A New Yorker By Design

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.

But no such basking was possible, and the worthies’ disagreement with Lang’s move had an undertone of hurt feelings. “I thought the CD-ROM was a huge mistake,” says Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. “Nothing comes close to a show – there’s an atmosphere, a feeling; you see the clothes so much better.”

“Extremely irritating,” agrees Suzy Menkes, theInternational Herald Tribune’s worldwide fashion editor. “I think there was an element of just trying to be too clever. The feeling I had was that he was desperate to be in control.”

“It was an experiment, but I don’t think you can judge it as a successful experiment,” says WWD’s Patrick McCarthy. “The clothes are great, though.”

That was the thing. Fashion editors who went (by appointment) to Lang’s showroom, beneath his SoHo store, and saw and touched the garments, were ravished. “When you go and look at those clothes in the store, they are absolutely beautiful,” McCarthy says. “They are clothes you just want to grab up.”

Minimalism has always been Lang’s signature, but it’s a deceptive minimalism: Shapes, cuts, and colors may be spare, yet fabrics and details are wildly – if subtly – inventive. This was never truer than in the winter ‘98-’99 collection, which was both breathtakingly virtuosic and breathtakingly expensive. The predominant color schemes were off-white, beige, yellow and black, the silhouettes as simple as ever, but Lang added layer upon subtle layer in such luxurious (and eccentrically juxtaposed) materials as moleskin and cashmere and silk tulle.

And even as themes – a three-quarter-length hooded parka coat; an organza cape; a tight cotton T-shirt – kept repeating with slight variations (like that dazed chant on the soundtrack), Lang kept throwing in details that made you shake your head and blink: long capelike extensions hanging from the sleeves of a blouse; even, as a kind of solemn joke, a pair of black silk bunny ears atop an unsmiling Amy Wesson.

While Lang and I sit and talk in the basement of his store, it’s hard to keep my eyes off the sample clothes from that collection, the beige and gray and white women’s and men’s garments hanging on long racks all around us, lining the walls tantalizingly. The clothes have presence: You do want to get at them. You want Lang to talk about them.

“I’m really bad at it,” he says sweetly, politely, adamantly. “I feel I have put everything in the clothing. At the end, it’s really simple – either you like it because you think it suits you, or you don’t like it because you think it doesn’t suit you.”

Since nothing about him or his clothing appears especially simple, I scan his face for signsof disingenuousness. He looks apologetic. “I know what you’re looking for,” he sighs. “But sometimesI think it’s more interesting not to explain the fullsecret, and just leave it asa secret.”

Secret is a big concept with Lang. With clothes, with art, with people. The hidden, the veiled, the complex, fascinate him far more than the bold and blatant. It’s an attitude that in fashion, an industry not known for reticence of personality or presentation, makes him a kind of insider’s outsider. “In a way, he’s become one of the biggest players in the industry by not trying to be a player,” says Amy Spindler, a fashion writer for the New York Times. “He’s kind of the Greta Garbo of the industry.”

There is a weird integrity – weird for the fashion industry, anyway – in a man who speaks of “my disability of getting pleasure out of complete exposure,” a man so shy he sent Jenny Holzer to accept the biggest award he’s gotten, the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s International Award for 1996. It’s hard to imagine Lang ever putting himself in his own advertising, as so many designers have done, or even having his ads grab too much attention (his latest campaign: small signs atop New York City cabs bearing his name and nothing else).

He’s a business minimalist, too. Not for him the kind of giant licensee buyouts or initial public offerings that almost sank Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. “I think it’s better it grows healthy than fast,” Lang says, of his privately held company. He has shops in New York, Vienna, Munich, Milan, and Paris, and he’s thinking hard about opening new ones in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Berlin. The concept of going public is anathema on the face of it. “I just have no interest and no need,” he says. He’s not kidding: According to Lang, his wholesale revenues have doubled every season for the past three years. “That’s very good for the industry,” he says, putting it mildly. (His yearly sales volume – which surprisingly is evenly split between his men’s and women’s clothes – has been estimated at close to $100 million.)

