Helmut Lang (2004)
Helmut Lang is a complicated guy, a personality vibrant with the push-pull of creative contradiction. While he can only be described as the most European of men, he has chosen to live and work in New York. He is reserved and irreverent, methodical and spontaneous, a doer and a dreamer. Perhaps this same complexity is what has fueled his fashion design over two decades, allowing him to create work that is always refined and coherent, and usually transgressive and provocative as well. Peter Halley spoke to the designer in his studio in Soho.
PETER: The idea of starting a fashion house in Vienna is so improbable.
HELMUT: I know. It's beyond my imagination now. I think you only do these things when you are very young and inexperienced, and you have nothing to lose. Somehow I just slipped into fashion quite early on, which I had never planned.
PETER: You started when you were just eighteen or nineteen years old.
HELMUT: My teenage years were so restricted. It was a really hard time. I came from very simple circumstances, and I had the classical stepmother in a bad Hollywood movie. When I could finally move out when I was eighteen, I just had to find myself.
PETER: That was '74 perhaps? Was how you dressed your form of expression?
HELMUT: I was trying to define myself in terms of fashion. I think I wanted to do what everybody does at that age. You want to look good, you want to go out, you want to explore life and sexuality.
PETER: Were you putting together things you found, or were you making them yourself?
HELMUT: I had clothes made, but mostly in polyester, because it was very cheap. At the time, the fashion industry had not yet arrived in Vienna. We had this very strong made-to-measure tradition left over from the old Austrian culture. There were a lot of seamstresses who had their own little businesses. People would ask me where I bought something, and I'd say I had it made. They'd say, "Can you do something for me?" I'd say, "Sure," because I was looking for something to do anyway.
PETER: Working with the seamstresses was, in a way, your education.
HELMUT: Yeah, directly. I had a little studio with two or three seamstresses — that's how we started. Then I said, "Well, we have to do a fashion show in Paris." We did a show, which was completely naive and crazy. As I said before, you can only do this if you're young, inexperienced, and have no idea of the consequences.
PETER: I guess you have always had the confidence to make things happen.
HELMUT: That's something that I had quite early on in life, I think. I grew up with my grandparents really high up in the mountains — it was very detached from civilization, actually. When I was a little kid, I would always gather the other kids together to make things. When the first tourists came, we put flowers, stones, and sticks into little plastic ice cream cups. We were handing them out or selling them — I can't remember which. So on the one hand, I am very conscious, but on the other hand, I depend a lot on imagination for the creative work.
PETER: What was it about fashion that became your sustaining passion?
HELMUT: The most important and intriguing thing about fashion is that it relates to people immediately, in a very short time frame. That's also an incredible burden, because of the concentration of the work. It's so fast and so intense. It needs so much input — you always have it in your head. There are also the deadlines. But a deadline also forces you to formulate. Without one, it's actually much harder.
PETER: Despite your Viennese beginnings, your work has always had an international feeling.
HELMUT: I don't feel particularly Austrian, even though that's where I was born. I've always felt quite borderless. I'm more interested in groupings that have to do with familiarities of the mind. I think that fashion, art, and everything else can only work globally. People everywhere are looking for a certain idea — for things to look at, to dress in, to be inspired by. Of course, there are variations around the world, especially in art. But more than ever such local character is becoming less and less intense.
PETER: Vienna is so interesting historically. Austria was a multi-ethnic empire until the beginning of the last century.
HELMUT: My father's side is Polish, Russian and Czechoslovakian, and my mother's is Hungarian and Yugoslavian. I was only born in Vienna. My family was not from there.
PETER: It's a big place, in a way.
HELMUT: It was a big place. A hundred years ago, there was something about Vienna that was truly revolutionary — and strong. It had all this incredible tradition and also a strong counter-movement towards modernism. But just before the Second World War it was basically deserted. It's been that way ever since. What's left now is just a phantom of the spirit which was there, but that's good enough.
PETER: It's a city that seems to inspire some ambivalence.
HELMUT: If you live there for a while, it animates you somehow. Vienna itself is sweet and mean enough to train you for anything. Before I went to New York, everyone said, "You'll see, New York is really hard." But in comparison to Vienna, New York is really nice. Vienna is what it is. If you have something creative you want to do, you have to leave, or it will kill you. I felt that from the very beginning.
PETER: And that's where Paris comes in.
HELMUT: I have spent a lot of my time in Paris. In the '80s, the city was really astonishing — it was one big creative party. What was so unique was something that is lost everywhere today — you had all kinds of people, people from different age groups, just going out and having fun. It was about contact, exchange, doing things, working together — it wasn't as ghettoized. I found it incredibly productive but very amusing at the same time. Then it all closed up in the '90s. I had always thought that I would move our fashion house to Paris. But in the end we came to New York, which was even better.
PETER: You seem like such a European guy. It's interesting that you have chosen to live in New York.
HELMUT: As a base, I'm very lucky to have New York. It has a different mindset. When I go back to show in Paris, in a way it's like going home. I've been going there for a long time now, so I know a lot of people. But there is also something about Europe that is quite heavy-handed. You'd probably go crazy in a European town after being in New York.
PETER: Are there things you miss?
HELMUT: Europe has this fantastic, rich quality that I wish we had in Soho. If September 11th hadn't happened, maybe Soho would have achieved that kind of coffee-house culture.
PETER: I sometimes imagine your menswear was designed for a prototypical nomadic European.
