PRINT October 1995


RIGOR AND ECONOMY OF CUT, a marked absence of artifice, the clash of high-tech and traditional fabrics. Helmut Lang's deceptively simple designs lend even the most basic garment a subversive edge. Yet while his use of high-tech materials has been much discussed, the frisson of his interventions has less to do with the techno-club futurism reflected in recent collections by Jean Colonna, Katherine Hamnett, Martin Sitbon, Rifat Ozbek, and Walter von Beirendonck than with his wholly sartorial solutions. Lang's fashions remain autoreferential; he is concerned first and foremost with the formal properties of clothing—cut, material, and color. In this sense, he remains a classicist even as he transforms our preconceptions as to what is appealing or glamorous.

Austrian-born, Lang began his design career at age 18 in the milieu of the Viennese art world, which until then had nowhere to shop. In 1986, he was the lone fashion representative to “Vienne 1880–1939: L’Apocalypse Joyeuse,” an exhibition at the Pompidou that traced the history of Viennese Modernism in art, architecture, and design. Highlighting a profoundly Viennese sensibility, the brutally simple designs he presented in the show (his Paris debut) contrasted starkly with the highly ornamental clothing that dominated ’80s fashion. The press, which labeled his work austere and accused him of intellectualism, was quick to identify him as an epigone of minimalist Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. A half-dozen years later, he was just as eagerly aligned with the new wave of deconstruction and antiglamour epitomized by designer Martin Margiela. Ironically, today press accounts are crediting him with spearheading the “new glamour” and “postgrunge” elegance, a role he emphatically rejects.

Lang, however, belongs to no movement. His paradoxical modernism is most at home in the seemingly unchanging Vienna, far from the center of the fashion world, a city he refuses to leave. And yet, as with numerous Viennese figures (from Robert Musil to Thomas Bernhard), he maintains an uneasy distance from a society he sees as irremediably conformist and superficial. It is as if he wished to combat what is derisory about fashion with fashion itself. Indeed, in Lang’s vision, a respect for sartorial convention meets a decidedly keen sense of the zeitgeist. He is reverent toward cheap fabrics but renders sophisticated ones banal. His neon-pink silk dresses appear as though they were fabricated from plastic, while his nylon T-shirts look like silk. Even plastic becomes a delicate and sensual fabric in his hands.

Lang’s shows are as subtly iconoclastic as his designs. Not only does he present mens- and womenswear together, he also dispenses with the traditional raised runway (and with it much of the stylized theatricality associated with the défilé). His models move freely and unself-consciously at audience level, and the shows seem to pass in a casual instant. Juergen Teller’s backstage photographs of Lang’s last collection express the same will to a pared-down effect. But their “crude” realism, at the outer edge of photoreportage, is as much a new form of sophistication as Lang’s designs. Teller, with whom Lang chose to conceive this project for Artforum, exemplifies an approach to fashion photography that, in seeming tune with Lang’s designs, seeks less to render the model sublime than to grasp how the wearer leaves a mark on the clothing.

Olivier Zahm


OLIVIER ZAHM: You’re from Vienna; how do you see your background in terms of your work—Austrian or more European?

HELMUT LANG: Vienna and Austria are certainly part of my background. That’s where I was educated—my roots are there. But my current state of mind relies on a more global context.

OZ: Do you see your work as essentially European?

HL: Yes. But I’m very much against labeling. The way we work is not about nationality. It relates more to personal disposition than to any cultural or geographic landscape.

OZ: The London press—The Face, iD—has been very supportive of your work . . .

HL: Yes, but I started out in Paris in 1986. Paris was supportive first. Paris is always very supportive of young talent. It’s the only city I know that is passionate enough, and curious enough, to give young talent a chance. And then the English press became very important to us—they understood; it was as if we were speaking the same language. They moved the discussion of what we were doing beyond the fashion scene into youth culture and made the connection between the underground and the establishment. At the time a whole generation—David Sims, Glen Luchford, Juergen Teller, Melanie Ward, Venetia Scott, and the girl of the ’90s, Kate Moss—was finding its way in London, and I’m happy I was a part of that.

OZ: Your work seems to have a certain Viennese outlook—sharp, abstract. Does the minimalist aspect of your work originate in the early-20th-century Viennese avant-garde?

HL: You can’t say I came out of early-20th-century Viennese Modernism. I wasn’t even born until after World War II. Certainly historically speaking there’s an energy in Vienna that is different from Paris, London, or the rest of Europe (though I think this is less true today) that affects the creative process. The Viennese are, on the one hand, very complex, very particular, and on the other hand there is something arch about their manner. It’s hardly lighthearted. But ultimately my work is not referential; it’s not about the past or the future. It’s about today.

OZ: Are you inspired by the energy of club culture? What about technoculture? Is there a connection between techno music and the way you use technology in fabrics?

HL: Not as direct a connection as the fashion magazines would have you believe. Nothing else has moved so quickly into the ’90s as music and technology. But my use of high-tech fabrics hasn’t been directly influenced by techno music. Techno is a new language for music, and I am looking for a new language for fashion, but the use of fabrics in unexpected contexts has always been part of the way I work; I have always used new fabrics along with traditional ones to broaden the language.

OZ: Are fabrics your starting point?

HL: It’s one starting point. It’s not that easy. Basically every collection starts with fabric, color, form; a certain attitude also comes into play that relates to life and favors a certain look, or piece, or atmosphere, or color.

OZ: Then where do you get your inspiration?

