Redefining Fashion: Decoding Helmut Lang's Universal Appeal
Helmut Lang spearheaded a silent revolution in fashion. Those who wore and continue to wear his garments are accomplices, and his influence has persisted long after his departure from the industry, felt just as intensely in the mass market as in the avant-garde. Known for a meticulous attention to detail, innovative applications of textiles, and an understated elegance that permeates all of his work, Lang created a certain magic that will never be replicated. Helmut Lang showed his first collection in 1986 and found early success, but his reign over the fashion world would not commence until the mid-1990s. His run from 1990 until his departure from his eponymous brand in 2005 has few equals. It was a time of extraordinary output for Lang, each collection building on the previous, all executed to an awe-inspiring standard that few designers have touched since, let alone sustained.
When the competition can’t do you one better, their best hope is to imitate. And imitate they did. From department stores to Donna Karan, the Lang look was repackaged and bastardized by every designer with a pulse. While those pairs of paint-splattered denim and “premium basic” t-shirts can be viewed as a cheap copy of what Lang did first, they are also a clear testament to his status at the forefront of fashion for more than a decade.
Much has already been written about Helmut Lang’s subversive ideals and avant-garde innovations, so I will not be adding to that course of thought. I will instead focus on how Lang’s basic garments democratized beautiful design, were the purest distillation of his anti-fashion sentiments, and represented his own approach to daily dressing. The M(inimalist) and S(ubversive) words will be avoided whenever possible, as I cannot think of any 2 descriptions more beaten to death than these in the coverage of Helmut Lang’s work. Many designers start off with simple intentions. Beyond aspirations of being remembered or changing history, a common reason to start making your own clothes is that the things you want to wear simply don’t exist yet. While most designers quickly abandon this ideal, Helmut Lang never forgot how he started.
As a child, Lang was raised in Vienna and his conservative parents forced him to wear his father’s suits to school. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t win him much favor amongst his peers. So Lang taught himself how to sew, starting to design clothes that were far more agreeable than those high-strung, terribly oversized 2-piece suits. In late 1960s Vienna, casual American clothes were highly desirable, but difficult to obtain. As it tends to do, the ever-mutating myth of America captured the imagination of kids across the country. Once predicated on cowboys and James Dean, it had recently morphed to hippies, beatniks, and rock’n’roll, with denim being a throughline across subcultures. From an early age, Helmut Lang’s fixation was set. His first loves were T-shirts and jeans, and he never let go.
Helmut Lang Jean Jacket and Jeans
20 years after he started, Lang still cited being deprived of expressing himself as a key motivator for his design practice. However, once he got his freedom, his mode of expression ended up being the complete opposite of what most people would define as a liberating wardrobe. A cotton T-shirt, jeans, and black derbies, day in and day out. And what were his brand’s marquee basics? Cotton T-shirts and jeans. Lang had extra motivation to master these items because he was wearing them almost every day. His childhood experiences surface in the character of his clothes, insecurities transmuted into near-perfection. These basic garments reflect a distinct sense of sympathy for the wearer, a bond further deepened by a shared investment in the quality of his designs. He knew all too well how it feels to be uninspired by the options available to you, and he offered people simple, effective solutions to that problem.
Later in his career, the overwhelming commercial and cultural success of Helmut Lang Jeans, Lang’s sub-label that sold you-can-guess-what, vindicated the exhaustive work he had done to perfect the quintessential basic pant. Perhaps mass-producing flattering, sophisticated denim for men and women was his way of making sure nobody had to go through the embarrassment he endured decades ago. Even in his lower Manhattan penthouses, Lang always kept some of that young boy from Vienna around, making him a designer who was uniquely attuned to the needs of real people.
Helmut Lang as photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue December 2003
There’s a great deal of discussion around the idea that Helmut Lang was anti-fashion. And it’s accurate, to a point. He was anti-consumption, anti-publicity, anti-many of the trappings of being a modern fashion designer. Yet he was certainly not anti-expression. He believed in a definition of fashion that could offer consumers value without getting them trapped in the perpetually-unsatisfying “one more grail” mentality. Among many of his fascinating ironies, he was a fashion designer who made clothes specifically designed to stop his customers from buying more.
While promoting long-lasting clothing is a current trend, with many companies adopting pseudo-greenwashed “buy better, wear longer” campaigns, Lang was one of the first to approach the concept with an earnest philosophy.
The fact that his anti-consumption views were never outwardly stated proved he cared far more about the end result for his customers than the messaging of his decisions. To use a tired figure of speech, Helmut Lang was able to maintain a quiet public presence because his clothes did all of the talking for him. Lang’s less-but-better ideal was realized through two key characteristics of his garments: they were made to be dressed up or down, and they were made with quality materials and construction. While much of this versatility is hard to quantify, it partly stems from Lang’s military-inspired approach to sartorial dressing. As he combined these two influences, he also kept simplicity at the forefront, which allowed his formal pieces to be casually worn and his basic items to be seamlessly integrated into dressier looks.
