Breathing new life into Helmut Lang brand

An outfit by designer Shayne Oliver (above) in his collection for Helmut Lang.
An outfit (above) by designer Shayne Oliver in his collection for Helmut Lang.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
An outfit by designer Shayne Oliver (above) in his collection for Helmut Lang.
An outfit by designer Shayne Oliver (above) in his collection for Helmut Lang.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • The Helmut Lang brand has not been a great knockout without Helmut Lang the designer.

In fashion, where hysteria is the dominant mode of expression, coronations can be instantaneous, with new icons minted every season.

But even among the greats, Lang stands apart. For those who followed fashion during his halcyon days in the 1990s and early noughties, 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," Ms Kate Betts, then editor of Harper's Bazaar, told The New Yorker in 2000.

Then, Lang was arguably at the height of his powers, flush with investment from Prada and looking to take on the world.

Within five years, he had left his company amid rumours of disagreements with the Prada Group.

He retired to Long Island to pursue life as an artist.

(Helmut) Lang did for T-shirts and jeans what Ralph Lauren did for club ties and tweed jackets - he made them fashion garments.

MS KATE BETTS, then editor of Harper's Bazaar, to The New Yorker in 2000

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," he had told The New Yorker.

Though the brand continued selling new designs with some success, it seemed he was right.

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

The moves he made that seemed daring in the 1990s - 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 1990s is bounding back into fashion.

The time may be right to bring back Lang, in spirit if not in fact.

Mr Andrew Rosen, chief executive of Helmut Lang and Theory, has dismissed the long-time Helmut Lang designers - the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Nicole Colovos.

He hired Ms Isabella Burley, editor of British fashion magazine Dazed, to be the brand's first editor in residence, essentially operating a fashion label along the lines of a magazine.

She reached backwards 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.

Like Ms Burley, Oliver, 29, is of a different generation from Lang.

Ms Burley, who is 26, admitted to having missed the first wave of Lang obsession. "I think, in a weird way, having that distance is a benefit," she said.

"The legacy of 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."

The company will reissue a revolving selection of pieces designed by Lang from past collections, a "re-edition" of originals - the kind that still do a steady trade on eBay and resale sites such as 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.

But the brand 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 entire brand portfolio. He is not overseeing the main commercial collection that is the 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.

If he replicates even half of that, one can assume that, somewhere in Long Island, Lang will be pleased to hear that.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2017, with the headline 'Breathing new life into Helmut Lang brand'. Print Edition | Subscribe