Helmut Lang vividly remembers his first visit to New York, around ten years ago -- a stop of just a few hours on his way to a Caribbean vacation. He was based in Vienna then, and just starting to become a kind of elusive legend as a clothing designer. "Friends in the business all said, 'Come over; come visit us,' " he recalls. "And unconsciously I didn't really want to, because I had the feeling, if I come here, I would maybe end up here."
He laughs. He did end up here. The 42-year-old Lang is sitting behind his publicity director's desk in the basement of his new flagship store, on Greene Street, looking a little like a schoolboy taking an exam. Or a shy gangster. His full face, sleepy eyes, and long, slicked-back hair give him a slightly seedy look and a surprising resemblance to the action star Steven Seagal, minus the dim, put-up hardness. He is a man fashion sophisticates discuss in tones of awe, and yet the most palpable vibration of his personality is an intensely focused but ever so slightly awkward gentleness.
Something odd happened to Lang on that first visit. He was browsing through a store uptown when he looked up and saw Andy Warhol. "I didn't recognize him, really," he says in his soft, strongly Austrian-accented English. "There was a kind of exchange without talking. He was looking; I was looking -- if I would have met him again, we would have definitely talked, you know. It was just kind of funny -- it was only a few hours that I was here.
"I just saw somebody who had a kind of intenseness, and a kind of strangeness, which made me remember it," Lang says. "And then much later realize that it was Warhol."
At the time, it was Paris Lang was enamored of. "I think I liked New York instantly, but I was afraid of changing my life again," he recalls. "I was still between Vienna and Paris, and I kind of was not ready to go into something else."
He decided to return for a three-day visit; he wound up staying two weeks. He was content, he says, to "just look at the usual things and walk around, and suddenly find yourself in the environment which is basically very known to you from movies, TV. Because that's the amazing thing about New York when you come from Europe for the first time -- it felt familiar and at the same time exciting. I kind of also had the feeling, coming the first time and later, that I'd come back home."
On July 7, just six months after Lang transplanted his headquarters and his life to New York, he was already rewriting rules for the New York fashion community. He announced that he would break the venerable tradition of showing New York collections in November, after the London, Milan, and Paris shows, and introduce his collection in mid-September.
In the tight-knit, gossip-intensive, acutely competitive fashion community, Lang's announcement had a seismic effect. It was as if the owners of Belmont Park Racetrack had unilaterally proclaimed that henceforth the Belmont Stakes would be run before the Kentucky Derby.
Yet the very next day, July 8, Calvin Klein -- who has often, and somewhat unfairly, been accused of copying the younger designer -- announced that he would follow suit, premiering his spring women's collection on September 18, the day after Lang's show. "I'm in agreement with Helmut Lang," Klein told Women's Wear Daily. "It's the only thing that makes any sense because . . . designers who do business in Europe have their collections ready a month early. It's ridiculous to show last when we show in Europe already."
"Normally, we show in Paris around the tenth of October," Lang explains. "But the collection is already available for all the buyers at the beginning of October in Milan. So the decision was to continue to show in Paris or to make a commitment to New York. Emotionally, I wanted to make the commitment to New York. And I was ready to take the risk by showing up front, alone, out of the usual timing. Eventually, it'll grow into something."
WWD chairman and editorial director Patrick McCarthy agrees. "Calvin's following; Donna Karan probably will," he says. "The impact will be on everybody for years. American fashion has always had this inferiority complex -- everything everybody saw in Europe then turned up on the runways of New York. American designers said, 'I don't want to be known as some sort of copyist.' Helmut Lang has sort of lit a torch to the whole process."
But then, Lang is quite adept at lighting torches -- he's been doing it for a while. Who else besides him, after all, would have held a major fashion show and not invited anyone? This is precisely what he did last March, for his winter 1998-99 collection.
In an empty white studio, Lang videotaped his male and female models (including both Daryl Hannah and the photographer Elfie Semotan, a friend of his who is in her fifties) marching by purposefully, almost martially, against a soundtrack of tribal drums and the dazed androgynous voice of former punk model Leslie Winer chanting, Star-fucker, star bright, first star I see tonight . . . He then put the show on CD-ROM (and posted it on his Website, helmutlangny.com) and sent out discs to all the fashion worthies who would otherwise have attended, basking in the compound fabulousness of Lang's clothes and one another's company.