For all of its innovation and lust for “new,” fashion isn’t immune from clinging to an institution that exists for little more than the sake of it, be it air kissing, stilettos or the very idea of fashion week.
A big shakeup to the status quo came in 1998, when Helmut Lang — then one of the industry’s coolest and, naturally, most imitated young stars — decided to not only show his spring collection in New York after years showing in Paris, but to show it first — before Europe, before anyone.
He pushed his presentation up six weeks in order to do so and didn’t ask anyone to approve or come along with him, but they did. First was Calvin Klein, who had also disliked the New York shows trailing Paris, London and Milan, and jumped at the chance to move, and then Donna Karan followed.
Although Lang’s move to New York Fashion Week wasn’t permanent — and he left the industry altogether in 2005 — his gutsy or, by some accounts, egotistical move effectively created the fashion week schedule as it is today, with New York shows first.
The idea of designers going rogue with their show timing was, although talked about on occasion, not an entirely welcome development. Beyond buyers for the likes of Barneys and Bloomingdale’s being happy to see American designers before filling orders in Europe, the expectation was that the change could lead to general havoc.
“Simply for my own sanity it’s not a good idea,” Suzy Menkes, then with the International Herald Tribune, told WWD at the time. “Some hard decisions need to be taken about these runway shows because it’s all turning into nonsense. No one wants to know that much about fashion. I’m absolutely fed up with these egocentric designers and their desire to have everybody running around them.”
Anna Wintour said the notion of New York shows being earlier was “great,” but added “I have this vision of us going to shows for three months.” She may have not been too far off given the current and seemingly ever-expanding show schedule now takes up five weeks each for spring and fall collections.
But she didn’t chalk up the decision of Lang, and subsequently Klein and other designers, to mere ego. “Form the American’s point of view, being last on the route, they were always accused of knocking people off,” Wintour said.
That one motivation behind Lang’s move was to stymie American designers from copying his designs is something he didn’t quite deny when WWD asked him about it.
“The copying problem doesn’t start with the runway shows, but begins with fabric and production companies,” Lang said. “That’s not an issue. I couldn’t say only American designers find inspiration in my collections. That wouldn’t be fair.”
As for why he did decide to move his show, as well as his entire business operation, to New York, Lang said he was simply trying to “do what’s right for my company. I wasn’t trying to change the system.”
Here, for the first time since its original publication, is an exclusive 1998 interview WWD had with Lang, where he comments further on his unsentimental move from Europe and his and the industry’s need to embrace change and “stay completely alert.”
The Line From Lang
By Bridget Foley
NEW YORK — How influential is Helmut Lang?
Everyone in fashion knows him as a master of modernity, one of the two or three most copied designers of the Nineties.
The early rubber dresses, the techno fabrics, the stretchy T’s — all started on his runway and run rampant through fashion’s ranks, from those feisty fashion-at-a-pricers, the Old Navys of the world whose business is to knock off the best of what’s out there, to some of the most elite echelons of the industry.
At the 1998 CFDA Awards, fashion icon Polly Mellen put Lang’s influence in hilarious context when, in a video, she likened him to a lemming: “a little animal that jumps off the cliff, and all the others jump off after it.”
Polly was talking about the impact of Lang’s austere street style, or so we thought. But as last week’s events indicate, this designer packs a fashion punch that reverberates beyond shape and fabric.
Lang’s announcement that he would show his spring collection here Sept. 17 — before the European collections and six weeks ahead of the previously scheduled start of the New York shows — has sent the industry spinning.
Despite the fashion world’s purported edge — dumping the old and blindly embracing the new — fashion, like any other socio-industrial bureaucracy, can get awfully comfy with the status quo. Certain modus operandi are in place merely because they always have been — even if, like the ridiculously late New York shows, they no longer make sense. And they’re repeated over and over without question: They work, we’re used to it, don’t rock the boat, thank you very much.
But then along comes Lang, who not only rocks the boat he just about capsizes it. Almost immediately Calvin Klein, long a critic of the current schedule, moved his show to september, and on Wednesday, Donna Karan jumped up as well. Many others have investigated the possibility of a move and say they just can’t get it together — yet. But inevitably, the discussion will roll right into the fall season.
Commentary ranged from Klein’s high praise — “I think absolutely we needed this push. Clearly by Helmut doing this, I think others will realize it’s the only thing that make sense” — to Pierre Berge’s claim that the whole thing incites “anarchy.”
Yet Lang makes for a reluctant revolutionary. “I just have to do what’s right for my company,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to change the system.”
But change the system he has. Not that he’s the first to come up with the thought; as early as 10 years ago, a group of designers made a play to move the dates, but it went nowhere.
And even today, when the realities of global marketing have made November shows little more than a cable TV-op, it took Lang’s weight to force a change. Had Joe Blow designer chosen to show early, it’s doubtful anyone would care, and virtually certain that heavyweights Klein and Karan would not have signed on.