HELMUT: Things often appear different when you are looking at them from the outside. I have never tried to localize my work for a certain group or certain type of man. Of course, I recognize that what I do is always related to culture because it is made for people, so it has to relate to their lives.
PETER: One year ago, you opened your made-to- measure boutique at 142 Greene Street in Soho. It's like a return to your early years in Vienna, making clothes for private clients.
HELMUT: By the late '90s, I was thinking, "What else shall I do?" I decided we should do made-to-measure, in order to provide really personal service again. It's a counter-movement to the corporate and marketing elements that are so strong in fashion. A lot of the made-to-measure work is for our Hollywood clients. But it also functions as a design studio. We have the prototypes for the collections there. It's like we've come full circle.
PETER: Helmut Lang, as a company, has such a cohesive worldview. The made-to-measure shop, the taxicab advertisements, the runway shows, and the design itself all reflect the same sensibility. And I've always admired your website.
HELMUT: It's just very simple. It's there to provide information. I felt that our website shouldn't be full of tricks or grab for attention as if it were based on computer games. We just thought it should just be a normal extension of what we do. Before we launched our site, our work was always edited by someone else — in magazines, on TV. The entire body of work could never be seen, except by a few fashion professionals. The great benefit of the internet is that everybody can have access to everything.
PETER: The simple design is very satisfying.
HELMUT: I always think that I should look at it again to see what else we could do. But then there's another show or something else to do, so I never really come back to it. At the very beginning, the website designers we talked to said, "Your website looks like shit. We could do a lot for you," blah, blah, blah. We'd look at their ideas and say, "This is everything we don't want." So we didn't change anything in the end.
PETER: In your own way, you are very good at business.
HELMUT: I'm not so sure I'm so good at it. I never wanted to do it, but I had to for a really long time. Of course, four years ago we merged with Prada.
PETER: As a creative person in business, you have to keep everything together, otherwise things just don't happen.
HELMUT: I think of it just as defending my creative point of view. In the end, I'm the only one who can take care of it — there really isn't anyone else who can do that for me. From the beginning, I wanted to be able to concentrate on the creative aspects of the work and everything that's related to image. But you always have to do much more than you actually want to. There is no such thing as being completely detached from all these issues. Somehow, they always come back to haunt you.
PETER: Is it a different process from the creative decisions?
HELMUT: Yes. With creative decisions, it is very emotional. It's not about togetherness. It's the fight to reach the point at which whatever you're creating is strong enough to fight you back. Then you just have to let it go. You are the only one who can really decide that.
PETER: Your creative life seems to be characterized by a few very stable long-term relationships. The architect Richard Gluckman designed all your spaces in New York. You don't switch from one architect to another every two years.
HELMUT: I think as long as a relationship is good, there is really no reason to break it. It's as simple as that. The idea of being faithful is a good one, as long as it works for both parties. But if it doesn't work anymore, it will fall apart anyway. That's also happened to me. In the course of your life, people come and go. If you're lucky, there are very few people — perhaps one or two — who you will know for your entire life.
PETER: You have longstanding friendships with two artists, Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois. Louise Bourgeois must be in her eighties, but she's doing great work.
HELMUT: She has this incredible quality. When you meet her in person, you leave so completely enriched and touched. I think she's incredibly strong and focused at the same time. She's producing so much wonderful work now. She's at an age where that is basically all she wants to do.
PETER: Visual people like yourself often have a need to create a visually harmonious environment.
HELMUT: I am definitely interested in architecture and interior design. I like playing around with my environment. It's something that I have to do. I don't always have to build something from the ground up — I'll change rooms or move things around just to be sure that they are in the right place. Sometimes before doing a new collection, I used to rearrange my entire apartment.
PETER: It's almost a design warm-up.
HELMUT: I like everything that's an exercise of form or proportion in areas that have nothing to do with fashion. It's important to look at a lot of different things to train your eye.
PETER: For me, the proportions of a room can affect everything.
HELMUT: I think it's absolutely important.
PETER: If I go to a hotel, and the room is...
HELMUT: I can't go anymore.
PETER: I've found people usually don't understand this. They can't believe that it might have some connection with my actual work.
HELMUT: On the one hand, it should mean nothing. On the other hand, if I stay in a hotel room in which everything is against me, I am unable to relax — there's just no way around it. If the proportions feel contrary to me, I can't feel at home. It's not about good taste or bad taste. You can find beauty in every kind of traditional style or in modernity. But, if a room feels completely dislocated, I would rather be in a tent. I won't be able to sleep, or I'll have to stay out all night long. It's difficult to explain, but I think it has something to do with just taking care of your environment.
PETER: How do you absorb cultural information? How do you follow what's going on in New York?
HELMUT: My cultural experience starts with CNN in the morning, which I started to watch regularly after September 11th. I think that's just what you do in New York. Earlier this year there was a week of exhibitions called Americana. I was interested to find out how American design differs from the European tradition. It was a very good counterpoint to contemporary art. It's always fun to watch the crowd, which was so completely different from the art crowd or the fashion crowd.
PETER: And these influences somehow go back into the work.
HELMUT: Fashion is an expression and a reaction. It's a reflection, and even a proposal, on the current situation of our society. In line with this, whatever sidesteps you take should have some humor and some element of provocation. The work should contain some ideas that will eventually grow in the future, and some that just go off like fireworks — that explode and glimmer briefly, and then fade. Hopefully, the consistency of the work over the years adds up to an interesting story. Depending on how strong you are, that story can be short or long.