Helmut Lang’s Distilled Opulence
Helmut Lang left the fashion industry in 2005 to devote himself to art, but his blend of opulence and restraint remains hugely influential
Portrait by Bruce Weber
For all that has been written about Helmut Lang, the Austrian artist remains enigmatic. In both his former life as a fashion designer and his current career as a celebrated artist, Lang has preferred to let his creations speak for themselves, understanding that the most important statement one can make is to produce work of undeniable quality. As a fashion designer, Lang’s collections were always fresh, innovative and covetable. He created the definitive pair of cargo pants or jeans, essential items that wearers could keep forever. He had a minimal aesthetic that remains highly popular and influential today, though he resisted categorization as a minimalist. With Lang, it’s better to accept that easy labels do not apply. After leaving his namesake brand and the fashion industry in 2005, Lang embarked on an equally successful career in art, which he continues to this day between his homes in New York and Long Island. In fact, Lang has always been an artist, one who prizes authenticity and never compromises his vision. His work may vary, be it a sculpture, a painting, an installation or a film, but it is always emotional and thought-provoking. Mysterious as he may be, Lang is still a refreshing, clear and assured voice. In the following e-mail exchange, he discusses what discretion has afforded him as well as his reservations about the “quiet luxury” trend and what the enduring appeal of his work in fashion says about our world today.
MARIE-AMÉLIE SAUVÉ What are you working on at the moment? When you create, what do you read, watch or turn to for inspiration?
HELMUT LANG As I am in the middle of a physical move and consequently in a partial mental displacement, I am still working on my last body of sculptures, which I started around Stella Tennant’s death – broken hearts and other injuries (working title) – and then preparations for a solo exhibition at the Schindler House in L.A. next fall. I don’t turn to anything in particular for inspiration. I absorb everything that gets forced on me or that I am interested in and anything in regards to the human condition.
MAS I know you and Stella shared a special bond, and she considered you a mentor and a friend. Could you tell me more about this remarkable relationship? Do you have any memories you feel comfortable sharing?
HL Too many memories to share. We had a mutual understanding, trust and honesty with each other and acceptance without projected expectations – all that one could ask for.
Lang, photographed in his Long Island studio by Daniel Trese.
MAS Is there a book, a film or an artwork that has been especially inspirational in your life? Perhaps a work you discovered early on that had a formative impression on you?
HL I had sequences of formative impressions at different stages in my life. I cannot pinpoint only one, as it never seems to be only one for me.
MAS You have lived on Long Island and in New York for many years. Do these environments inform your art practice? In your life, has there been a connection between your surroundings and your creative output? In what way do you think where we come from shapes what we create?
HL My personal surroundings, where I work, are important to me. I am rather sensitive to a certain setup to be able to work. Wherever that is geographically does not matter that much. My art practice is inevitably informed by the sum of my past life, as it informs how I function today, and by an overactive brain with an endless range of emotions.
MAS Do you see your sculptures as part of a conversation with your work in fashion? You have used your clothing in several installations – are they part of the same artistic gesture?
HL Not at all. I did one body of work out of forced circumstances, and it naturally became extremely personal and also highly publicized, as there was serious loss involved.
MAS Many writers have observed that your past fashion collections typify what is today called “quiet luxury” – high-quality, discreet pieces designed to be worn forever. It’s true you pioneered refined, essential clothing at a time when no other designer was creating work like that. What do you make of quiet luxury? Do you identify with the style or find it at all interesting?
