Jan 10, 2019 | By Sandy Chu
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Jan 17, 2018
Helmut Lang is one of the most pioneering designers in recent fashion memory. The Austrian designer’s eponymous fashion house became a byword for minimalism in the 1990s and his youth culture-inspired looks were worn by a generation of influencers throughout that decade and beyond. There is very little written about what he achieved throughout his early years, with his most iconic collections existing beyond the reach of the Internet, yet his elusiveness and enormity of his work has gone on to inspire generations of designers including Raf Simons and Phoebe Philo. It’s been around 18 years since he gave up fashion, leaving the brand he founded, to pursue fine art – and yet his iconic designs are still highly sought after amongst avid fans and collectors worldwide.
This week in a project between DMSR showroom and ENDYMA, a special exhibit of archive Helmut Lang pieces will be on show during Paris Fashion Week. The Athens-based fashion archive and shop will be presenting a collection of the designer’s garments from the 1990s right up until his departure in 2005. What makes this exhibition even more interesting is that Lang’s designs, from this specific time frame, are particulary rare, mostly because the designer shredded 6,000 items of his clothing in 2011 to create materials for twelve column-like sculptures that featured in his Make It Hard exhibition.
We spoke to ENDYMA’s founder Michael to find what we should expect from the exhibition and uncover the lengths he’s gone to get his hands on the rarest Lang pieces.
How did you originally get into Helmut Lang, and how long have you been collecting?
ENDYMA is an Athens-based fashion archive and shop. I started the project in my late teens, while I was studying Art History in the UK. I was longing to figure out who I wanted to be and look like. And one day I saw this 1 pocket jacket from Helmut Lang’s S/S 2003 mens’ collection:
I was drawn to its transgressive aesthetic. It was composed and streamlined but edgy at the same time; unconventional but deeply rooted on traditional workwear. Everything about it had a viewpoint, from the cool interior labels to the proportions and finishing that set it completely apart from anything I had seen before.
Collecting was a process that developed over a few years – I wanted to wear these clothes for myself, and eventually started selling the ones I didn’t wear. At first I used eBay and I saw that my auctions were gathering heavy traffic, primarily thanks to detailed photos and long descriptions informed by my Art History studies. Eventually I decided to create ENDYMA, which meant that all this research could be gathered in one place. Thanks to all these sales, I was able to acquire more pieces which have eventually accumulated to become the huge fashion archive that is ENDYMA today. Even though it is the biggest collection of vintage Helmut Lang in the world, it is sustained through sales. So things come and go all the time. I have been doing this for the past 4 years.
How many pieces do you currently own in your archive?
It is difficult to make a precise count, as things come and go on a daily basis. However I suspect there are around 850 Helmut Lang pieces right now, and another 400 by other designers.
Out of the 850 HL pieces, 80 of them are denim jackets and around 200 are jeans. The central room in ENDYMA’s showroom is entirely devoted to Helmut Lang denim, indexed by colour, type and wash.
Why do you think that Lang was originally drawn to denim as a fabric for his designs?
I suspect that what drew Lang to blue jeans was their omnipresence and familiarity – denim is a fabric that is found everywhere. I remember a Daniel Miller book where he stated that, in any major Western city, more than half of the people are wearing jeans at any moment.
At the same time, it is a fabric that has been used for over a century, and is radically different from most materials used nowadays. Its visual depth, structure and performance over time share little with the jerseys, fine nylons and polyester fleeces that comprise today’s average wardrobe.
In this sense, denim is both conventional and unconventional. This contradiction makes it a perfect material for Lang, who often enjoyed combining the unexpected with the very traditional.
S/S 1999 Classic 2 Pocket jacket with elongated sleeves in heavyweight raw denim
What made his denim designs so original at the time?
The Helmut Lang Jeans line was introduced in 1996 and was based on Lang’s affinity for workwear and Americana in particular. Most of his denim designs are rather purist reworks of classic Levi’s staples that we have all seen a million times. It was attention to detail and material experimentation that set his product apart from the rest:
First of all, his cut is very refined. The jackets are semi-fitted on the body with high armholes, but the shoulders are slightly dropped. This results in a silhouette that is kind of elegant and shaped but not skinny. Instead, the look is classic and precise.
