The fashion industry has a short memory, so it’s easy to forget (or, if you’re young enough, to not have known in the first place) that many of the ideas proffered up by buzzy brands – luxe utility, urban deconstructionism, post apocalypse-chic – are concepts pioneered by Helmut Lang in the late 90s 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, absent since SS18, when Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver took on a one-season role of “designer-in-residence”. Now under the editorial direction of Alix Browne, the founding editor of V Magazine who took over from Isabella Burley, it is Mark Howard Thomas’ 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 met the designer ahead of the show, on a bone-chilling morning, while he and Thomas Cawson, creative director of Helmut Lang Jeans, wrapped up the runway looks in their white-walled studio in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
“I wanted to focus on something sartorial,” says Thomas, handsome with his Caesar haircut and salt-and-pepper beard, wearing an off-white button-up shirt. “We’re coming out of a period where there’s so much sportswear and logos, and relaxed fabrications, tailoring should almost feel like you don’t have anything on. To wear a jacket and not feel constricted, [that] is where I want the tailoring to go.”
There’s 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 Lang’s signatures – transparency, a fascination with workwear, a hint of fetish and kink – like some sexy undercurrent beneath the tailoring’s restrained façade. Cawford’s 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 “weekend” proposition. Other items, like the clear plastic “jeans” and denim screen-printed by artist Josephine Meckseper, add a graphic, conceptual appeal.
But it was Joseph Beuys’ 1970 sculpture “Felt Suit” that Thomas refers to as his key inspiration. “It’s an image I’ve always loved, and I love Beuys as an artist,” he says. Hanging close by are an overcoat, a five-pocket trouser, and a trucker jacket – all in a flecked grey, the outerwear unlined – directly informed by Beuys’s 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.
“These are all garments you relate to, these aren’t wacky clothes,” he says. “It’s about creating new suits.” Demonstrating Thomas’ foundational idea of a “new suit,” 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 that’s 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 to – a wardrobe that just fits together, like building blocks, in interchangeable “sets”, for both men and women. (After all, Lang championed androgyny long before today’s gender-fluid movement.) There’s 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, come across as both robotic and sensual. There’s 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. “There’s a lot going on in this jacket,” 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. “People have such great memories of the brand,” says Thomas. “They still remember that coat or those trousers; people even request things!” But the designer, for his part, is not allowing himself to get too bogged down in nostalgia, or indeed the archive. “There are so many interesting codes and DNA to the brand; I think it’s about taking them and deciding how you make them relevant for today. We can’t be what it was in the 90s.”
Helmut Lang’s 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 (don’t forget, Lang was well ahead of the moment; he was the first designer to show a collection online back in 1998). Their vision – monochromatic, austere, a fashion look reduced to its essence – flies in the face of the current mania for visual excess, ironic ugliness, and streetwear’s slouchy, oversized fits. It feels like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, tailoring with such precision looks incredibly dynamic. Or as Cawford puts it: “We’re tired of meme fashion.”