HL I would not typify my past collections as “quiet luxury.” I am quite certain my range was broader and much more severe and diverse. My understanding of luxury or anti-luxury had no classification in any traditional sense, and I applied it in a totally free-spirited way, shapeshifting between new high-tech materials, low-end materials and high-end fabrics. The perfect cut, the perfect proportion, the right material and the total freedom of usage are, for me, a good definition of luxury, regardless of whether it is applied to essentials or innovatives. I considered all pieces as equals without hierarchy, with a made-to-measure finish. The inside is as important as the outside. For me, that was a normal understanding, probably influenced by the tailor-made tradition that was prevalent in Vienna. I am not familiar with what is considered quiet luxury today, so I can’t really say that much about it. It sounds a bit unexciting on its own. If it’s integrated within an interesting design language,it can pass in good measure, as long as it doesn’t have a privilegedundertone. In general, I find any form of categorization unhelpfulfor creativity and anything else, really. It was much more fluid inthe 1990s and first half of the 2000s. It was a lived diversity, notjust a categorized or discussed one. I never liked to be put intothe category of minimalism, either. I was aiming for the essence ofdistilled opulence. Otherwise, it is just simple, in not the best sense.
Lang’s Long Island studio, photographed by Fabien Baron.
MAS That people still discuss and collect your work speaks to the timelessness of your designs. The codes and visual language you articulated are heavily referenced today. Why do you think your work endures? Perhaps it says something about our times? Or maybe that there are no new ideas?
HL Maybe it is for others to say why it is still so influential today. In retrospect, I probably broke the boundaries of day-, under- and evening wear, sportswear and couture, fetish wear and event clothing, and treated everything equally to find a new language, as hip-hop and rap did. That created new codes and a context for my own design language. I considered equally important that clothes should be supportive of one’s body and the desire to define oneself. If you leave all the intellectual conversations about fashion behind, it is in reality often about how good one looks and how attractive one is, or how strong a personality one has. In my opinion, fashion should be a reflection of our times and a glimpse into the future at its best. It seems the current creative climate takes into account only a rather small part of our times. Social media might be too much of an equalizer, opinionator and instant informer, and as everyone is a performer now for 15 minutes, there is not enough time to create the unexpected. It seems stuck in an endless repetition somehow and just looping and competing against itself.
MAS There were always interesting contrasts in your collections: between conceptuality and wearability, protection and fragility, neutral whites and blacks followed by bright flashes of pink, yellow or blue. Was this part of your method: to take an idea, then clash it with its opposite? Were these twists part of a story that you were telling?
HL It is an accumulation broken up and assembled again in a repeated procedure until the work is strong enough to fight you back or has reached a new border. Often the beginning will and should be outlived by the procedure.
I was trying to get it right in opulence and restraint from my personal perspective. I was always looking for the unknown known and known unknown.
A Helmut Lang taxi top advertisement, photographed in the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, courtesy of MAK Vienna.
MAS Since you stepped away from the fashion industry in the mid-2000s, it has transformed. Creative directors must now release collections all year round, so there is less time for creation, and they seem to change houses every three years. What do you make of the state of the creative director role today?
HL I am not a physical, active part of it anymore, so I am quite certain I do not have the right insight or perspective to give an informed opinion. I am sure I could not work without the time one needs to achieve one’s vision and without total control over every aspect beyond clothing, which is the other visual extension of one’s body of work. That was always very important to me and I feel strongly that it was necessary to complete, explain and communicate on another sensual level. Too much forced output is not creatively healthy, and I think the volume confuses audiences more than supports them. It is just another level of the unnecessary and fatal to possibilities for creative solutions. There are strong artistic voices around, but competing against all that is produced by the industry today is a challenge. The spectacular presentations of collections that have become a driving force also suck all the energy out of the room and are not helping, or leave little else to remember. Only the really great ones master both.
MAS You have always seemed very discreet. Even in 2000, The New Yorker called you “The Invisible Designer.” You’ve spoken about your isolated upbringing in the Austrian Alps – are you discreet by nature or by choice? What do you think this has given you?
HL Probably both – discreet by nature and choice. Personal overexposure distracts from one’s body of work. I just was myself and not what was expected. I did not know any other way. Being true to oneself is a good leitmotiv.
MAS Despite this trait of yours, I’m curious about your lifestyle and how you live. What is a typical day in your life, if that even exists?
HL There is no typical day – it all merges and unfolds. I prefer life as an organic mess or order where there is no defined work or defined free spaces, and it is all life. I live modern, Brutalistic and rural at the same time.
This feature was originally published in Mastermind 14 – buy it here.