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Helmut Lang Without Helmut Lang

By Matthew Schneier

Shayne Oliver wearing one of his new Helmut Lang bra bags, a leather brassiere with card holders sewn on the back. (It zips up, cups together, to form a satchel.)
 
Clement Pascal
Shayne Oliver wearing one of his new Helmut Lang bra bags, a leather brassiere with card holders sewn on the back. (It zips up, cups together, to form a satchel.)

In fashion, where hysteria is the dominant mode of expression and praise is often ladled out in heaps rather than spoonfuls, coronations can be instantaneous, new gods and icons minted every season. And then there is Helmut Lang.

Even among the great and the good, Lang stands apart. For those who followed fashion during his halcyon days in the 1990s and early aughts, his pieces were the stuff of cult fascination. His jeans were the only jeans (and he was one of the early few with the temerity to charge hundreds of dollars for them); his T-shirts were the perfect T-shirts; his coats were the must-have coats.

“Lang did for T-shirts and jeans what Ralph Lauren did for club ties and tweed jackets — he made them fashion garments,” Kate Betts, then editor of Harper’s Bazaar, told The New Yorker for a profile in 2000, when Lang was arguably at the height of his powers, flush with investment from Prada and looking to take on the world.

Within five years, Lang had left his company amid rumours of disagreements with the Prada Group, and retired to Long Island to pursue life as an artist. (In 2011 and 2015, he created shows out of the remnants of his archive, which he shredded and made into sculpture.) The Helmut Lang brand, sold in 2006 to the Link Theory group, continued. But its new designers never recaptured the energy and influence that Lang had marshalled.

“My personal voice cannot be replaced by a design group,” Lang had told The New Yorker, and though the Lang brand continued selling new designs with some success, it seemed he was right.

Clement PascalMaeve Whalen wears a look from Shayne Oliver’s collection for Helmut Lange, at the brand’s offices in New York.
Maeve Whalen wears a look from Shayne Oliver’s collection for Helmut Lange, at the brand’s offices in New York.

As many of his contemporaries have faded from memory, Lang has remained influential. His clothes are endlessly riffed upon and knocked off outright, and many top designers acknowledge him openly.

The moves he made that seemed daring in the ‘90s — borrowing details from fetish gear and military garb, showing his collections online, presenting menswear and womenswear together, casting his shows with friends and models of all ages, shooting conceptual advertising campaigns that did not always display clothes — have become standard practice. The influence of the ‘90s is bounding back into fashion. The time may be right to bring back Helmut Lang, in spirit if not in fact.

Andrew Rosen, chief executive of Helmut Lang and of Theory, dismissed the longtime Helmut Lang designers, the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Nicole Colovos, and changed its course. In place of a new designer, Rosen hired Isabella Burley, editor of the British fashion magazine Dazed, to be Helmut Lang’s first editor in residence, essentially operating a fashion label along the lines of a magazine.

She reached backward into the Lang archive, but also brought a necessary infusion of the new. She invited Shayne Oliver, designer of Hood by Air and one of the many who cite Lang as a reference and inspiration.

Clement PascalShayne Oliver, who will be Helmut Lang’s first designer in residence, at the brand’s offices in New York.
Shayne Oliver, who will be Helmut Lang’s first designer in residence, at the brand’s offices in New York.

“I referenced him so much it’s crazy,” Oliver said in an interview. Now he will be Helmut Lang’s first designer in residence, working on a capsule collection to debut at New York Fashion Week.

Like Burley, Oliver, 29, is of a different generation from Lang. Burley, who is 26, admitted to having missed the first wave of Helmut obsession. “I think in a weird way having that distance is a benefit,” she said. “The legacy of Helmut Lang is so strong and so important to acknowledge. We were really thinking how to be actively engaged with the legacy and the history of the brand.”