Staying private, in Lang’s worldview, means just that. “A lot of other young designers hang out together, but I think Helmut is not looking in any way to be in the fashion Establishment,” Anna Wintour says. “He’s a very controlling person. I think that by living in Vienna for such a long time, he was sort of removing himself from the world of fashion.”

So why come here now? From a business standpoint, of course, Lang’s move to New York makes perfect sense. “Vienna’s a backwater,” says Patrick McCarthy. “Working from there was like trying to operate a fashion business out of Toledo. Strategically, Milan and Paris are a little more important, but New York is the place where designers want to be. Helmut is here, Giorgio Armani just bought an apartment, Donatella Versace and Karl Lagerfeld are here every other week.”

But for Lang, it’s perhaps a more personal thing. “Somehow, I’ve felt more at home here than I think I ever felt in Vienna, which I realized, of course, only after. There’s maybe something in the roughness and in the tenderness which gave me that feeling.”

Roughness and tenderness?

“You know when there’s a certain roughness, like, built up to protect yourself?” Lang says. “At the same time, there’s also this need for tenderness, and being loved. I think that New York just has this feeling, which is sometimes very covered up, but it’s definitely there. And it’s also a sense of community.

“I mean, there’s this bigger, better, competitive factor. But then I think one extreme creates another extreme. And I think this need for tenderness and being loved is very strong, too.”

For a long time, Lang’s dream was Paris. Soon after he set up shop as a designer, in Vienna in the late seventies, he began commuting to the capital of couture – “but not actually with the intention to do something in fashion – just because life was very exciting,” Lang says.

But then he showed his first women’s collection in the legendary Vienna-Paris Exhibition of 1986 (he started showing men’s clothes the following year). “Paris was very gay in fashion, very outrageous,” Lang says. “And although I was out in Paris, and had fun, I was not really checking out what was going on – which was a good thing – and I arrived at something very different.”

To say the least. It was the height of a decade marked by excess, in fashion and the world that surrounded it. And here, suddenly, was this 30-year-old outsider with a group of … Austrian-looking garments: a translation of the folkloric national dress, the dirndl; deerskin jackets; a severe-looking loden coat; blouses and skirts in prints by Josef Hoffmann, of the famed turn-of-the-century Wiener Werkstätte design group.

The respected intellectual daily Libération gave Lang a rave review, and he was off and running. “I got forced to think about my identity,” Lang says. “And I thought, My identity is just where I’m coming from.”

Lang was born in Vienna, but the formative experience of his life was being sent by his parents, who divorced when he was a year old, to live with his grandparents in a tiny town in the Austrian Alps called Ramsau. The im-
age of a parentless boy living with loving grandparents (Lang’s grandfather was a shoemaker) in a farmhouse in the Alps would be almost laughably Heidi-esque if it weren’tso poignant: To this day, Lang isn’t quite sure why he was sent there. His memoriesof the place are inchoate and bittersweet around the edges, the memories of a solitary childexquisitely, almost painfully, alive to his environment.

“It was a very, very beautiful place, a very simple house – even white bread would be something special,” Lang says. He remembers the smell of leather in his grandfather’s shop, the scent of his grandmother’s cooking. “It was great playing in the woods, or going for skiing… . There’s certain exact images of this huge white landscape when it was winter and we walked 45 minutes to school, and the snow was piled up left and right, like, higher than the ceilings. Or after a very long winter, when the green grass comes through, when the whole valley was covered with rare flowers, special flowers in very strong blue or very strong red.”

But at 10 he was cast out of paradise – sent, for reasons he doesn’t fully remember, to Vienna to live with his father and stepmother. The move to a big city from an alpine farmhouse without a TV or telephone stunned him. “Suddenly there was this mass amount of information – unknown information,” he recalls. “Plus a different language, because where I was raised, there was a very strong dialect. And at that age, kids are also pretty violent – they don’t have a long attention span for this kind of thing. I think I must have appeared a little bit retarded, because I wasn’t familiar with so many things.”

Home life wasn’t much better. “I was basically busy with surviving this time with my father and my stepmother, which was not a very happy time,” Lang says. “It basically consumed, I think, all my energy to survive that.”

