Now the rest of the world has caught up with his utilitarian style, Lang strolls back into Paris

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The Independent Online

Yesterday saw the return of the great Austrian designer Helmut Lang to the Paris catwalk after an absence of five years. It is a measure of his influence that when he first upped and left this city, moving his business to New York back in 1998, he famously disrupted the entire fashion calendar.

Although the American designers had been forced to follow Milan and Paris for many years, Lang bucked the system entirely and set the date for his show before the collections in the latter two cities had even started. Fashion mayhem ensued but where Lang leads, others follow and the New York collections continue to be first on the four-city schedule.

Politics aside, the shadow that this designer casts over contemporary fashion itself is formidable. Not for Lang any frivolous fluctuation in seasonal dress.

Instead, when he launched his business in the mid-Eighties, he set out to create a functional, working wardrobe for urban men and women of all ages, and still does just that.

It is a style that has had enormous longevity. While the high street might be influenced by Marc Jacobs one season and Gucci the next, Lang's low-slung, narrow, androgynous silhouette is ever present and fashion's current love affair with utilitarian dress makes him appear more powerful still.

For the designer's spring/ summer 2003 collection the colour palette was, as always, predominantly neutral: black, white and camel with flashes of colour. This time round it was sky blue, neon yellow and flame. Drainpipe trousers, skinny, knee-length coats, vests and shift dresses were, as always, the core of the look.

The devil, however, was in the detail. Panels of chiffon and latex were sewn into the simplest wool garment giving it originality and depth. Any severity was softened by idiosyncratic layering, a mere flutter of gauzy fabric peeping from beneath a skinny jacket or by thin canvas ties fluttering about a strict skirt or shirt.

Where contemporary evening-wear is concerned, it would be difficult to imagine anything finer than a dress of dull sequins trapped in acrylic mesh - the thinking woman's Versace, perhaps.

Lang is, in fact, today owned by Prada and the corporate brains behind the Italian mega-corporation won't be disappointed. Unveiled in the bright, white warehouse that Lang always used to commandeer when based in the French fashion capital, it all looked as relevant as ever: cool, elegant and basically classical but always with a resolutely modern edge.

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