“It’s kind of funny that Helmut Lang moved in here and pulled this move, and everyone is going to have to follow suit,” says Daryl Kerrigan, herself an exile from the auld sod, commenting on Lang’s new show date. “He’s a foreigner in their own town, and he’s ruling the roost.”
But then, Lang isn’t Joe Blow. He is fashion’s current epitome of hip, the renegade who bucked the conspicuous consumption trend of the Eighties as a novice showing in Paris — and has been raising eyebrows ever since.
“What was amazing from the start was the simplicity. How he could design so simplistically and yet get so much style out of it; so much style, so much shape,” says Bonnie Pressman, executive vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York.
“Helmut Lang has been prophetic for many, many years,” says Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. “I saw a collection, I’d say, 10 years ago; at the time, he was really considered marginal. There was a purity to the line that was really something new, and he used techno fabrics before anyone else. The clothes looked like no one else’s. He is ahead of our times. He has brought the new millennium here a little bit before anyone else.”
It was just that play to the future, the plain shapes and techno fabrics, that caught the fancy of so many in the fashion world. And Lang working it for all it was worth — raw edges, clean lines, rubber, stretch.
Over the years, his vision has remained remarkably consistent; Lang has little interest in dramatic mood swings. And that consistency has brought him, along with countless gushing admirers, a critic or two who maintain the clothes too bland to indicate true genius. “He is an interesting designer, but he doesn’t have the depth of the great creators — those designers whose strong creative impulses keep changing,” says one fashion insider.
“Am I supposed to do 180 degrees?” Lang asks, saying he prefers not to explain his clothes. “It’s not my job. I’m good at it. You try to put everything into the clothes, to do what’s right, to relate it all to today. I don’t know. It’s simple and complicated. You question everything, but you do leave certain elements, when you know its past procedure but it feels right.”
Lang is equal parts visionary and realist — and increasingly works a growing business savvy into the mix. The clothes evolve slowly but definitively, and most recently, Lang has moved away from the audacious techno-hip image on which he made his reputation to a more luxurious take on cool. His fall collection was as over in its luxury as any chi-chi Parisian collection, while maintaining its ties to the street — casual, athletic, unpretentious. At the same time, Lang has been developing a more feminine, at time even romantic, side to the clothes — pale colors, down-filled wraps that attach at the shoulders like angel wings and gentle, sometimes arty dresses.
“I think I’ve outgrown this only-on-the-edge, whatever, design,” he says. I think we combine, in a really good way, news an function, like the whole shift from very controversial fabrics — that has lost its appealing side. We’ve moved on to more interesting things and gained a new integration of comfort — which is something the customer is going for completely — with a luxury thing.”
“I always feel our fashion needs to change as the times change. I mean, I’m not excited by checkered snakeskin at the moment; that was years ago, it was like a big deal, and now it’s over. The other side, what feels right now, is something well-done, well-made, in the right proportion, the right color. This seems completely wise to me at the moment. If you still want on-the-edge design — what is on-the-edge design anyway?”
Lang is working hard to get his commercial act together. Like so many influential young designers of that on-the-edge and on-a-shoestring persuasion, he has had his share of growing pains, which culminated in 1994, when a manufacturing switch prevented him from shipping all but a tiny fraction of his collection.
The last year has brought dramatic changes in rapid-fire succession, and there are more on the way. In March, just in time for the opening of the fall season, Lang moved his company from its base in Vienna to New York, lock, stock and sewing machines. With the move, he took U.S. and Canadian sales in-house; Onward Kashiyama continues to handle importing. His design studio and showroom are in the same building as his store on Greene Street, and only yesterday he closed on another space in the building, above the store, to house his press office.
Next on the agenda: consultation of all product categories under a single Helmut Lang trademark, a move that should be accomplished for current categories by spring 1999. And Lang expects to sign deals for women’s and men’s underwear, leather goods and shoes by fall/winter ’99, all to carry the same label.
There’s also activity on the storefront. In addition to the Greene Street store, Lang has boutiques in Vienna, Munich and Milan. Next year, he expects to open stores in London, Los Angeles and one other city; Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Berlin and Hamburg are in the running. He’s even toying with the idea of another site here, uptown.
As for his immigrant status, Lang feels right at home in New York, which he calls the most urban of cities and so “right for today.” With the move here came the promise of a major show in New York for fall — or so the fashionistas thought. But about a week before the fall collections last March, Lang decided to show only on the Internet and in private appointments — and it was the talk of the town. Not long before, he has discontinued his relationship with his longtime agent, Michele Montaigne, based in Paris. It was a major breakup.
Changes don’t come out of the blue, Lang says. “With Michele I worked for many years — it must be like nine years or something — which is good. She was a great agent. We just needed our own organization to be able to do what we are doing now, and that’s that. On a professional level, it became a question of communication. I’m somebody who gets really attached to people, so I try as long as I can and try really hard. But if certain relations are bad, then they’re bad; you just have to accept it. You may like the person, but at the time, it’s not perfect.”
