Index interview, he states, “I had a little studio with two or three seamstresses — that’s how we started. Then I said, ‘Well, we have to do a fashion show in Paris.’ We did a show, which was completely naive and crazy.” Lang, who never studied fashion, later opened a boutique in 1979. The success of the studio led to Lang starting his womenswear label in 1984 and menswear in 1987.

His first show took place in 1986 in Paris. A year later, he was signed by Zamasport to design the Calla ready-to-wear collection, taking over from Gianni Versace. During that year he started getting small amounts of press, being mentioned by WWD who praised “Helmut Lang for their approaches to minimal design.”

By 1990, Lang was already a hot ticket in the fashion world. His minimalist take on fashion was capturing interest, with the Daily News Record noting that Lang’s clothes were “what James Dean might have worn to an event that was ‘Jacket Required’ if he didn’t wear a leather jacket instead.” There was already a noted crush of “power press” and buyers and the fact that he sent one of his jackets with a pair of Levi 501’s was eye-opening at the time.

Speaking of Levi’s, Lang’s love affair with denim was well noted. Lang favored raw denim over the washes that were popular during that period. When asked about denim, Lang said “It’s a conventional fabric with an unconventional feeling. Denim serves its purpose perfectly: Denim is jeans.” The aforementioned Levi’s 501’s were part of a co-operative deal he made with Levi’s. He said that he used Levi’s simply because that’s how the collection would be worn in real life. He also expressed an interest in making the kind of denim you’d now only find in Self Edge. “Denim should remain original. If I had no commercial constraints, I would work on heavy, indigo-dyed jeans.” His love of denim led him to sign a deal for a Helmut Lang Jeans line in 1996, produced by Italian partner GTR Group SpA.

Aside from jeans, Lang’s collections were known for their juxtaposition of innovative fabrics and wearable styling, creating something that was both forward thinking and minimal. In a 1992 article for Washington Post, Cathy Horyn wrote about the new trends in fashion and how they were colder than the styles of the ‘80s. “Lang is perhaps the most articulate spokesman of this harsher reality” she says. “There is a grim aspect to his clothes, felt not only in his preference for black leather and wet-looking synthetics but in his hard-core disaffection for established fashion.” Lang’s style was seen in sharp contrast to the bold prints and sharp shoulder pads of the time. Horyn went on to state that “Unbound by conventional good taste, he is free to experiment.” Having helped bring in minimalism alongside the likes of Jil Sander and Prada, Lang soon became so influential that critics began seeing traces of Lang in other’s catwalks.

One designer who was persistently accused to taking a little more influence than is allowed was Mark Eisen, who started his label in 1988 and shuttered it in 2009. Critics first accused Eisen of being in “the Helmut Lang school of minimalism,” as well as “like a design student’s homage to Master Lang.” In a 1995 review, Cathy Horyn stated that Eisen owed so much to Lang that he was lucky that Helmut Lang’s collection was costly and poorly distributed.

Another person accused of copying Lang (and many others) was Calvin Klein (collection pictures above). In a 1996 article by Robin Givhan, she noted that Klein had made pains to show that he wasn’t copying designers. He did this by faxing over his collection to press when the trends from Milan started emerging. “Klein wanted to make it clear that, this time at least, he was not a copyist. One can only wonder if such strenuous denials are the product of a guilty conscience.” In a WWD article, Nicole Fischelis, then fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, said of Klein, “It’s probably good that his customer is not aware of Helmut and Ann [Demeulemeester]. There’s a lot of similarities there.” By 1999, by which time Lang had been noted as one the decade’s most influential houses, Lang said of copying, “The copying problem doesn’t start with the runway shows, but begins with fabric and production companies.” When asked about how he felt about being copied so much he said “for this award [of being influential] we take obviously the good and the bad which goes with it.”

It wasn’t only just his clothing that was innovative, Lang was one of the first designers to show men’s and women’s alongside each other on the same catwalk and caused a major shift in the fashion calendar when he moved his show from Paris to New York in 1998. While he had just opened a store in NY’s SoHo in November 1997, he’d shown the show in Paris since the 1986 launch, so the move was a shock. The New York move meant he was now showing his collection two months earlier than before, propelling him to the start of the schedule and a host of brands soon followed suit. Lang then moved the entire business from Vienna to New York.

One of his first acts in New York was to show his presentation on the Internet, something no designer of Lang’s stature had done in 1998. He uploaded images onto the Internet and gave out CD-ROM’s to press. Precluding the “is fashion becoming democratic” discussion by nearly a decade, much was made in the press about the sheer fact that anyone could view this images instead of having to wait for a critic to describe it to them.

