Monday, 15 July 2024

Helmut Lang

The fashion legend tells it all on a beautiful day at his wonderful seaside home on long island

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Helmut Lang may be the luckiest man alive. Since leaving his eponymous label in late 2004, the legendary designer has forged a radical new life for himself in the country. At his mid-century mark, he has his health, his wealth, his looks, his dogs and the love of a good man. And he is free.

From Fantastic Man n° 4 — 2006
Photography by BRUCE WEBER

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Ten years ago, Helmut Lang was the most influential designer in fashion, single-handedly capable of shifting the entire show calendar with his decision to present his collections in New York rather than Paris. He was the first designer to recognise the potential of the Internet, of viral marketing, of designer denim. When he signed a massive multi-million dollar deal with an empire-building Prada, global domination seemed assured. And when the relationship went wrong, people naturally assumed that, in walking away from his company and relinquishing the rights to his own name, Lang had become one more tragic statistic in the fashion wars of the new century.

But Lang never played by the rules, he just changed them. And he’s doing it again. His favourite expression might be “It is what it is.”

Fashion is clearly missing that pragmatic spirit more than ever. It’s not just that the autumn and spring collections were shot through with his sensibility. From a purely selfish perspective, my suits won’t last forever. Like he cares. Mr. Never-Look-Back lives with Edward Pavlick, his partner of ten years and another escapee from the fashion world, either in their New York City penthouse or on a bucolic estate that looks out across dunes to the Atlantic. The seaside house is the most visible fruit of the Prada deal (purported at the time to have netted Lang anything up to $100 million). It’s in East Hampton, but he is quick to point out that he lives on Long Island, not in ‘The Hamptons’, with all their connotations of excessive wealth – or mere excess.

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Helmut Land holding a duck on Long Island, New York.

Still, in summer 1999, Lang famously outbid Jerry Seinfeld for the property. Women’s Wear Daily reported that Lang offered $16 million to Seinfeld’s $10 million – by way of spectacular compensation, the comedian then spent $35 million on the spread one door along from Lang and Pavlick, which had previously belonged to Billy Joel. The neighbours, old and new, underscored the ostentatious new league that Lang had moved into. It felt incongruous at the time, but that was, of course, well before I saw the house itself.

It’s in the practical colonial style known as saltbox. Actually, with its sloping gable roof, it’s more a shape than a style (appropriate for Lang, the master of silhouette). It’s sheathed in Shaker clapboards, rather than the shingles that define a lot of other houses in the area. The shaker style reminds Lang a lot of the mountain architecture he grew up with. The guest-house, an 18th-century blacksmith’s cottage shipped in from somewhere local, could equally be Alpine in origin. The dining chairs Lang brought from Austria could be Shaker chairs. The dining table is hewn from one huge piece of wood, strong and simple, a grace note that is typical of the unadorned nature of the interior. The walls are bare wood panelling, the floorboards are broad and worn, the decorative objects, such as they are, are things the couple have found on the beach or in the woods: shells, stones, skulls, pieces of wood, whales’ teeth. Horseshoe crab shells might have been designed by the Swiss fantasist H.R. Giger. I’m reminded of a Viennese wunderkammer – a cabinet of curiosities – from the 18th century. More of the moment is the flatscreen which silently plays CNN; Lang has always been absorbed by “the news”.

After his parents split up and his mother died, Lang was raised by his grandparents in a village called Ramsau am Dach­stein, high in the Austrian Alps. Their mountain-top was the highest and he remembers the sensation of looking down at the world spreading out endlessly below and feeling that there would always be somewhere else over the next hill to conquer. “But the thing with the ocean is there is nowhere else to go. There is the good feeling you have arrived somehow, like you’re home.” It’s a sensation that visitors feel too. The previous weekend’s guests had been reminded of their home in Brittany, I thought of growing up in New Zealand.