On the other hand, his ongoing collaboration with stylist Melanie Ward couldn’t be stronger. The designer-stylist relationship is one of the oddities of fashion. Almost every single major designer — certainly most of those considered hot or hip — works with an outside stylist.
Though many semi-dismiss the stylist’s role as the of “muse,” the reality is that stylists act as advisers, sounding boards, arbiters of taste. A stylist often assumes the role of a designer’s de facto first assistant, for the runway collection if not the commercial collection, involved with everything from fabric selection right down to design details and the question of hose or no hose.
Often the relationship starts informally, especially when the designer is young. But the demands of expanding commercial concerns and yes, age, start weighing in, designers often look to stylists to be their eyes and ears on the street; to deliver the edge they are too buy of too removed to achieve alone.
Yet most designers want to do what, in the gossipy little world of fashion, is impossible; pretend that the stylist — usually a star in his or her own right — doesn’t exist. Not Lang. He not only allows Ward to speak when editors drop by, he gave her the title of creative director.
“Melanie is a very important part of my life. We are great friends, we work really great together,” he says. “I don’t know why she’d be a secret. It’s not a secret that you have somebody who edits. I don’t know why people would get defensive about that.
“You’re constantly guessing what you are going for, looking out for a new border that you want to reach, but you don’t know exactly that you’ll spot it, and you question that every day.
“If somebody comes in who’s not there all the time, involved in the procedure, and you discuss certain things and, like Melanie and me, you feel the same way it’s very reassuring. It shortens the procedure of questioning again and again and again what you are doing. Then, when the collection is completely finished, she’s the one who puts all the looks together and puts her final touch to it.
“Because the thing is, it’s not my job, its her job; thats why im working with her. We kind of mentally already agreed during the season, so it’s not something out of the blue or completely unexpected. It works out much better this way because you can get too close, too locked in. And then a few days before the show I can lay back and also get a little bit of the broader view. We work perfectly together.”
Ward is also a sittings editor for Harper’s Bazaar. “Helmut is a visionary with enormous integrity, and he’s very generous,” she says. “Every relationship between a stylist and designer is different. Helmut is very, very secure in what he does. I’m very secure in what I do. We’re both quite strong people, and we know what we want to get out of the relationship.”
Personnel matter aside, Lang has become enough of a New Yorker to flee the city on weekends, to a place be calls his “private getaway,” which he plans to make ample use of. His “new rules” involve working Monday through Friday — “for all it’s worth, a minimal 12-hour day” — bot no work on weekends.
“New York invites you to get certain things done in a certain time and then the other time is reserved for something else. In Europe, it took much longer. Here, you are much better organized; you save time. If you need something, if a lot of work is done five minutes away, you call the man, he should send it over, it’s done. People here organize themselves so there’s time left for the other side of life; the private life or weekends or whatever.”
And Lang wants to keep that life exactly that — private. “ I think it’s nobody’s business,” he says. “It’s a really bad attitude that you have a public job, so everything of yourself is like public, common merchandise. It’s also a choice in everything. For my part, what’s important to me is my work; that’s what I want to be known for, and that’s it. Everything else is show business, and that’s the part I’m willing to answer to only a certain extent. I want to set my own borders there.”
Lang was born in Vienna, but raised by his grandparents in a small village in the Alps until he was 10, when he returned to Vienna to live with his father and stepmother. Mountain life was as anti-techno as it gets — sans telephone and TV — and his arrival in Vienna made for quite a culture shock. In fact, he paints himself as, of all things, a nerdy teenager.
“I came to the city, and I was kind of retarded,” he says. “My approach to everything was completely new, I had a 10-year delay. At this time it was very awkward. Now I think how lucky I was to have had that upbringing in the town. It was completely natural. It was like, no TV, no car. My grandfather was a shoemaker.”
It has been noted that the utter urbanity of Lang’s clothes stands in stark contrast to his early upbringing. “I think those conclusions are always a little bit misleading,” he says. “I do think that everything influences you, I mean, your complete personal history is what you’re made of. But to say what exactly follows what — you can’t single it out. It’s a long history of what’s your depth.”
If Lang admits to a sense of nostalgia for his early childhood, he feels none for Vienna. “In a way, moving to New York is more like coming home, and being more grounded than I have been all the time in Vienna. I was particularly ready to leave there. There is a great quality of life in some ways, but it also has some very small-minded parts, which I was never able to deal with.
“It’s also why I think I was always switching from one place to another and leaving without any sentiments. I have a few friends there and that’s the most important thing about it. Otherwise, I can visit it like a tourist. NEw York fits perfectly now.”
Enthusiastic as Lang is about New York, it may not last forever. Even more than his success, his approach to life is centered on embracing change.
“The most important thing is not to believe that you just have seen it all, done it all and you know exactly how it works, because times change all the time, and you better stay completely alert,“ Lang says.
“It’s not about getting everything that you want. It’s more that at least you try to live your life open to the possibilities that you have at the moment.”
— July 17, 1998