Helmut Lang’s clothes last for ages because he always designed with a utilitarian slant, never choosing to forgo function for the sake of fashion. Lang’s frequent military inspiration manifests itself in the form of durable fabric, cuts designed for movement, and beautifully discreet anatomical stitching that would make Poell blush. And in terms of versatility, his clothes are fitting the niche of 4 different garments at once. Most designs would get stretched thin by trying to do so much, but Lang’s work finds refuge in its restraint. It’s the clothing equivalent of a poker face, never revealing an intended setting. The power to determine where and how to wear it is in the wearer’s hands. One more thing: his work will never go out of style, so the only obsolescence you have to worry about is the clothes falling apart from continuous wear.
“In a sense, Helmut Lang has solved the problem of what to wear too well for his own good: when you’ve got a couple of his uniforms, you don’t need to buy any more clothes.”
- The New Yorker, 2000
Helmut Lang pieces from 1986-2005, via printings.jp
From the elegant cuts to the accessible nature of much of his work, Lang was able to transform the typically mundane concept of daily dressing into a concise, poignant form of fashion. It’s exceedingly rare to find a designer who has unwavering appeal on both tips of the proverbial fashion iceberg, but Helmut Lang was able to pull it off because he was always independent from the trappings of the fashion industry. His unspoiled, entirely personal calculus of value is one of his greatest strengths.
Helmut Lang Spring 1998 Menswear Collection
Funnily enough, those who were introduced to fashion through Helmut Lang had the rest of fashion ruined for them, because nothing else was ever as good. Maybe that was his goal. He made many individuals, including myself, re-examine their relationships to fashion and reframe them in a fulfilling lens. My personal experience went as follows: His clothes lull you into a sense of absolute contentment, then you zoom out and say “Why don’t I feel this way when I wear anything else?” That kicks off a process of questioning that eventually takes you to the root of what fashion should be: unfussy, enjoyable, and timeless. Once you see that roadmap, you can go out and apply it to other aspects of life. This may sound hyperbolic, but for me, that message spread to my thoughts around design, then to my approach to writing, then to how I structure my day-to-day commitments. Helmut Lang cared about his customers far beyond the point of sale, and like everything else he did, he showed it instead of saying it.
Helmut Lang pieces from 1986-2005, via printings.jp
All designers should certainly put their own stamp on their work, but in my opinion, a degree of compromise separates the good from the great. Making expressive and unique clothing that others can still adapt to their lives is an exceedingly difficult task. So I guess it’s hard to fault designers who choose to commandeer their relationship with consumers when the alternative is making white-bread mall clothes that contribute little more than emissions to the world.
However, designer-dominant fashion is far from an ideal scenario. In these cases, there is little negotiation between the wearer and creator, and the creator feels no need to make concessions to the wearer: it is entirely a one-way dialogue. Unfortunately, the consumer usually doesn’t mind being spoken for, which neglects much of the potential gratification one can get from personal style. Many designers unintentionally lead their customers astray with fashion that clearly outlines a narrative, because consumers get used to that practice and their capacity to take an individual approach to fashion atrophies.
While fashion can be a fulfilling pursuit in the proper context, we must carefully negotiate our relationship to clothing to prevent it from becoming superficial or destructive. There are two extremes to be avoided. One: the trap of trying to come off as more cultured and avant-garde than everybody else, and spending thousands of dollars on nonfunctional clothes that are so strange they alienate you from anyone except those who are as far down the rabbit hole as you are. Beyond a certain point, it becomes a sunk cost, and because you and all of your friends see fashion as a core tenet of your personality, you continue compulsively purchasing for the sake of continuity. Might be desirable to some, but I’ll pass. Two: “caring” about clothes by buying bland fast fashion and doing the bare minimum to make yourself presentable. Neither of these scenarios can be classified as expression. One is consumption with the lofty facade of self-discovery, and the other is plain old consumption.
There’s a limit to what you can get out of curating. At a certain point, you have to start creating something to move forward. Let good taste be a hobby, but never let it be an obsession, because the enjoyment that comes from collecting things eventually turns into a thoughtless distraction.
When you combine existing elements, they still fundamentally belong to whoever made them in the first place. Form something unique, and it can never be taken away from you.
From the bedroom to the job site. Right image via Dazed.
Helmut Lang made clothes that augment your personality. He worked in the background to improve the lives of the people who wore his work, always sure to conceal his own voice so the wearer can imbue the garments with personal meaning.
His clothes are a launching pad for whatever you are. They give you a shot of confidence, and they can slip into the background or foreground depending on the situation. They are constantly engaged in an open discussion with the wearer and the outside world, they adapt to your needs, they are a meticulously engineered tool. And they are purposefully designed to do just enough, but never too much.
“You cannot put a personality together with clothes. It only reaches up to the neck. And then it ends.”
- Helmut Lang, 1995
Writer: Sean Holley
Editor: Isabelle Davis