Style and Structure With Helmut Lang By Thomas Beller
Helmut Lang spent his boyhood years roaming the alps in shorts. He was a country boy until he turned ten, when his father re-married and moved to Vienna, whereupon his step mother proceeded to enforce a strict dress code of suits and ties. Needless to say, he did not like his step mother. He once remarked that he ever made a movie it would called, “The Step-mother.” I told him it sounds like a horror movie. “Or a comedy,” he said, in his debonair German accent.
One could say that Helmut Lange’s sense of style veers between these two pole – horror and comedy. The strange details that pop up in his clothing designs are alternately mysterious, irreverent, and irrelevant. In some ways Helmut Lange’s designs are one long inside joke, and in other ways, they are as straight faced and no frills as can be. I caught up with him at his headquarters on Manhattan’s Greene Street.
TB: When you were ten years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
HL: I had no idea. At 15 I had no idea either. By twenty, I had no idea. I landed by accident in fashion. In was always sure I would never do something like that. I had no early signs. Many have. I did it because I needed to earn some money.
TB: So it’s all been for the cash. Most people, when they’re twenty and short of money, become a waiter or a bike messenger. What happened to you?
I had a quite restricted childhood up until I was eighteen. Then I moved out from home and finally had a chance to start to liberate myself, I had a chance to catch up with what I missed. I went through all the styles I missed out on as a teenager really quickly. I started experimenting like crazy with fashion. And in that experimental time, I had something special done to my clothes. It was a pair of trousers and a T shirt, and people started to ask me where I had it done. There was no intention to make anything out of it. That T shirt and trousers were like the Adam and Eve of the Helmut Lang collection.
So what did Adam and Eve look like?
The T-shirt was cut without in a bias cut, and in the same fabric as the trousers. It was very coordinated. The T shirt was cut without the fabric (I think he means without the crew neck…). Light cotton quality. The color was kind of off white. It shifted it out of context a little bit. So I started making more of those, and within a year I had so many debts I had to continue, I had no choice.
When did you start to make money?
The Japanese, they have figured out how it works: It takes you five years to get recognized, and ten years to establish yourself as a line. Around ten years you start to make money. That’s when it should start. Then you have another five years to coordinate the girls line. You have ten years when you live on the borderline of nothing. I had those ten years. It’s very goop, you need that. It keeps you on the edge. You have to push forward and build something from scratch. It’s probably more powerful if it comes with some limitations. It makes you more creative.
Are you saying suffering is good for creativity?
If from the beginning you don’t have to worry about money, if you don’t have a certain structure, it’s probably a little too free spirited to go into something substantial. Without the structure you run the risk of being a fast food designer: very fast up and very fast down.
You’re clothes seem really simple.
They might look simple and clean on the outside. But they do have a full bodied structure inside. It’s a lot about great cut and great fabrics. A lot of things come from uniform functions which are built in. The way you close certain trousers, how certain details are detached, half of them have a decorative function, half a real function. Always with the point of view that it should be kind of masculine, with all the possibilities that masculine has today, but always masculine. One of the achievements of the 90’s is there is many more ways to be masculine, there is more than one type of masculine man.
Why? Is it cultural?
It’s always cultural. It has to do with society. If society is not ready, fashion is not going to push it anywhere. If society is ready, even unconsciously, fashion can help a lot. Fashion helps’ people define themselves, you can’t escape clothing in any way.
You’re last collection wad called, “When Love Come to Town.” What’s the name of the collection you’re working on?
The new collection doesn’t have a name yet. Not all collections have a name. I just put a name of that last show because it was more for the woman, just because I wanted to. Since last winter there has been this idea in fashion that every body has to be an old lady. Suddenly uptown chic, the new rich, it was about what money looks like. What money looks like in the early eighties. It’s not even conflated, it’s just such a huge step back. Yes there’s a new society, a new girl who wants to be showy, but what she was offered, basically, was the old clothes of her mother. And the terrible thing was they didn’t mind, they thought it’s cool.
I share you theory that there is this trend is women’s fashion towards old lady-ness. I call it Grandma Chic. I have a very cool friend who is now into knitting.
HL: That’s a mental state of mind, it’s dangerous.
Pleased elaborate. Why is knitting dangerous?
HL: Certain things should not be elaborated.
Elaborate on your new line, then.
I think the new society needs a response, and people who work in fashion have to come up with something, so for summer, we just came up with our sexy version, to say: “hello! Life is back, drop the needle work.
Tell me about New York. Are you glad to be here?
Yeah, I would never have moved here if I didn’t want to be here. I was happy in Vienna and then at one point I decided I should just move here. The company was growing out of proportions and we couldn’t get enough people to come to Vienna. I wanted to move for a long time. I took me a while. I gladly moved. When I refer to the fashion community, I refer it as global. Though I belong to the French tribe, no question.
You’re famously mercurial. You were supposed to get this big CFDA award (ED/GW: pls. check spelling), and didn’t show up. Later you said it wasn’t because you’re flight was cancelled or you had important business. You were downtown in your studio, working, a taxi ride away from the whole fashion industry who was expecting you. Why didn’t you go?
HL:Frankly, I don’t know. I start to understand that there certain things in America that are different in Europe. In Europe you get awards because you deserve them, and if it’s not possible for you to attend for whatever reason, that’s completely fine. You get it for your body of work and not for your ability for public relations. In US it’s different. And that’s… well, fine. I was surprised by what kind of commotion missing an awards ceremony can create and what kind of emotions. I wasn’t used to that.
