Helmut Lang: The Coming of Age of The Cool

Vogue’s Sarah Mower probably put it best: "What [Helmut Lang] achieved in the nineties is so little written about, so far beyond the existing reach of the Internet—and was so elusive, even at the time—that it’s hard to capture its enormity. What he did went far beyond inventing a casual-formal, elegant-subversive uniform—things to wear every day that emitted confidence, centeredness, and sexiness. It was more than that. Everyone who packed his shows felt it when they saw his model army marching at speed in single file around the white spaces he commandeered in Paris, and later, New York. The audience got it. The models embodied it. Nobody voiced it, but everyone knew: It was the coming of age of the cool."

The aesthetic of the Helmut Lang brand - under Mr. Helmut Lang - consisted of stark, raw, stripped-down, industrial, often times street-inspired, clothes in hues of black, white, and a handful of neutrals, mixed with pops of pink latex and plastic-y fabrics in yellow or red. Yes, his use of synthetic and technical materials, such as laminated leathers and plastic-coated mesh and satin, still stands out. As do his sharply cut suits and trousers, seemingly foreshadowing the work of Hedi Slimane during his tenure at Dior Homme.

These trademark looks – which were rawer and far more disheveled than those on the runways of his more established European counterparts – could be spotted on Stella Tennant, Cecilia Chancellor, Kristen McMenamy, Kate Moss, Élise Crombez, Amber Valletta, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell, Kirsten Owen, among other Lang runway stalwarts. Gianni Versace was not the only designer with supermodel friends, of course.

Nowadays, these design signatures - which were borne from Lang's refusal to work in accordance with anything but his own terms - “The upshot [of which] is a point of view that is entirely original, and in that sense, more genuine,” said Cathy Horyn in the early 1990's - are embedded in just about every collection.

Yes, Austrian-born Lang, 62 – a self-taught designer, who first showed his label in Paris in 1986 – is the reason why so much of modern day fashion is what it is and looks the way it does. He did the high-low mix (think: $2,000 denim and $200 sweaters) before Vogue, the biker denim before Balmain. He showed distressed tops, swat-inspired vests, and disheveled silhouettes long before Yeezy. Collaborations with Jenny Holzer before Off-White, the use of Robert Mapplethorpe before Raf Simons. And he very literally did everything before Vetements.

“You can definitely see Helmut’s influence today in everything really,” fashion collector/stylist David Casavant, who boasts an impressive Helmut Lang collection, told Quartz. “He changed the idea of what luxury is. He looked at everything, from military to how people were already dressing on streets to utility wear and uniforms.”

That was the beauty of the minimalist, anti-fashion aesthetic of Lang’s garments (and accessories!); he offered clothing that people actually wanted to wear, even before they knew it. As Anna Wintour explained back in 2000, “Helmut came along and at first it was, ‘Wait a moment, what’s this? This is not in the spirit of the mid-80s,’ which was all about opulence,” as indicated by the runways of Dolce & Gabbana and the like.

“But then everything crashed,” says Wintour. “And fashion reflected that and Helmut was there to take advantage.” His label became a “rite of passage into adulthood” – per Mower – for the punks and ravers of the 1980’s thanks to his “subtly subversive power dressing” that lent “an air of polish to otherwise underground references.”

“There is a grim aspect to his clothes, felt not only in his preference for black leather and wet-looking synthetics but in his hardcore disaffection for established fashion. Unbound by conventional good taste, he is free to experiment,” wrote Cathy Horyn in 1992.

And experimentation was at the core of Lang’s practice. After establishing a presence in Paris, Lang decided to do away with the traditional, seasonal runway model, opting, instead, to show in accordance with concept of “Séance de Travail,” or “working session,” which he viewed individually, each as a further rumination on his core philosophy.

All the while, some of his closest comrades – Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester (a member of the famed Antwerp Six), and Jil Sander, among others – were making waves of their own in the 1990’s, defining styles that became labeled as “deconstructionist” or “minimalist.”

But it is Lang, who stands as the one who truly articulated an underground movement for a new generation. A testament to this: The ease with which such garments fit into a modern-day wardrobe. The endless amount of Lang references on the runway each season is further proof.

If the ’90s belonged to anyone, it was Lang. Skip forward a decade and by the beginning of 2005, he was quietly gone, just a few months after Prada bought the remainder of his company (he sold the first 51 percent in 1999). His archive – and influence – however, very clearly lives on.

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