HL: I think it comes from different directions, from things that happen every day. After a while there is something in the air; you don’t know exactly what it is, but you know this is it. You have to reach that point in your work, and actually express it, sometimes without even specifically naming it.

OZ: How do you strike a balance between a very formal approach—research and experimentation with fabrics and colors—and what you call a social reflection?

HL: Fashion has its own complexity. It’s a very long process from the concept to the point where the garment appears in public and is worn. I don’t know of any other profession where so many things come together at the same time. It’s directly connected to the people, it’s transformed by interpretations, by everybody who wears it. It contains so many possibilities.

OZ: Do you think about what kind of person wears your clothes?

HL: Not really. Thinking about it too much can be very inhibiting.

OZ: What about the “new glamour” in fashion?

HL: Forget it.

OZ: But your designs have a sexual element, a sexual aura.

HL: I’m not against it.

OZ: I just wonder if you have a specific approach to the sexuality in your clothes. Do you think about it?

HL: Not as much as the number of questions I’ve been asked about it in the last six months would suggest. It is not my intention to be particularly sexual. Of course, sexuality is a part of fashion, along with a lot of other things. It is important for me to make clothes fit the body very well but it’s the material, the shapes, and the colors that create a certain kind of sensuality, with a new kind of sex appeal. I don’t sit down and say, “I want to do something sexual.” My work is totally different from fashion that tries to be glamorous.

OZ: It’s not Hollywood glamour?

HL: You shouldn’t use those old terms to define something in 1995. They relate to something precise from the past. One problem is people are simply not living in the ’90s. They feel the need to connect what is going on today with the past. Everything has to be related to there, there, or there. Which is fine, but it’s much more important to say: Okay, now we don’t need referential fashion.

OZ: What about other designers? Do you like Martin Margiela, or Rei Kawakubo, for example?

HL: I never comment on other designers.

OZ: What do you think of Kim Gordon and her label X Girl?

HL: No comment . . .

OZ: But Gordon’s evolution from art to rock and fashion illustrates the power of fashion in youth culture. Doesn’t your success come in part from fashion’s increased influence?

HL: I don’t want to analyze my success. Fashion has always been an important pan of youth culture. Every era creates its own fashion, music, and so on to make a stand against the establishment. From this point of view, art, rock ’n’ roll, and fashion have always had similar concerns.

OZ: How do you deal with the notion of youth culture as expressed by photographers like David Sims and Juergen Teller? It’s significant that they love to photograph your collections. They wouldn’t do the same for other designers.

HL: I like their work because they are prepared to break the rules. It’s exciting to see how far you can go, and it's always great to collaborate with people with whom you share a similar attitude, a sense of sensuality, and an honesty toward work.

OZ: Would you describe your work as alternative or experimental?

HL: Yes, to a certain extent. Experimentation is what moves the whole thing forward. I really take care to progress, to change. There must be a progressive element, something that pushes the attitude to a new frontier.

OZ: What is your definition of basics?

HL: Basics means textiles have fundamental rights that do not depend on seasons. Textiles need not be held accountable to the “laws” of fashion. It’s all about not being afraid to question, and not being afraid to stand by what you like.

OZ: I know you don’t want to talk about other designers, but is there anybody in fashion design since the ’60s whom you really admire?

HL: No references, no comment.

OZ: Why?

HL: Because it always leads to misinterpretations.

OZ: What about science fiction and cyberculture? How do new technological possibilities affect your vision?

HL: They don’t influence my vision directly, but they do affect the technological side of the industry. By this detour, technology ultimately affects our way of life and can inform a new vision in fashion. To interpret the relationship between technology and fashion in any other way would be childish, because fashion itself can’t be cloned in the same way as new technologies.

OZ: How do you see the role of language in your work—in your tank tops with the word Hawaii printed on them, for example?

HL: There was something in the air that was related to the south, and it was finally located in Hawaii. But it was impossible to escape the clichés associated with Hawaiian patterns. The word, the graphic of the word, was enough to express everything. It replaced the patterns, the atmosphere, the old story. It was enough to express everything, and everybody got it.

OZ: Had you tried that before? Were there precursors to the Hawaii tank top?

HL: Sometimes it’s more obvious, sometimes less, but I always use words in my work. I like the abstraction. I use more than just words, however; sometimes I use a sign, an atmosphere, or just a certain color or a repetition of patterns in the same way. Abstracting an idea like “Hawaii” is a very modern way of tapping into the spirit of a particular association: you keep what you need from history and culture, and you put it in a new context.

OZ: So abstracting something by privileging one attribute associated with what is referenced over the rest doesn't result in reduction, in simplification?

HL: No, it doesn’t. People say my work is all about simplicity, basic and simple cuts, but it isn’t. It’s a very complicated system in which the end result looks as if nothing much has happened but what does result is decisive.

OZ: Do you collect old garments? Do you use existing garments in your work?

HL: No. I’m interested in the living spirit of fashion. You have to know the history of fashion in order to question it, to transform it, or to build something new on it, but I’m not overwhelmed by the history of fashion.

OZ: Even if you won’t name names, you are very sensitive to what is going on in the culture around you.

HL: To be able to express something in your work you have to experience something in your life. That’s the potential you can give your work. This doesn’t mean you have to live through everything, but you have to be open to the possibilities, and then only focus on what is necessary for you.

OZ: You are not nostalgic—in a way you’re very optimistic—and yet you do not overestimate the future.

HL: Working now, working for today, is already being in the past. What is time, anyway?


Olivier Zahm is a regular contributor to Artforum and is the editor of Purple Prose.