If Helmut Lang has not been quite Helmut Lang without Helmut Lang, one of Burley’s projects is to put him back into circulation. The company will reissue a revolving selection of pieces designed by Lang from past collections, a “re-edition” (in the manner of an artist’s estate) of Helmut Lang originals — the kind of pieces that still do a steady trade on eBay and resale sites like Grailed. The first 15 pieces, including a silver motorcycle jacket (from 1999), paint-splattered jeans (from 1998) and a horsehair bag (from 2004) went on sale at Helmut Lang stores and on helmutlang.com Friday.

Lang collaborated with artists (in particular, with his friend Jenny Holzer) on his ad campaigns; Burley has invited a dozen artists, including Carolee Schneemann, Walter Pfeiffer, Carrie Mae Weems, Adrienne Salinger and the estates of Peter Hujar and Mark Morrisroe to express their vision of the brand for T-shirts, posters and limited-edition items.

A silver Helmut Lange motorcycle jacket from 1999 that will be reissued in 2017.
A silver Helmut Lange motorcycle jacket from 1999 that will be reissued in 2017.

But Helmut Lang also needs urgency and novelty, the kind Oliver, who put his Hood by Air line on hiatus, is well positioned to provide. His collection, to be called Helmut Lang Seen by Shayne Oliver, will be only a small part of the Lang whole. He is not overseeing the main commercial collection that is Helmut Lang’s bread and butter, which remains in the hands of an in-house design team. Without the pressure to speak for the entire company or set its course, he has been given free rein to design a collection to make waves.

Hood by Air’s shows were flamboyantly theatrical, thumping celebrations of chaos that seemed to herald a new world order. Oliver set frenetic dancers free to disrupt his shows, hobbled models with mutant boots that seemed to walk in both directions, collaborated with PornHub and eschewed gender entirely. But he freely acknowledged his debt to Lang, whose quieter, more minute renovations of fashion orthodoxies, from the design of clothes to the culture around them, informed his own.

Lang’s clothing is, in general, subtler than Oliver’s. Though, with his suggestions of fetish and pornography — clothes dangled straps that implied bondage, a famous top bared its wearer’s nipple — Lang had his more provocative moments, too. Oliver cited those as particularly influential. “It’s horny,” he said of Lang’s fashion. “Which for me is very important.”

Yet Oliver welcomed the moment to step back from his wildest moments. The whole industry, he said, has been moving in an extravagant direction, and he has lost interest in much of New York fashion. “I feel like we’re in ‘Best in Show,'” he said, making a reference to Christopher Guest’s mockumentary about preening owners competing in dog shows. “That’s how every show feels to me.”

There is still a flavour of Hood by Air in his Helmut Lang pieces, including some that Oliver first tried there. He designed less in imitation than in homage, taking the broad strokes of Lang’s oeuvre — sharp tailoring, outerwear, slinky long dresses — and recasting them in his own image. “We kind of ignored everything Helmut, to be honest,” he said.

He arrived at the Helmut Lang studio in the meatpacking district in high-heeled Margiela boots and his customary padlock-chain necklace, and began going through racks of newly arrived pieces for the first time: bead-fringed denim, lots of leather, angular hook-and-eyed closed dresses that pushed Lang’s subtlety into a more explicit direction. (“You have to push things forward,” Lang once said. “I think people are going to be bored out of their minds if fashion goes back to the old ways of dressing up.”)

“Oh, work,” Oliver said quietly to a metal-ringed harness that looked borrowed from a bondage shop.

“Oh, work,” he said to a sleek leather overcoat with an asymmetric closure.

“Oh, work,” he said to the photographer who sat on the couch, waiting to take his picture, for which he strapped on one of his new Helmut Lang bra bags, a leather brassiere with card holders sewn on the back. (It zips up, cups together, to form a globelike satchel.)

If taking on as hallowed a name as Helmut Lang’s has cowed Oliver, he didn’t say so. “I have no anxiety because it’s more simple,” he said. “It’s more chic. It’s something that I’m not used to.”

By the time it hits the runway at 9 p.m. Monday, it may look less simple. “You’ll gag,” he said. (This is a good thing.) “Hopefully Andrew lets it go down the runway.”

“I check in regularly,” Rosen said. “Not a lot happens that I don’t know about. But these guys work independently of having to worry about what I say every day.”