He moved out on the morning of his 18th birthday – the earliest legal moment – with all his possessions in two Chiquita banana boxes. And for the next three years he supported himself, as he took pre-university courses, with a series of jobs: bartender, bakery worker, shoe salesman. “I always liked to work; I was never angry about it,” he says. “I just thought, This is necessary for life. So I did it.”

The mid-seventies in Vienna were a lively time – “a kind of a party mood,” Lang says. “There was a good mixture of young people – artists, musicians.” He remembers “starting to play with fashion – discovering it. The seventies bloomed with colorful, fancy, ornamental things. I mean, it was fun to wear flared jeans with embroideries. Everybody had this kind of outfit. And Cher was absolutely fabulous, and so you tried all this stuff out. I tried, understood that I was not exactly built for it, and then I went to the classics” – jeans and khakis with polo shirts. “I think it’s very important that you get a chance to find yourself. Even if you just come back to where you started from.”

Around the same time, he first became aware of fashion magazines. And one day, he saw an outfit on the cover of L’Uomo Vogue that he liked – a simple-looking off-white pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, both in fine cotton rather than jersey – and decided, quite simply, that he wanted to look like that.

He took the magazine to a seamstress he knew and asked her to duplicate the outfit for him. “This is actually quite common in Vienna, because there’s a tradition of made-to-measure clothes,” Lang says. It was also done more frequently in the seventies, “because there were not so many designer labels available yet.”

But it was the outfit Lang had chosen (“something I would never wear again today”) that attracted attention. “A lot of people asked me where I got it, and I said I had it done, and then they said, ‘Can you have it done for me, too?’ It’s actually how I got the idea that I could maybe start doing things for other people.”

He found somebody who could make patterns and sew, and opened a small studio, producing special-occasion garments – evening gowns, holiday clothes – for friends and acquaintances. What had attracted clothing-sensitive Viennese to Lang’s first outfit was not just the look of it but the fact that it wasn’t made out of the expected materials. There was an artistic kick to this slight tension between appearance and reality, and it was this kick that made Lang catch on.

“I kind of had a natural feeling for fabrics,” he says. “It’s very difficult to describe. It’s like, you see 1,000 fabrics and you pick out three that seem interesting to you. And maybe just use them like they are; or use them for something they were not supposed originally to be used for. Just with the weight, the shape, whatever. I’m still doing that today.

“It was not very developed at the beginning, but I know now that I must have had an instinct. But I also was not very insecure – I just went for it. When you don’t know, you have nothing to lose.” He laughs.

Insecurity came withsuccess and more knowledge. His friends were artists, writers, musicians. He’d come to his profession late, through an almost trivial happenstance: “Somehow I ended up with clothes; I still don’t know exactly why,” he says. “It probably could also have been something else. It took me a long time to get comfortable with it, really – I felt a little bit weird, in the beginning, to be
a fashion designer.”

The feeling stayed with him even after he’d scored his first big success, with the ‘86 Paris-Vienna Exhibition. But then he became close to a Viennese couple, Kurt Kocherscheidt and Elfie Semotan. Kocherscheidt was a painter, and Semotan was a photographer; they had two young sons. And they became, at once, surrogate family and artistic inspiration to Lang.

Kocherscheidt’s paintings were thick, brooding abstractions not dissimilar to Philip Guston’s later work. Lang felt drawn both to the work and to a kindred sensibility. “When we talked, I kind of realized that our approach was quite similar,” he says. “You have to find a form; you have to deal with color and volume. And you have to deal with a kind of content. And to start out where you have a kind of vague idea, or maybe just from a color, or a texture. And then you try to reach a certain border, but this border is not known to you before. That’s basically the goal. And that’s part of the excitement, and that’s part of the torture.”

“Helmut belongs in a class with Miuccia Prada and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons,” says Amy Spindler. “What they do is take their inspiration from the art world instead of other designers. There’s a lot of pressure in the fashion world to look around andsee what’s commercially successful. Helmut doesn’t do that. Helmut tends to influence other designers. After a while, the aestheticbecame pretty inescapable.”

Much has been churned up in the fashion press about Lang’s influence on Calvin Klein’s turn to minimalism a couple of years ago. It was a relationship that was made all the muddier by the fact that for a while, the two designers used the same stylist, Melanie Ward. For his part, Klein has been at pains to play down any influence, even going so far, at one point, as to show journalists drawings for an asymmetrical fishtail-hemmed skirt that he claimed far predated the Lang garment he’d been accused of copying.