Likewise, the jeans imitated 501s but with a tighter thigh/seat area and a slightly trimmer leg. To many people, it was the most flattering classic jean you could find. One could say that his shapes were an antidote to the naively fitted shapes that were prevalent in the 90s.
Second, the materials and finishes he did were groundbreaking and largely unprecedented. One of the first jeans he did back in 1994 was in 3M high-visibility reflective fabric.
For winter ‘97, he offered jeans in reverse polypropylene raw denim. This was a shiny denim that was sewn on the weft side with a deep synthetic luster.
For summer ‘98 he did the iconic painter jean, which looked like a jean that had been worn for a decade, with screenprinted paint splashes and all sorts of artificial wear. That collection also introduced heavily stained, bleached and overdyed jeans.
The following seasons showcased ‘vintage burned denim’ for winter ‘98 (heavily washed white denim that was sprayed with a flamethrower), safety orange raw denim for winter ‘99 and raw silk denim for summer ‘01 (finely woven with 10% silk and a shiny weft)…
S/S 1997 Classic jeans in white-reflective fabric (reissue of A/W 1994 design)
S/S 1998 Painter jeans in vintage bleached denim
What are the most iconic denim silhouettes in your collection?
My favourite is the classic 2 pocket denim jacket he did for ‘97 and ‘98. It is very similar to Levi’s Type III jacket but the chest pockets are square instead of diamond-shaped, resulting in a slightly militaristic undertone which I love. Also note the use of tonal thread for the buttonholes, larger point collar and absence of waist pockets.
Please stop what you're doing and google 'daniel craig denim jacket' That is how this rare #helmutlang jacket from SS 1998 will look after nearly 2 decades of wear. As of now it is still raw and unbroken. The fabric is heavy, sculptural and crisp. The pockets are square like all early Helmut Lang denim jackets. Available – size L. #helmutlangarchive #danielcraig #jamesbond #mondays
A/W 1998 Initial 2 Pocket jacket in heavyweight raw denim
Are there any particular styles that are sought after by collectors or any really rare pieces?
S/S 1997 Initial 2 Pocket jackets in raw denim, featuring metal cock ring detail and painted stripes
There are a few special versions of Lang’s classic 2 Pocket jacket, including one that featured painted stripes on the back. Raf Simons wore one when he presented his first ready to wear collection for Christian Dior (S/S 2013). Needless to say, this design is now one of the most coveted Helmut Lang jackets.
Do you have any styles missing that are on your hit list?
Impossible to find piece: some of the ‘astro’ biker pieces from 1999 exist in woven sterling silver versions. If I remember correctly, the retail prices were $37,000 for the jacket and $33,000 for the trousers… Would make for a nice addition to the collection!
Helmut Lang Séance de travail A/W 1999
As far as denim pieces are concerned, I am nearly certain I have seen it all – from the classics to one-off prototypes.
How has Lang’s design impacted denim style today?
Raf Simons has paid homage to Helmut Lang often in his eponymous brand as well as Calvin Klein. For CK, he seems more interested in the ‘pop streetwear’ collections Lang did from 1994 – 1995 – 1997.
Helmut Lang Séance de travail S/S 1995 vs. Calvin Klein by Raf Simons A/W 2017
In addition to the clothes themselves, Raf seems to also be interested in the iconography and overall energy of Helmut Lang’s 90s shows – the style of press releases and show invitations, the backstage prints Lang did on T-shirts, the fetishization of New York etc. It’s important to remember that Lang was the first European designer to relocate his business to America in 1998 – Raf had a very similar experience and I suspect he was very aware of its similarities to Lang’s story.
As explained earlier with the example of Helmut Lang Jeans, many of Lang’s concepts have been appropriated by many other labels -lux and high street- to shape several aspects of contemporary fashion as we know it now. And that’s the strange thing about Lang’s influence – it is so widespread that it has become almost invisible.
There is still a huge cult following for Lang’s work, even amongst a younger generation. What is it that makes Lang’s work so timeless and still relevant after all these years?
