Helmut Lang: The original urban outfitter

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Helmut Lang’s designs defined the Nineties. He retired from his label five years ago, but his cool, metropolitan style is the major influence next season. Susannah Frankel hails a modern master

Reflecting on the work of the great Austrian designer Helmut Lang 10 years ago now, American Vogue editor Anna Wintour said: “Helmut came along and at first it was ‘Wait a moment, what’s this? This is not in the spirit of the mid-Eighties,’ which was all about opulence. But then everything crashed and fashion reflected that and Helmut was there to take advantage.”

Ten years on, and the world has been through another boom-and-bust period. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that an equally protracted attachment to opulence – and indeed often a quite literal interest in the Eighties – has by now been supplanted by an aesthetic that is free of the ribbons, bows and furbelows that characterise fashion at its most light-hearted. There is a renewed focus on design and determinedly worldly clothing, where there’s no place for meaningless surface embellishment or indeed traditionally bourgeois proportions. In place of the indiscriminate flashing of flesh comes a discreet, peek-a-boo style eroticism. A body-conscious line, equally, has been replaced by a more subtle, often veiled silhouette.

Inevitably “minimalism” and “utility” are, once again, buzzwords, as early Prada and Yohji Yamamoto have both proved considerably influential. Mid-Nineties Jil Sander too is a reference. More than any other designer, however, the aforementioned Mr Lang is the fashion hero of the hour. The man himself resigned from his own label five years ago – he said that he had become “a victim of his own success”, and was clearly uncomfortable with the burgeoning scale of the brand he presided over and the increasingly obvious commercial demands that went with that. But while at age 53 he is happy pursuing a career in fine art, his signature remains all-pervading. And so, Lang’s handwriting was all present and correct at Stella McCartney, where layered chiffon tunics had fluttering tails, and at Celine, where strictly conceived lace more than whispered of the oeuvre of this designer. At Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci’s skinny, sexy tailoring was indebted to Lang’s own, as indeed was the show presentation itself – it took place in a vast warehouse space where models, male and female, stormed around on concrete at ground level, like a particularly glamorous urban army.

Add to this, the soft-bondage draping of Rodarte, the cutaway little black dresses of Antonio Berardi, and the hard-to-identify mix of traditional and tech fabrics at Balenciaga...And so the list goes on.

It seems only apposite, given all of the above, that over the past year or so Lang has finally made the decision to split up his archive and donate it to fashion institutions the world over. It is incomplete – the designer began his career in a critically acclaimed but relatively small and quiet way in Vienna, moving to New York in 1997, at which point he left most of the early work behind. Even so, galleries as diverse as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kyoto Costume Institute in Tokyo, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, the Groninger Museum in Amsterdam, MoMu in Antwerp and London’s V&A are now very happy to have at least some of his work and to preserve it for posterity. And Lang being Lang – and always a designer who worked outside the box – it’s not only the most obvious fashion collections that will benefit from any generosity.

The Fashion Museum in Bath is today in proud possession of no fewer than 23 women’s wear and 16 men’s wear looks, all of which go on display this month and throughout the rest of this year, much to the delight of any serious fashion follower who happens to visit and indeed that museum’s principle curator, Rosemary Harden. “The donation is absolutely magnificent,” she says. “We have a fine collection but we’re still a provincial museum and this is unprecedented. The earliest look is from Autumn 97/98.” It’s a layered, crumpled, white demi-sheer shift, remarkable not least for the fact that more than a decade later a woman wearing it would be the envy of any onlooker. It hasn’t dated in the least. “One is from 2000 another from 2001, but we mainly have from 2002 onwards.”

The fact that Lang has presented the museum with both men’s wear and women’s wear is entirely in character. Amongst his other accolades, this was the first designer to show both men’s and women’s collections on the same catwalk, safe in the knowledge that this was a reflection of life as we know it – as opposed to some rarefied vision the fruits of which must be the preserve of the privileged few. The aesthetic connections between Lang’s men’s and women’s wear have always been manifold also: the flat-fronted trousers and skinny jackets for him and her, the cuffs, fluttering canvas straps and splits in T-shirts at shoulder-line and/or elbow (the latter is a reference to the wearing of gloves and haute couture, incidentally), the flashes of Day-Glo colour and strips of PVC...To label his style as androgynous would be reductive, however.

“Girls have been wearing trousers since the 1920s, so I found it really shocking that it was still an issue,” he once told me of any reaction to his early work. “It was like when Stella Tennant appeared on the runway for the first time and they all said that she was this androgynous woman. I thought, how weird. She’s a really great looking woman. What’s androgynous about her? That she doesn’t have long hair? In the end, I do think it’s insulting to men and women to insist that they fit a certain profile. I never understood that. But it was not a mission of mine in any way. We like our men to be quite manly, with all possibilities, and our women to be quite feminine, with all possibilities.”

The term minimal, too, receives short shrift. In fact, Lang’s work is often extremely elaborate, although elaborate in a determinedly modern as opposed to nostalgic way. “Of course, we used to be seen as minimal, but that was at the beginning. When we started out in Paris it was all about Mugler, Montana, Gaultier, that’s where we came in; by comparison our clothes just looked completely different.”

Later, he added: “It’s not trashy and loud. That’s not our thing. But it’s often very ornate – just not old ornate.” However one chooses to describe them, Lang’s designs are a million miles away from the blandly beautiful style of the red carpet. In his final years working as a designer, he agreed to include the odd floor-length gown in his collection, but even these were far from conventional, one most memorably sprouting bristling tufts of horsehair.

“Over the past decade there has been this red-carpet aesthetic that has been very influential,” Harden confirms, “and Helmut Lang does something very different. His is a very clear aesthetic, a very unfussy aesthetic but it’s also a very complex aesthetic. It’s still very pure, and not compromised at all. The craftsmanship is incredible, the materials are beautiful.” Lang always used black and white substantially, but that was only a small part of the story. As Harden says, “I don’t think Helmut Lang should be written off as monochrome, minimal, androgynous. That just seems derisory.”

More than anything else, however, Lang’s clothing is just as relevant today as it always has been. This is extremely unusual, and to say, therefore, that the designer was ahead of his time would be something of an understatement.

Born in Vienna in 1956, Helmut Lang began designing in his hometown with no formal training in 1977 and first showed in Paris in 1986. What he presented had absolutely nothing to do with the prevailing aesthetic, mood or even time.

“Somehow Helmut Lang had already formulated the correct conclusion to the excesses of the Eighties, right in the thick of them,” wrote Jo-Ann Furniss in Arena Homme+ following a rare interview with the designer in his Spring Street Studio in 2008. “He was essentially divining and designing the future.”

And while today more than a few other designers are picking up on that fact, for those who bow down at Lang’s altar his style – which, after all, is exceptional for being heartfelt over-and-above a oneseason reference courtesy of the hand of another – is inimitable. Despite pressure from friends and admirers, however, Lang, as reluctant to step into the limelight as he ever was, shows no sign of returning to the fashion arena.

“You can look at things from a variety of angles and use your own judgement, especially if you go through changing times as we are now,” he told Furniss. “That’s the run of things. If you really have your own identity you’ll keep on doing what you think is really right for you, and you’ll also understand the next step you want to take.”

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