Change assumes tremendous magical power in the world of fashion, a world in which the slightest modification – an adjustment to hemline, lapel, or shoulder; the rediscovery of a color or a semi-forgotten classic – can cause empires to rise or fall. In this way, the world of fashion resembles one of those giant schools of fish or flocks of birds that, seemingly simultaneously and for no apparent reason, just suddenly … all turn left.

But – just as scientists have discovered that flock behavior is sensitively tuned to the animals in front – the key thing to know about fashion is that a certain small group of designers is consistently influential. Helmut Lang has been one of these since he first came on the scene. “The whole fashion business is people copying each other,” says James Truman, editorial director of Condé Nast and a longtime Lang-watcher (and -wearer). “Big-name designers have sent whole collections out that look like they’re out of Helmut’s scrapbook.”

The difference with Lang is that he appears to watch nobody but himself. His classic signatures (high armholes, severe silhouettes) have endured, even as he throws in curveballs (slits in elbows, lascivious fringes of lace, nearly undetectable spatters of rhinestones that resemble pasties) to keep everyone awake. But his changes are always subtle, as though he wants the viewer to observe the clothes as closely as Lang looks at the world.

“Change is something he plays with in an interesting way,” Truman says. “It’s almost a gesture in a continuum – you never feel there’s been change for the sake of keeping up. Change with Helmut is like a Robert Wilson play, where the same light is on something for fifteen minutes, then it shifts just a little bit.”

“The whole idea of techno music, like the kind he plays at his runway shows, is a big influence,” Spindler says. “He’ll do a long fluorescent band like on a fireman’s coat – first one’ll come out on a sleeve, next on a sleeve and the bottom of a jacket. It’s very repetitive, like the music, but it’s also like an artist driving a point home. It’s like, what’s he gonna put pleats on next? But he never pushes it to a point where it’s ridiculous, the way designers do, turning out things that women would never wear, Helmut’s clothes would be worn by normal people and also people in the fashion industry.”

Well, true enough – but at the same time, there has always been about all his clothes (despite Lang’s protests to the contrary) just a hint of rough sex. From the early nineties until very recently, when they turned to elegance, his women’s garments were insistently, if subtly, provocative. Even as Lang himself seemed the mildest of men, there was a dark, fetishistic, almost Hitchcockian streak running through his work, a kinky fringe. What did those slit garments mean? (They put some fashion observers in mind of crotchless panties.)

“I had a couple of them, and I had them sewn up,” Anna Wintour says. “I was not ready to see all those limbs sticking out.”

“We called the phase his sex-shop thing,” a fashion writer told me. “In one show, he had a bra that was pulled up really violently, with the straps kind of sticking out on the side. And the lingerie was disheveled – there was a lot of violence in that, too. You buy designer clothes to look put-together and fancy – here’s something that makes you look like somebody tumbled you over in the back of a limo and had sex with you.”

Then again, the writer was smiling when she said it. As was Truman when he observed, of his own Helmut Lang jackets and overcoats, “You always notice they’re cut tight under the arms – there’s that possibility of restriction.”

Lang’s print ads last winter, as he prepared for his New York debut, featured not only an artsy Bruce Weber shot of the legendary painter and sculptor Louise Bourgeois but a number of photographs from the Robert Mapplethorpe estate: Mapplethorpe himself, bare-chested and smiling in a crucifix-esque pose; a forbidding-looking character in an eye patch; a pair of stilettos in heart-shaped frames. What image was Lang trying to convey? The male models in his fashion shows have tended to look vaguely seedy – “broken,” in a memorable formulation attributed to Lang himself. He now insists the word was mistranslated from the German by a former media-relations person.

The first thing you see when you enter Lang’s SoHo store is not Helmut Lang clothing but an obelisk-like Jenny Holzer light sculpture suspended from the ceiling just inches off the floor. Amber light-emitting diodes course and flicker down the sculpture’s dark matrix, pulsing short, cryptic messages: MY FEVER/MY SKIN … I CRY OUT … I PRAY … I COVER YOU … I RUN FROM YOU … The words are intense but enigmatic, like the text of a dream. The black steel installation – an object hot and cool at the same time – is silent, relentless.

