1986 in Paris, France
New York, USA
“Quintessential minimalism” springs to mind when thinking of Helmut Lang, the namesake label of Austrian designer Helmut Lang. He is arguably one of the most influential designers of the last three decades (although Lang himself retired from fashion in 2005 to fully focus on his art career,) and his legacy still resonates across runways today. The iconic designer pioneered minimalism in the ’90s with his sharp-cut tailoring and androgynous, utilitarian pieces adorned with bondage straps and harnesses.
He introduced streetwear to high-fashion, invented the designer jean, modeled garments on bullet proof vests and was a trailblazer experimenting with technical fabrics, fabricating the military bomber jacket. He was also one of the first designers to show co-ed shows, and he broke new ground in 1998 as the first designer in history to stream a runway show online.
Lang created a new design language, changing the idea of what luxury is, and his oeuvre is still shaping fashion to date – inspiring everyone from Calvin Klein to Raf Simons and Kanye West, along with a string of streetwear brands.
Helmut Lang was born in Austria in 1956, and began designing in his hometown Vienna in 1977 despite lacking formal training. He first showed in Paris in 1986, which is also when he founded his label.
He later teamed up with the now legendary British stylist Melanie Ward (who had discovered and put a teenage Kate Moss on the cover of The Face in 1990), and she became his creative director and muse for 13 years, proving instrumental in ushering in the golden era of minimalism. They relocated to New York in 1997, and the already influential mover and shaker Lang decided to show ahead of the New York season, with other designers following suit, and because of this to this day New York designers show first.
Between 1990 – 1999 jeans, underwear, footwear/accessories along with perfumes were added to the brand, and Lang was the first in the fashion industry to place ads, as well as in National Geographic.
Then in 1999 Prada bought 51% of Helmut Lang, at a time when the company was doing about $100 million in revenue. But by 2004, that total had plunged to about $30 million, which – according to the New York Times – was a result of Prada cutting back on the profitable denim line. Lang left his own label in 2005, and Prada sold the company the following year to the Japanese Link Theory holdings.
Helmut Lang the label was in decline and saw several designers at the helm since Lang’s departure. The turning point came in 2017, when the label announced a relaunch to return to its former glory. Reverting back to the original logo along with a black and white campaign shot by Ethan James Green and a shiny new digital identity, the relaunch was spearheaded by Dazed and Confused’s editor-in-chief Isabella Burley. She was appointed as the first ever editor-in-residence, to oversee all creative aspects of the brand and tap individual designers for solo collections. The label also announced the “Helmut Lang Re-Edition” – authentic reproductions of some of the brand’s staple pieces – and fashion critics and fans all over the world rejoiced.
Shayne Oliver was the first one out debuting in September at New York Fashion Week that year with a diverse cast of underground models sporting gender-fluid silhouettes with bondage influences. He was followed by Mark Thomas (creative director of menswear and womenswear) and Thomas Cawson (creative director of Helmut Lang jeans) for two seasons, and together they have provided a contemporary take on the classic, minimalistic Helmut Lang-style from the ‘90s. Casting the likes of Kanye West and Solange Knowles for the Exactitudes campaign and tapping Travis Scott for a capsule collection has no doubt helped the label to reclaim its position at the forefront of fashion.