Accidental Icon: Coda Helmut Lang and Creative Recycling

“Materials are just materials, they are here to serve you, the subject is what you want to express” Louise Bourgeois as told to Helmut Lang

Helmut Lang’s clothing designs favored an urban, modern, androgynous and minimalist aesthetic. His clothes are deconstructed yet glamorous and often include subtle mixes of cheap and expensive fabrics and different feels and textures like varnished denim paired with soft transparent layers. Though beautifully cut and tailored his clothing became known as avant garde through his choice of materials and his decisions around pairings and comparisons: see through and opaque, hard and soft, metallic and matte, new and recycled. I have always been drawn to his clothes because as the caption reads on one of his eyewear marketing campaigns his aim is, "to promote an intellectual and fearless appearance."   

Helmut Lang admits that he never wanted to be designer, but rather an artist who just happened to end up in fashion. Most of his friends in Vienna were artists and he enjoyed close relationships and collaborated with Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois prior to his retirement from fashion in 2005.  If one looks back historically at his marketing campaigns and designs one can see that his interest in art was always at the forefront. Rather than use images of himself or his clothes in advertising he worked with photographers like Jurgen Teller and Bruce Weber to tell other stories. He used images such as 85 year old Louise Bourgeois wearing a crown or from Robert Mapplethorpe's archives, her holding a phallus.  He collaborated with Jenny Holzer on an installation for the Florence Biennale, called, “I Smell You on My Clothes,” representing how the smell left behind in a room or on a piece of clothing creates memories of the person who left them. They worked together on a poem, Holtzer on the LED that streamed the text and Lang created the scent. This collaboration was re-cycled into the décor of Lang’s stores as well as into his perfume ads, “I Smell You on My Skin”. He collaborated with Bourgeois on a t-shirt and scarves and was one of the first designers to stream his runway show on the internet.

He approached the design of clothing in a similar manner to how he now views his art: an interest in materials and transforming them. As a fashion designer his approach was building or “sculpting” something around a body, now in his view he is building the body. In both contexts he often relied on recycled materials. This sensibility can be seen in his current exhibit at the Sperone Westwater gallery in New York City. For me the compelling aspect of the work is of course how it relates to clothing and the theme of reinvention or as we have been talking about all week, creative recycling. Following a fire in his Soho studio he took what remained of his fashion archive, put it into an industrial shredder and has spent the last 5 years working on how to re-imagine his collection. Taking the result he cast the mix in different color pigments and resins. The shredded clothing re-appears as sculptures in long metal tubes that are 10-12 feet high. One feels upon entering the exhibit that you are in a stark and magical forest until you look closely you can see bits of fabric, tags and other memories of clothing. 

In ending I return to the quote at the beginning as a way to think about our relationship to clothing. I might change the quote to say, “Clothes are just clothes, they are here to serve you, YOU are what you want to express”. This gives us the freedom to choose clothing not necessarily based on designer or price, old or new but as materials we use to express our identity and to imprint our memory in the spaces within which we move.

To see more of Helmut Lang’s fashion, art and advertising see my Pinterest board.

Do you ever feel like a sculptor when you are putting together a look?