The men’s and women’s clothes that hang serenely in the tall display cases at the back of the store are somehow of a piece with the sculpture and the words: Cool and stately in repose, they gain heat and complexity upon examination. They warm the hands. The finish is superb. The details are unexpected, arresting. So are the prices.

It is tempting to see Lang’s flagship store as a typical piece of SoHo cool, albeit in a highly advanced form: the big, white, high-ceilinged space; the cryptic conceptual artwork posted front and center; the minimalist-seeming, very expensive clothes. But the statement Lang is making – like the message of Holzer’s light sculpture, which turns out, when read in its entirety, to be a wildly passionate love poem – also gains heat and complexity upon closer examination.

“I don’t even know, when people say, ‘Oh, this is really cool,’ what’s so great about something being cool,” Lang says. “For me, cool is just like a pretended attitude. I haven’t met anybody I found extremely interesting who wasn’t a very emotional personality.”

True to form, lang doesn’t seem to want just anybody wearing his garments. “You hope to find the people who can interpret the soul you try to put into the clothes,” he says. “But they have to interpret it with their own energy, their own soul. It doesn’t work – this is not only for me; I think it’s in general – on people who just buy a label. They don’t really have a relation to it, unless they’re ensured that they can’t be wrong because the label is in fashion. And thatalways gives, I think, a kind of strange, flat look to the clothes. I think that’s the worst thing that can happen to clothes, basically.”

His fanatical concern for soul and integrity even extends to the people who model in his shows. “What I’m trying to avoid is that it just has one direction – just driven by a very young appearance, or very fashionable,” Lang says. “I think I avoid very much the profession; I’m very concerned about a mix.”

Accordingly, he frequently has male and female friends model in shows and ads, without concern for age or conventional standards of beauty. (Although it helps if the friends are as tall and slim and elegant-looking as Elfie Semotan or Daryl Hannah.)

Friendship is extraordinarily important to him. “It’s not something which is just appearing, and you don’t have to do anything for it,” he says. “It’s like your extended family – a friend of mine said once, ‘There are so few of us, but there are so many of the others.’ I think this is what you need – a small group of people where you feel you can communicate without running the risk of being misinterpreted – just maybe for the advantage of not being careful all the time.” He smiles. “It’s also very healthy to have friends who are not in the fashion business.”

Jenny Holzer, who met Lang when they collaborated on an exhibit for the Florence Fashion Biennale of 1996 (part of which was the light sculpture that now stands in the Greene Street store), speaks admiringly of his intelligence – “I like my friends to be smarter than I am” – and his persistence. “I wanted to give up on the project, but he pushed me,” she says. “He’s fanatical about details – he’s absolutely determined to have something finished the right way.”

One of his newest friends is the 87-year-old Louise Bourgeois, whose quirkily fetishistic paintings and sculptures rhyme oddly with Lang’s clothing and artistic development. “In a very funny way, when I met Louise last year, in her home in New York, the ambience in her living room reminded me completely of Kurt Kocherscheidt’s,” he says. “There’s a certain kind of aesthetic of nonimportant things. You know, the importance of nonimportance. Which I completely understand.”

It won’t do, therefore, to cast Lang as some kind of precious aesthete. When I quote Proust on happiness to him, he comes back instantly with a nearly identical quote from The Golden Girls – which, along with Seinfeld and Frasier, he watches to decompress from work every night.

On the other hand, he’s no Warhol. We’re sitting at an outdoor restaurant on lower Sixth Avenue; at the next table, about three feet away, are Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz. Neither they nor the designer gives any indication of recognizing each other. Lang is not averse to hanging out – he attended James Truman’s 40th-birthday party last spring, along with the likes of Lee Radziwill and Bryan Ferry – but his social ambitions, in a city of frantic networkers, would appear to be refreshingly lax. “It doesn’t matter what somebody is,” he says of his friends. “The position doesn’t matter. Maybe the position of the heart matters.”

But then, it doesn’t hurt to be in the right place at the right time.

A New Yorker By Design