Lang worked at a rare intersection between classic clothesmaking and high fashion, and this often explains why his clothes remain on-point so many years later. His touch was subtle and highly informed by tradition, but also confident and at times very unexpected.
In my view, high fashion is extremely saturated right now. Trend cycles seem to become shorter and shorter, with new and high street labels tirelessly flooding the market with copies of the latest thing. After a year, you can’t even look at these clothes without feeling that ‘this is done.’
On the contrary, Helmut Lang’s clothes have stood the test of time brilliantly and are endowed with a certain value that goes well beyond the fact that they’re nice to wear – they represent authenticity and scarcity, in a time when gratuitous gestures and impressions seem to drive the market. In my view, the confident aesthetic and rarity of Helmut Lang clothes function as an antidote to the contrived and rapidly depreciating trends we see everywhere else.
What are your thoughts on the new Helmut Lang Re-Edition line? It seems that we are at a time in culture when it is becoming normal to know about Raf Simons or Helmut Lang. Do you feel we are at peak awareness?
Helmut Lang’s current incarnation has made serious efforts to harness the original label’s energy, and the Re-Edition project is definitely an interesting move. Several of the original pieces that were reproduced came from ENDYMA, so I have witnessed the process first-hand. I would say that they did a fairly good job, even though the trims/fabrics used were often cheaper than the originals.
I think that people who do not have the time or resources to find the originals will certainly be happy. As a fashion enthusiast and collector, however, this project is somewhat of a cop out to me. As Eugene Rabkin wrote:
‘It’s too easy to reissue than to make something genuinely new. Perhaps this, like the crap river of collaborations and limited editions tweaks, bespeaks the general lack of creative energy in contemporary fashion.’
Did you like the debut ‘Seen By’ project by Shane Oliver?
Read Michael’s thoughts on the ‘Seen By Shayne Oliver’ collection in the Insta post below
A few thoughts about Shayne Oliver's HELMUT LANG References to #HelmutLangArchive collections were prominent: SS 2001's deconstructed bras and layering pieces, AW 1995's lingerie-trimmed dresses. S/S 2003's detached elastic waistband and of course A/W 2003's bondage straps. Copious referencing aside, I have a feeling that Oliver's understanding of #HelmutLang is highly informed by Tumblr and Instagram, in the sense that his looks are based on a visual and therefore superficial understanding of the brand. Thus what he created was a Helmut Lang effect (something that has been quite common recently), rather than approaching this endeavour from its core. And while this graphic approach is a signature for Oliver, there was an overall lack of harmony. The bondage/leather fetish references felt easy and unsystematic, while Lang's refinement was nowhere to be seen. Subtlety was replaced in favour of drama, and the work of the greatest designer of the 1990's was reduced to a mid-range 'Imported; Italian Fabric' version of @DollsKill. I think Oliver's message has some potency – but adding the Helmut Lang name to it seems contrived. All this is about the womenswear – the menswear looks felt gimmicky and powerless. Those HBA-style printed shirts in particular were a tragic step backwards. On top of that, a closer look of the details and finishing reveals that the execution of the garments was poor and occasionally unresolved. Overall, I was hoping this was going to make a bit of an impact. Instead it is another chapter in the long list of efforts attempting to revive this once-respected brand.
You will be showcasing some items from your archive during PFW with DMSR. What can we expect from this exhibition?
You can expect a series of curated ‘best of’ looks for men. While demonstrating how ahead of his time Lang was, we also aim to show how fun and wearable his clothing is right now. So, there will be some recognizable high-end stuff (think 2003 bondage-strap bomber jackets, 1999 ‘astro’ biker jackets and so on) but also classics such as raw denim jeans, the classic backstage-print T-shirts, etc. And of course there will be shoes, accessories and all sorts of other curiosities.
Overall, the message is that good design is not dictated by time – and therefore, it is sometimes worth pressing pause instead of always looking for the next big thing.
You can check out the ENDYMA exhibition in Paris at the DMSR showroom:
Galerie Anne de Villepoix
43 Rue de Montmorency
WGSN Subscribers can head to the latest Big Ideas Report to read more on the importance of leveraging archive collections.
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