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When he used to visualise living by the sea, he imagined Greece or Sardinia, mountain and ocean in tandem. But Long Island may be the place Lang spends the rest of his days. “I’m not keen on travelling lately anyway,” he says with the wry little laugh that punctuates his more tongue-in-cheek declarations. (He could be talking about the current state of airline travel, but equally, there are the insane traffic jams that clog the Hamp­tons’ two-way streets during ‘the season’.) He isn’t even fazed by the fact that property owners on Long Island are having more and more trouble getting insurance because of the growing conviction that a hurricane is long overdue for the New York area; a Katrina-sized storm surge would scour the low-lying Hamptons clean. “You could live in fear every day but it cannot be the leitmotif,” he says. And should a tsunami sweep through? “We’ve got a ringside seat.” Another laugh.

Once upon a time, journalists would invariably make mention of his ghostly urban pallor, but now at the tail end of a Long Island summer, he has a tan. Though Lang turned 50 in March this year (which makes him a Pisces, and I only mention that because when he finds out I’m a Virgo, he says, “Like Tom Ford? You should open your shirt further,” so he has at least a passing familiarity with the subject of birth signs), he seems remarkably untouched by time. “Because I stopped working like before,” he laughs. The milestone left him unmoved. “I have no problem with age. I never had any crisis. It just is what it is. I’m not planning ‘the next chapter’, so to speak. I’m perfectly happy.”

There is never a hint of regret about what’s passed. “I think I’m very happy about the decision to change. I think I’m just following up the things I never had time for, things I wanted to do that were maybe part of the work already. But it was a very intense 24/7 job, and now it’s probably time to pursue this other thing. For me, it’s more raw and surprising. I don’t know everything as well. In fashion I know a lot and I can do a lot of things and tomorrow I can probably do a really great collection again. And fashion also has a certain system, but I like it that things now don’t have a complete system, that the outcome is just less predictable.”

Hindsight suggests that Lang was already seeking the unpredictable in his last collections, introducing elements of chaos. “Yes, chaos,” he agrees, “but I also started introducing a lot of organic inspirations, like things I found on the beach.” In a way, it was Lang’s riposte to the conformity – the absence of chaos – that he felt followed in the slipstream of a relentlessly globalising society. He’s particularly struck by the passivity of the young. “There’s no counter-movement from young people. Adults refuse to grow up, they want to be young forever so the only counter-movement the young have is that they want to get married early and have one partner and live a completely conservative life – which on one hand makes sense if you see all the old rock stars still performing and adults trying to be hip and skinny.”

He also feels a degree of conformity has been imposed by the stratification of urban centres. “They’re too expensive now to support a mix of people. I remember in the ’80s, in the nightclubs, people were all mixed together and things got exchanged. Anything which is successful now is either partly paid for or common enough that it can cover a lot of ground. In fashion, you can do really great clothes but most of the people involved in the business don’t really care when this handbag, which can be used by everybody of every colour and every size, is really much more interesting. From that point of view, we’ve lost a bit of that quality. It’s got a little bit stuck.”

Lang feels the same diminishing process has happened in music too. Once, he’d DJ on the decks in his old studio, or he’d go out to dance, especially to techno (drug-free, “probably the only person who was”, he points out for the record). “It was very important for a long time, there was a lot of zeitgeist in music, but in the last ten years, I haven’t cared so much about it,” he claims. “Music has a huge emotional input but I just don’t need it at the moment. The radio is good enough for me right now.” Meanwhile, the only radio station the houses picks up is softly playing an odd but appealing mix of ’80s classics and early ’90s rave anthems.

But, however that may sound, Lang is not a good-old-days nostalgist. “It’s never good to say ‘oh, in those days…’ because time is what it is. I think there wasn’t much movement in the first ten years of the last century, and then everything went haywire and developed very strongly. And we clearly all know the global idea has become a reality, so maybe the youth movement now is not about fashion or literature, maybe it’s about evolution in the larger, human context.” As an arch-devolutionist, I have to call Lang on that one, but he insists that evolution is the right word because “it’s always going forward somehow. Structures are moving on and they eventually become something better or they try to destroy themselves – but it’s still an evolution of things. And if this moment is a period where things are basically standing still, it’s a good moment to start something new.”

