From the Runway to the Art World: How Helmut Lang's 2005 Departure Exposes Fashion’s Competing Interests
Despite Helmut Lang’s independent streak and reputation for ushering in utilitarian minimalism to both the runway and street in the ’90s, arguably what the fashion industry has pulled most from his storied career is the idea of staple garments: from designer denim and motorcycle pants to bullet proof vests and strap-heavy bomber jackets that are now rehashed by countless designers year after year. Yes, Lang had a wildly successful $200 denim line before it was commonplace and, yes, his collections almost always included stand-out pieces of outerwear, but the fact that the majority of designers, buyers and consumers seem to engage with merely Lang’s garments instead of his design ethos is an unfortunate testament to the industry’s inner conflict between business and art. Despite the industry’s enthusiasm in praising its avant-garde, it is an industry, after all, which is why so many rising, and even established, designers partner with fashion conglomerates to, hopefully, create long-term financial stability while often sacrificing aspects of their artistic vision. Yet, for much of his career, Lang was unwilling to do so, and once he did, he quickly quit fashion, preferring to make the art of his choosing than compromise it to build a commercial empire.
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Born on March 10, 1956, Vienna, Austria, Helmut Lang spent his childhood with his maternal grandparents in a small mountain village in the Austrian Alps after his parents divorced when he was five months old; the house had neither a TV nor a telephone and Lang spent much of his time assisting his grandfather, a shoemaker, in his workshop. Lang explained to W Magazine in 2008 that these years helped him “[…]to understand that certain things were ornamental—the idea of the simple life interrupted by the opulence of particular festivities,” an idea that has stuck with him throughout his careers as designer and artist. When he was ten, Lang moved back to Vienna to live with his father, a truck driver, and his stepmother who dressed him in poorly fitting suits that Lang told W were “counterproductive to my teenage market value,” and which he credits for sharpening his independent streak. (One might also wonder if the beautifully tailored, slim-but-not-too-slim suits Lang would go on to design were a response to this period in his life).
Lang left home as soon as he turned eighteen and, with no formal training, decided to enter the world of fashion after friends complimented a T-shirt and pants he’d designed and had cut and sewn by a seamstress. In 1979, Lang opened his own shop in Vienna and in 1986, he began showing his collection in Paris, where his restrained designs quickly gained a following as a response to the maximalist aesthetics of the time. Lang moved to New York in 1997 and, in 2000, the Council of Fashion Designers of American named him Menswear Designer of the Year.
Lang’s contributions to fashion are manifold: from mixing technical and luxury fabrics, to showing his men’s and women’s collections on the same runway, to advertising on New York City taxicabs, to sending digital booklets to editors, to creating a concept shop before concept shops were everywhere, to collaborating with visual artists such as Jenny Holzer, to using Robert Mapplethorpe photographs before it was popular, to even spurring New York Fashion Week to move its schedule ahead of its European counterparts in 1998.
Yet, even with Lang’s success during the ’80s and ’90s and his vast influence on fashion since then, Helmut Lang the brand is just another example of a designer label pumping out simulacra of its namesake’s designs. In 1999, Lang allowed the Prada Group to buy fifty-one percent of his company and, in 2004, it bought the remaining forty-nine percent shortly before he retired from fashion. It seems that Lang’s thinking was that the Prada Group would allow him the financial backing to help maintain his brand’s stability while also allowing it to grow, yet the pairing was a classic mismatch of artistic and business temperaments. According to Lang’s friends, the Prada Group did not follow through with its promise to expand the reach of the brand’s retail stores, while, according to Prada, Lang’s unyielding independence infringed on its ability to make sound business decisions.
Even worse, Prada cancelled the license of the company that had been producing Helmut Lang jeans, which were sold in over 700 stores worldwide and were responsible for more than half of the brand’s revenues, while pushing Lang to design an “it” bag that never came to fruition; sales fell from more than $100 million in 1999 to $37 million in 2003. Lang was clearly unhappy, and officially left his namesake label in 2005: “The size of the company kept growing, and I had the feeling at one point that I would become the victim of my own success and get pushed further away from what I worked so hard to be able to do. I did try to do more artistic work in between, but it was not possible to be one of the main players in the fashion world and then to do art at the same time. I was ready to take a new challenge, in part because in fashion, things have become very predictable,” he told W in 2008.
