After years of silence, the return to the NYFW23 runways under the direction of Peter Do.
Helmut Lang brings the spotlight back on himself, claiming the priceless cultural heritage he has given to fashion.
The tendency to forget is a universal problem. Collective memory always struggles to reconstruct that intersecting mosaic called the past, and the history of costume is no exception.
It took two decades, and a resounding return to the catwalks for SS24, to redeem the art of Helmut Lang, an ingenious Austrian deisgner never truly historicized, whose training, history and fortunes fell, at least for a while, into oblivion. Yet into this happy revival of the 1990s and 2000s he too fell, the designer universally regarded as the father of European Minimal Streetwear never truly celebrated.
In this editorial we trace his story, from his roots to the runway shows that most rewrote the narrative of 90s fashion, retiring from the fashion scene in 2005.
All the terms we use today without a second thought, such as trendy, gender fluidity, fabric mix, would not exist without a pioneer: Helmut Lang.
The story of Helmut Lang takes us back in time, on a journey to discover the roots of a phenomenon that has indelibly influenced contemporary fashion, Streetwear.
Despite the abundance of diverse influences, every movement, without exception, has a basis, however remote. In an effort to trace the origins of streetwear style, Helmut Lang is a key figure who first brought casual style to the runways, making jeans, t-shirts, and leather garments equal and with the same dignity as Haute Couture.
When youth culture invaded the world of high fashion, taking the place of classic elegance, much of this success was due directly to him.
There are few details about Lang’s personal life, as he preferred to keep his private life out of the spotlight. However, we do know that he was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1956, and spent his childhood near Salzburg. His decision to enroll in a trade academy may have been influenced by his shoemaker grandfather.
At only 21 years old, Helmut Lang opened his first studio in 1977, initially focusing on designing t-shirts and blazers. However, he quickly developed an interest in avant-garde fashion, becoming fascinated by the great Japanese designers, as well as up-and-coming designers who were approaching fashion with a completely innovative attitude: Kawakubo, Yamamoto, Miyake. He built his stylistic narrative with determination and daring, bringing his collections to everyone’s attention within a few years, with the first fashion show in Paris in 1986, at the Centre Pompidou.
The following year he increased its scope, including men’s fashion at FW Paris 87.
Thanks to him, the New York Fashion Week calendar was changed: before his move to the United States, the shows were held in the order: Milan-London-Paris-New York, but after his anticipation at the 1997 shows, many designers including Calvin Klein followed suit. The World Fashion Calendar had to adapt to the shows presented in advance, putting itself ahead of other cities.
The Lang vision: minimalism as the new avant-garde.
What is the fine line between casual and minimalism? When a garment stops being anonymous and becomes iconic because of its simplicity. Helmut Lang worked on perception, shrouded in a mystery that was reflected in his clean spots. Even his models, with natural makeup, conveyed a complexity underscored by their personality; Lang was an essentialist brand but never simple. Every choice he made was carefully thought out, including the casting of models, which was done not only based on physical appearance but also on personality.
His constant fusion with the avant-garde, his fashion shows in urban settings, futuristic commercials, and the combination of different and natural materials in his clothes helped define the 1990s as the “cool” era, linked closely to the imagery of nightlife, club culture, and house music that was taking its first steps in those years, becoming a de facto, perhaps unintentional, exponent of it. A large ranks who followed the music scene, attentive to the latest cutting-edge trends, adopted the designer as a recognizable statement of the community.
The motivation may be simple: Lang took garments considered anti-fashion such as T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, and parkas and transformed them into symbols of status. He mixed different materials and fabrics, natural and synthetic, spraying clothes with metallic or shock colors to achieve a futuristic effect, overturning the canons of clothing. He made women wear masculine jackets, straight pants and leather garments, creating an androgynous style that we recognize today as futuristic. He legitimized an entire generation that felt a pressing need to break free from prejudices, from society’s stereotypes.
He decided to leave the catwalks for good in 2004, with his last Spring Summer 2005 show in NY.
After 20 years he made a resounding comeback, thanks to the artistic direction of Peter Do, who presented for his first collection at New York Fashion Week SS24.
Peter Do’s debut as the brand’s artistic director.
The anticipation for his debut was palpable, and it undoubtedly represented the most anticipated moment of the New York week. Do showed a co-ed men’s and women’s collection entitled “Burn to Go“: a celebration of the United States of America through the metaphorical image of the automobile.
Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong, in the fashion show press release, pointed out the appropriateness of this choice: “Peter’s decision to base his Helmut Lang fashion show on the image of the automobile is extremely pertinent. For queer people, the car is not simply the means of realizing the American dream of traditional families, for which it was originally conceived.
It not only represents the symbol of linear industrial progress, but is also a refuge from the outside world, a place where we can be more than the world allows us to be. The car is the place where we used to escape, often at night, perhaps “borrowing” it from our parents to destinations that were not places, but the edges of roads, the underside of bridges, a field of fallen stars in a dead end. Here we would turn off the engine to love each other, to cry or speak without whispers, to finally shout joy and sorrow as the stars watched us through the windshield.”
Peter Do has gathered the priceless cultural heritage of the brand‘s founder and cleverly reinterpreted them. What his personal style signature will be is yet to be determined. For now, we are happy that Lang is back on the Fashion Week stages.