And many people are saying to me about that whole thing, “that’s really great.” It was all they ever wanted to do in their life: not show for an award, and they never did it. But I don’t know why it’s such a big deal I’m not the first guy not to show up and I’m not going to be the last.
I think your store on Greene Street is pretty intense. It has the Hitchcockian vibe. I take it you were very involved in the design.
Yes. I wanted the front to be like a reception area so your not completely overwhelmed immediately with the usual massive amounts of goods you find when you go into stores. The selling area is set back, I wanted it to be kind of protected from the street, so you don’t feel like everyone can watch you when you are checking out what’s good for you and what’s not. Then there is the couch in the corner for the guys to hang out on while the girls are shopping. Shopping can be as intense for as building a home, it can lead to divorces, it can be fun and there can be lots of tensions. What I like about the store is I still like it now as much as the day we opened it. It is what it is and it works perfectly.
With this Prada deal the scale of your operation has changed dramatically. How do you feel about getting bigger faster?
It’s supposed to be good overall. And we’ll see about that. What I like is that it allows us to do shoes and accessories, it completes the collection. It’s much more work to look at every piece. But it’s a work intensive business anyway. I want to be artistically in control of everything, there’s a lot of things to look at. It’s not one big thing, there’s a lot of little things that make one big thing. The profession is going more and more towards a completely high end luxury line. That is the chromosome that has entered the line: where we are going is towards the high end. At some point this year we are planning a made to measure business in New York.
What about the stock market’s decline? You think the high end will hold?
We’re not this supermarket trade market. We can do a decent volume anytime. There are a lot of things that are too big these days. The idea that bigger is better is not necessarily right.
What’s too big? Never ask a drag queen that. And I don’t mean me.
What are your work habits?
I’m not as organized as you would think. I don’t organize my day militantly. I try to avoid routine. I have always been more an evening person. I love to work in the evening because the phones are not ringing. I’m trying now to cut a little bit back on working at night.
Denim? What are your denim plans?
We’re started a lot of things with denim that were taken over by mainstream houses. The latest idea is keeping all the traditional denim, raw denim, except now we go into colors. And we’ve introduced something called silk denim. In a way I’m cutting out the vintage jeans completely, because it was enormously copied. What we are pushing now is the aesthetic of classic denim, but in a wider color range, gray and brown’s and camel, and then lots of silk denim. A lot of them match with the rest of the collection. You can combine it with shirts and coats that take it out of the usual denim environment.
When you made your perfume did you go about it in the usual way.
Well, we worked with a Nose, yes. We kind of knew what it should smell like from the beginning, and that’s how it smells. It’s musky, comforting. The women’s fragrance is more opulent. We knew from the beginning it should have this comforting musk element. The bigger challenge was to exclude all the other possibilities that arrived.
I read somewhere that someone from Helmut Lang, not you but someone who works for you, remarked that the men’s fragrance is supposed to smell like man just after he’s had sex. Is that true?
HL: The guy who said that, it’s one of his trillion mistakes… The reason for that misunderstanding is that I designed some fragrances for art exhibition in 1997, long before I ever decided to do any fragrances. Jenny Holzer and me were teamed up at the Venice Bienalle, there were seven artist and designer teams, and Jenny had this poem about her relationship, which she’d used in her elegy signs, and I was basically thinking of how not to come up with any contribution manifested in clothes or fabrics; I find that clothes take on your personality when you wear them. You’re body shapes them. And the other thing is the smell that is left in the clothes when you take them off. When you take a piece away from someone you love and smell it, it’s an emotional moment. Many people refer smells to certain times in their lives. So my idea was to create the smell of a person who has just left the room, but the smell is still there. And the idea was to create a smell that was clean, but tainted with nicotine, alcohol. One version we worked on was a smell of the night after sex. But all this was for an art exhibition, that’s all.
Who cuts you hair?
Whomever is around. It’s not a big deal. I just do it. For a while it was so long, it was to my shoulder blades, really long, but that was too much work. Sometimes I feel I should cut it off completely. I can’t be bothered with that anymore.
Do you collect art?
A little. Lousie Bourgiuos, Jenny Holtzer, Kurt Kocherschietz, he was a great friend and also a mentor in Vienna. He died a few years ago.
In what way was KK a mentor?
It wasn’t planned for me to end up in fashion but that’s where I ended up, and I feel a little weird about it. Just to have known him and talked to him and seen his approach to work, his values. His values were like mine, but not like the fashion world, so I could somehow make peace with being in that world. I think it’s a seriousness, and European heritage, which kind of forces you to be very particular, on the borderline of a painful experience that you can stand behind your work in public. It’s a middle European idea.
TB: The Viennese are great haters. My uncle once said that to me.
HL: Vienna is a very jealous city. It’s also kind of small minded. It does not want you to stand out. Because you would highlight the weaknesses of the people around you. Strangely enough a lot of interesting people have emerged from Vienna, but it was an incredible powerful mentality. Out of it is a reaction to those circumstances, that it is basically not a welcoming place for extraordinary achievement, and it makes people who are capable of that really fight for it. It’s the opposition. It’s killing you if you’re not strong enough or it forced you to really go for it. It’s really extreme. I wanted to leave it when I was twenty and I was more somewhere else than Vienna most of the time I lived there in the last ten years. It’s a nice place to visit, though.