In many ways, Lang was right about the direction of the fashion industry. While there are still independent designers, many of the larger fashion houses have decided the best way to maintain financial viability is to remix and re-release archival designs again and again; labels such as Kenzo, Versace and, yes, Helmut Lang have followed this strategy in recent years and, for all their talk of celebrating history, it’s hard to argue that the reedition frenzy is about anything other than profit. By pulling from their extensive archives, labels give their current designers a respite from the fashion industry’s grueling calendar while playing on consumer’s nostalgia for garments created by the designers who started it all.
On the other hand, designers who stay independent, such as Dries Van Noten, often risk their livelihood by producing collections that challenge critic’s or buyer’s expectations. Take for instance, Van Noten’s Fall/Winter 2001 collection, which, according to the designer’s account in the 2017 documentary Dries, struck both fashion critics and buyers as being too cold and, as a result, nearly upended his brand: “For me it was a difficult moment. Maybe it was good that I went through this, that I had the slam in my face from the press and from the customers to say, like, ‘Look this is the not the Dries that we want to see. This is something we don’t accept form you.’” Luckily for Van Noten, the criticism reaffirmed his commitment to many of the tenets he built his brand upon and led him to even greater success: “Because it made it more clear for me where I had to go to. And we really took decisions there. I said, “Okay, no, I’m not going to sell. I’m not going to go with the whole accessories, shoes, bag, cold product world. No, I’m going to continue even more everything which I’m standing for, which is craft, which is easiness, the relaxness in fashion,’” he recounts in the documentary. Yet, one might also wonder what collections from a more experimental Van Noten would look like, one untethered to the expectations of critics, buyers and consumers who crave new plays on his signature prints and embroideries each season. Van Noten may be financially independent, but he still has to play to the crowd unless he’s willing to risk financial ruin.
In 2005, Lang decided he could no longer handle the financial and creative constraints of the fashion industry and left his namesake brand to focus on his career as a fine artist. He had already been making art outside and adjacent to his collections for years, such as his many collaborations with artist Jenny Holzer, including their installation, “I Smell You on My Clothes,” created for the 1996 Florence Biennale, which featured a fragrance by Lang meant to evoke the scent left by a lover on bedsheets and LED signs by Holzer displaying statements, such as “YOU ARE THE ONE,” “YOU ARE THE ONE WHO DID THIS TO ME” and “YOU ARE MY OWN.”
Despite shifting his work from runway to gallery, Lang is still very much the same artist—even making use of garments in his new career. In 2010 (after he had donated a significant portion of his archive to fashion, design and art collections throughout the world), a fire in the building where his studio was located nearly destroyed his remaining collection: “[…]after going for months through the pieces to see in which condition they are, I slowly became intrigued by the idea of destroying it myself and using it as raw material for my art. I shredded all the pieces without remorse or preference. It was about erasing the difference of what they once stood for,” he told Hint Fashion Magazine in 2011 while discussing his solo exhibition, “Make It Hard,” which featured a sampling of the over 100 treelike sculptures Lang created from resin, glue and 6,000 shredded garments. And, although Lang’s art now takes different forms than it once did, it still features many of the marks he was renowned for as a designer, such a muted color palette and subtle, but evocative experimentation with textures and materials: “Material has always been important to me. Most of the time it is actually a starting point. I get inspired by the way I’m supposed to use it or inspired by the exact opposite,” he explained to Hint.
Lang brought not only an artist’s eye to the fashion industry, but also a willingness to risk that is not often compatible with profit. “I always felt that Helmut wasn’t really in the fashion world—he was in his own world,” Lang’s longtime friend, photographer Bruce Weber, told W Magazine in 2008. While Lang’s credo is common for many artists—“to arrive somewhere completely different from where you started”—it is not for the fashion industry. While Lang has focused his energy on creating new work over the past thirteen years, as shown by his numerous solo exhibitions, the fashion industry seems content to live off of his legacy. Take, for instance, his former label’s recently released “Limited Edition Taxi Capsule” of heavily branded hoodies and sweatshirts featuring a photograph of an original Helmut Lang taxi advertisement taken in 2000 by Iain R. Webb. Not only does the collection break with Lang’s minimal branding and sculptural approach to design, but it also turns garments into cheap souvenirs; they might as well read “I Heart Helmut Lang.”