The fashion industry has a short memory, so it can be easy to forget (or, if youâre young enough, not have known in the first place) that many of the ideas proffered up by buzzy brandsâluxe utility, urban deconstructionism, post apocalypse-chicâare concepts pioneered by Helmut Lang in the late â90s and early 2000s. In some ways, the AW19 show is a reclamation of that legacy; a reminder of who got there first.
This season also marks the runway return of the brand since SS18, when Hood By Airâs Shayne Oliver took on a one-season role of âdesigner-in-residenceâ. Now under the editorial direction of Alix Browne, the founding editor of V Magazine who took over from Isabella Burley, it is Mark Howard Thomasâ designs that will be under scrutiny as he takes the reins permanently as creative director, having already made an impressive menswear debut for the brand. Vogue meets the designer ahead of the show, on a bone-chilling morning, while he and Thomas Cawson, creative director of Helmut Lang Jeans, are wrapping up the runway looks in their white-walled studio in Manhattanâs Meatpacking District.
âI wanted to focus on something sartorial,â says Thomas, handsome with his Caesar haircut and salt-and-pepper beard, wearing an off-white button-up shirt. âWeâre coming out of a period where thereâs so much sportswear and logos, and relaxed fabrications, tailoring should almost feel like you donât have anything on. To wear a jacket and not feel constricted, [that] is where I want the tailoring to go.â
Thereâs an incredible sense of rigour and specificity in his designs; jackets feature sharply gesticulated shoulders and an upright, ceremonial feeling. The colour palette is classic Lang: black, white, and grey with pops of cherry red and bubblegum pink. There are also plenty of allusions to some of Langâs signaturesâtransparency, a fascination with workwear, a hint of fetish and kinkâlike some sexy undercurrent beneath the tailoringâs restrained faÃ§ade. Cawfordâs denim is more formal too, as a result of wanting the denim component to feel part of the whole and not, as he puts it, some âweekendâ proposition. Other items, like the clear plastic âjeansâ and denim screen-printed by artist Josephine Meckseper, add a graphic, conceptual appeal.
But it was Joseph Beuysâ 1970 sculpture Felt Suit that Thomas refers to as his key inspiration. âItâs an image Iâve always loved, and I love Beuys as an artist,â he says. Hanging close by are an overcoat, a five-pocket trouser, and a trucker jacketâall in a flecked grey, the outerwear unlinedâdirectly informed by Beuysâs work. The garments have a sculptural quality and, simultaneously, feel like a sly wink; Thomas has taken traditional denim pieces, like the trucker jacket and trousers, and reimagined them in more formal fabrics. They feel familiar but special, which is the point.
âThese are all garments you relate to, these arenât wacky clothes,â he says. âItâs about creating new suits.â Demonstrating Thomasâ foundational idea of a ânew suit,â a model enters the room in a severe black coat and matching trousers, with an opaque organza shirt. The jacket and trousers are made from moleskin, giving the look heft and density, but without feeling overly precious. At the knees are patches of tuxedo satin, adding a dimension thatâs at once strange and alluring. He likes the idea that over time the moleskin will fade, giving the look an aged, worn-in patina.
Modular dressing is a phrase and concept that Thomas keeps coming back toâa wardrobe that just fits together, like building blocks, in interchangeable âsetsâ, for both men and women. (After all, Lang championed androgyny long before todayâs gender-fluid movement.) Thereâs an undeniable ease and logical appeal to that, like the sensible answer to the overwhelming choices that online shopping and Instagram feeds have wrought.
Still, there are moments of, if not eccentricity, then subtle ostentation. The blouse and trousers set in a nubby, fluid metallic silver, for instance, comes across as both robotic and sensual. Thereâs a creamy silk jacket with a wool fringe that adds a lush textural element, and a double-faced alpaca jacket in forest green with a detachable collar that can be worn in a variety of ways, or transform into a cape. âThereâs a lot going on in this jacket,â says Thomas, smiling bashfully.
Being at the helm of a beloved, trailblazing label like Helmut Lang comes with its own set of challenges, not least the weight of its legacy. âPeople have such great memories of the brand,â says Thomas. âThey still remember that coat or those trousers; people even request things!â But the designer, for his part, is not allowing himself to get too bogged down in nostalgia, or indeed the archive. âThere are so many interesting codes and DNA to the brand; I think itâs about taking them and deciding how you make them relevant for today. We canât be what it was in the â90s.â
Helmut Langâs influence is still strong, and Thomas and Cawford have leveraged it in ways that relate to the current climate, as we navigate the digital age (donât forget, Lang was well ahead of the moment; he was the first designer to show a collection online back in 1998). Their visionâmonochromatic, austere, a fashion look reduced to its essenceâflies in the face of the current mania for visual excess, ironic ugliness, and streetwearâs slouchy, oversized fits. It feels like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, tailoring with such precision looks incredibly dynamic. Or as Cawford puts it: âWeâre tired of meme fashion.â
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