Helmut’s Dramatic Exit: Bottom-Line Focus Drives Out Lang

More malaise between the suits and the studio: Prada Group said Helmut Lang has resigned as creative director of the fashion house he founded.

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PARIS — Fashion’s revolving door has a new twist: Exit only.

In another symptom of the growing malaise between the suits and the studio, Prada Group said Monday that Helmut Lang has resigned as creative director of the fashion house he founded 19 years ago and made synonymous with minimalist, edgy cool.

WWD first reported on Jan. 19 that the Austrian-born designer and the Italian fashion conglomerate were heading for a rupture.

A brief statement from Prada Group echoed the perfunctory tone last November when the Italian fashion conglomerate parted ways for the second time with designer Jil Sander from her eponymous house. No explanation was given for the split with Lang.

But, as reported, the two sides long have been at odds over the direction and development of the Lang fashion house, upon which Prada Group tightened its grip last fall by buying the 49 percent it needed to gain full control.

In the release, Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli thanked Lang “for his commitment to ensuring a smooth transition, and for his achievements over the years. He built a brand with a strong identity and unique positioning within the fashion world. We will build on this and move quickly to provide the appropriate support to the company and develop the brand’s potential.”

The company declined further comment; however, it is understood Bertelli was in the Helmut Lang offices in New York Monday to deliver the news to employees.

The release noted that Lang’s remaining design team would develop the upcoming fall-winter women’s collection. It has not yet been determined if it will be shown on the runway during Paris Fashion Week in March.

Lang also declined to comment beyond the press release, in which he declared: “I would like to thank everyone, particularly my team and all the petites mains [seamstresses] and all the press and buyers who have supported the company in the past years.”

According to sources, Lang has a noncompete clause in his employment contract with Prada that forbids him to work in any related business for six months. However, the 46-year-old is not expected to walk off into the sunset and has told intimates that he will consider new opportunities within and beyond fashion.

This story first appeared in the January 25, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

One of the defining figures of the Nineties, Vienna-born Lang is synonymous with clean-lined sportswear for women and men with a futuristic, artsy sensibility. He moved his business to New York in 1996, at a time when sales were skyrocketing at 120 percent a season and wholesale volume was approaching $100 million.

Lang’s fashion power was evident two years later, when the mere fact that he was moving his show to New York and holding it at the beginning of the fashion season caused 7th on Sixth to shift its entire show calendar, bringing New York before London, Milan and Paris — a position it retains even though Lang has since moved back to showing in Paris. He electrified New York Fashion Week with shows held in raw gallery spaces with a hip soundtrack provided by his Viennese DJ friend, Peter Kruder.

Prada Group swept in to buy 51 percent of Lang in 1999 with promises to develop the trademark worldwide.

Personal friend of the artists Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer, Lang seemed an ideal match for Miuccia Prada and Bertelli, both passionate collectors of art with an appreciation for the minimalist aesthetic. Indeed, even after Sanders’ first acrimonious split with Prada in 2000, Lang described his majority owner as “the perfect partner.”

What’s more, he said his relationship with Bertelli was strong. “I really like his personality; otherwise, I obviously would not have gone into a partnership with him,” he told WWD that year. “By the time it actually happened, it felt completely normal.”

However, many of the bold plans announced for Lang did not materialize, including promised flagships in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo. A Paris store bowed on Rue Saint-Honoré in 2003 and another in Milan, but the network of locations today stands at nine, two of which are franchised.

Aborted development plans are said to have fueled Lang’s discontent, with merchandising and creative control over the accessories category deemed other bones of contention.

To be sure, Lang is an uncompromising type. He is said to have demanded complete artistic authority with respect to his beauty business when originally negotiating his licensing deal with Procter & Gamble, and launched signature scents in 2000.

“In order to create something new and personal, I had to have total control,” he told WWD then.

But in 2004, Lang and his fragrance licensee, P&G, terminated their six-year association and his first freestanding perfumery door closed on Greene Street in New York.

For its part, Prada has been trying to reposition Helmut Lang and shuttered some unsatisfactory wholesale accounts. In October, a Prada spokesman said that closing those accounts, along with macroeconomic factors such as a strong euro, SARS and the war in Iraq, hurt Helmut Lang’s most recent sales figures.

In its 2003 balance sheet, Prada said Helmut Lang sales showed the biggest drop of the group’s brands, falling 33.1 percent to 27.9 million euros, or $34.5 million. Clothing accounted for 77 percent of sales, with footwear and leather goods — product categories developed with Prada — making up 17.4 percent and 4.8 percent of the business, respectively.

It is believed Prada upped its ownership of Lang to develop more affordable products, such as a diffusion collection or a relaunched jeans line. Helmut Lang Jeans, launched at retail in 1997, once was one of the hottest labels around, but has languished under Prada’s ownership.

Meanwhile, observers said the split suggests the role of designer is changing — often at odds with the corporate powers that be.

Paola Leoni, managing director of Milan-based ASI Consulting, said designers and managers need to find a new equilibrium between the creative and marketing needs. The role of designer used to be “about 80 percent creativity and 20 percent interpreting trends. Now it’s more like 50-50. Just think of Tom Ford,” she said, alluding to the former Gucci Group creative director, who was prized for his business acumen in addition to his fashion prowess.

According to Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based industry consultant, managers are putting more and more pressure on designers as the competitive environment intensifies and designer brands must compete with fast-fashion chains for scarce fashion spending.

“They ask designers to be Superman: to excite people on the runway, attract people into the stores, do personal appearances and more,” he said.

Armando Branchini, a Milan-based luxury analyst, said he expects more rifts will happen as companies battle tough market conditions and take a more hard-nosed approach.

“We are at a time when there is a natural, rigorous selection, when strategies are reexamined,” he said.

Branchini also noted the dynamics between the suits and creative types is evolving.

“Many designers, once they sell their business, become less interested in turning a profit and feel free to entirely focus on the artistic side of their work. They are more interested in what the critics or the fashion establishment say, rather than whether their clothes sell or not,” he said. “Bertelli is a wonderful entrepreneur, but very instinctual, a one-man show, an individualist whose ego motivated him to build his company, and I say this in a positive way, as this is what actually drove him to develop Prada. However, his personality makes it harder to have partners, and not only in terms of designers.”

Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York, said, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out. [Lang] is great at what he does and his last couple of shows have had a lot of energy.

“Who knows what it means for the brand. It certainly is confusing because retailers so relate to Jil at Jil Sander and Helmut at Helmut Lang. It’s confusing and a new thing we’ll have to navigate through. I think Mr. Bertelli’s a smart man and I hope Helmut does something on his own.”

— With contributions from Amanda Kaiser and Luisa Zargani, Milan; and Robert Murphy and Brid Costello, Paris

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