Unlike most fashion labels, Lang went a long time without a signature perfume. During one of his many collaborations with artist Jenny Holzer, Lang created a scent for an art and fashion exposition in Florence. It was from here he started exploring serious avenues for creating a fragrance. After rumors of speaking with Estee Lauder, he eventually started working with Procter and Gamble, signing a deal in 1998.

In 1999, Prada acquired 51% of Helmut Lang. Soon after the launch, Prada’s managing director Patrizio Bertelli stated that he aimed to triple Lang’s sales from “$44.5 million to $139 million by 2001.” From the start of the partnership, questions were asked about how things would work out. Lang had several licensing agreements and Bertelli was known to be against licensing. At the time Bertelli stated that there were no plans to terminate any of Lang’s licenses.

Soon after the partnership, Lang launched an accessories collection, consisting of women’s and men’s shoes, leather goods, belts and bags. The pieces were well received but the women’s collection was noted as being uncharacteristically classically feminine for Lang in a 1999 WWD article. In the next collection, critics noticed a difference in the collection. Suzy Menkes wrote, “Helmut Lang seems less at the cutting edge after control of his company passed to Prada last year.” In 2000, Lang launched his next fragrance, creating a standalone store in New York to sell it in.

In 2001, the contract between Helmut Lang and GTR Group, who produced Lang’s denim, was broken. In a statement issued at the time, Prada accused GTR Group of breach of contract, stating “The termination of the contract was due to [GTR’s] total incapacity and negligence in managing the Helmut Lang brand and that has reflected negatively on the company.” GTR Group countered this, stating that Prada didn’t satisfy the terms of the contract and was forced to lay off workers as a result of the breach. This was the end of a side of the Lang brand that sold in more than 700 stores worldwide and accounted for more than half of its revenue. The thinking at the time was that designer brands shouldn’t do denim and Lang should instead focus on building the label through bags, shoes and destination retail stores.

The events of 9/11 also changed Lang’s plans. Prior to the attack, Lang had planned on showing in Paris again. He instead decided to do showroom appointments in New York as well as continue to show on the Internet and via CD-ROM’s. Speaking about his decision to WWD, he said “Our instinct was with all that has happened — yes, life goes on — but certain things perhaps should be reconsidered. I made the final decision this weekend. To be here at this time is, I think, to make just a little contribution to the economy of New York.” He later moved the collection back to Paris in 2002. This period also marked a period of downturn for Lang’s label.

Sales fell from over $100 million in 1999 to $37 million in 2003. A NY Times article called “Decline and Fall of Helmut Lang” questioned several theories for why this happened. The first was the aforementioned denim licensing deal. A fragrance launched in 2000 underperformed and he was noted as never having an “It” bag. He also clashed with Patrizio Bertelli. In the article, Lang’s friends stated that Prada didn’t invest enough into the brand or fulfill its promise of opening more retail stores. They also mentioned that Bertelli’s behavior caused a rift. “The designer would discuss plans with Prada’s chief executive, Patrizio Bertelli, and then not hear anything for months.” Lang’s sales dip was well known at the time. When Lang mixed menswear and womenswear on the catwalk again, he had to state that financial considerations hadn’t played a part in his decision.

Despite these issues, his Spring/Summer 2005 was well received. Suzy Menkes wrote in the Herald Tribune that “The ropes and knots in Helmut Lang’s fine show on Wednesday tied together the different strands of the summer 2005 season.“ Soon after this show, news broke that Lang had sold the remaining 49% of his label to Prada, but still remained on board with the brand as creative director. Reports spoke about tensions rising in the company and WWD reported on January 19 that Lang had taken several of his personal possessions from the office, as well as artworks from the retail stores. While Prada put out a statement saying that the relationship was still fruitful, just a few days later, on January 25, Helmut Lang announced his resignation.

Lang shifted from fashion to art, something he’d continually done throughout his fashion career, working with the likes of Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois. Since his departure from the world of fashion, Lang has continually stated that he has no interest in returning to fashion. Despite this, he started archiving his range after he stopped his collection and had even started buying back older pieces on eBay. But he didn’t finish collecting his old work, telling W magazine, “I’m not interested. I’m doing new work.” In 2010, a fire wrecked part of his clothing archive. He decided to shred the rest to create the “Make it Hard” exhibition. In an interview with Dazed Digital about the exhibition, he said “I retired from fashion in 2005 and that was final for me.”

Lang shifted the entire fashion schedule, was the first catwalk designer to show via the Internet, created denim pieces that are still collectibles to this day and influenced important designers. It was Bernard Wilhelm who said in an interview with i-D, “Without Helmut Lang there would be no Céline, no Raf.” Lang’s influence is seen in everything from the aforementioned labels to ones such as Balmain, who created biker jeans strikingly similar to Lang’s. Of his range Lang once said that “In the end, we want people who wear our clothes to look good, that’s something you shouldn’t lose sight of.”

Words by Jason Dike
Editor-at-large
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