The idea of protection, of armouring oneself against the world, which haunted Lang’s final collections, anticipated not only what was going to happen in fashion but what was going to happen in society. It’s not hard to make a case for the man as being way ahead of his time. “The story of my life is I look back on something five or seven years later and it looks like something much more formulated. I think I just have good instincts somehow… I don’t know if that’s the right word.” What if the good instincts aren’t always for good things? “Well, if it’s good clothes, it’s good things,” Lang fires back. This time, the laugh is hearty.

Even fashion itself was a happy accident for Lang. “I wasn’t planning to do it in the first place,” he muses. “I was lucky enough to be in an artistic surrounding in Vienna where I had to think differently. I started thinking what I could do for myself with a budget so small I really couldn’t do anything. That’s a question of authenticity – nothing was special, nothing was just for a cheap effect somehow. It was always what I believed in, what I thought was best at the time. You can apply this to fashion, but it’s part of how I still function somehow. If it comes from inside yourself, then it has a certain truth to it.”

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There was, however, a lot more deliberation about the re-location to the US. “The two things I was interested in were Paris and New York, and New York was a bigger challenge. It was really interesting in the mid-’90s; it’s a little bit too groomed now, but I found it extremely modern. The fact there was no burden of history made it very appealing. But I also thought the melancholic Mitteleuropa temperament would go very well into New York. So I made the decision to move here. I’ve never regretted it, like I regret nothing in my life.” And Lang never looked back. He hasn’t visited Vienna once since he left in ’97.

Tom Ford once observed that America is the enemy of creativity for a fashion designer, but for Lang, it represented an ideal. “Living not in America influenced me tremen­dously, what I understood from American basics like the T-shirt, the idea which was an ideal. But you understand if you live here and you buy a T-shirt every day from Kmart, you don’t even have the possibility to look at it in a different way. It’s not a cult object.”

The gap between the ideal and reality is usually where disillusionment sets in, but Lang’s commitment to his new world was never shaken. “I’m not made for that negative concept. Even when times are not favourable, there’s a good possibility to do something or to start something. I think if I am interested in something, I’ve never been so disappointed by it that I was irritated.”

That’s a remarkably accepting declaration, given everything that happened to Lang after his re-location. First and foremost, there was the deal with the devil, in the form of Prada’s Patrizio Bertelli.

Lang reviews that period with calm detachment (unlike Jil Sander, whose parallel experience with Prada allegedly embittered her). “In the mid-’90s, before we moved to America, it seemed a good idea that companies would merge and share experience. We’d had licensed partners before anyway and the business was growing really big. Then we decided to move to the States and put everything on hold. But I thought the only thing I had not tried was the fashion corporate thing. I was also completely aware that if it didn’t work out, if the situation was not interesting long enough, I would eventually just have…”

For a moment, Lang’s voice trails away.

“I did know that if I sold half of the company, I would eventually sell all of the company. I thought about it long enough before, so I don’t think I ever had the wrong idea about that. And that’s what I did, I first sold half of the company, then the second half of the company, and after that it was basically time to move.” At the time, it seemed like it happened very quickly. “Yes and no,” Lang pauses. “I cannot talk about this whole thing…it’s also a little bit retro-ish.”

Of course, we have to go on talking about the events of late 2004, because the schism between Lang and Prada had such wounding implications for fashion as a whole. What do they say in fashion? Whatever else happens, hang on to your name, because ultimately that’s all you’ve got (Halston being the most notorious cautionary tale). Yet I’ve always wondered whether Lang wasn’t in fact the puppet-master, engineering a situation where the only possible option was the shedding of his designer skin, label and all. He felt he’d done all he could do in fashion, he needed to make a break, and it needed to be definitive, convulsive even.

“I don’t know if it was that dramatic. Basically, when I saw I would sell the second half of the company and that I felt okay about it, a lot of people who’d worked with me for a long time resigned. But they stayed for a while with me because we had this agreement that it just stays like it is because, you never know, I might still want to do this kind of fashion, and if you have a whole team, you just don’t let it go. But after half a year, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t take it up again in the same form and people moved on to something else. I kept on working with a few of my best people on the personal archive and books and projects. That’s basically when I founded HL-art – and the rest is in development.”

It would have been easy to construe the silence that descended after Lang left his company as the warrior retreating to lick his wounds, but that was far from the truth. “I’m sometimes perfectly happy to do nothing,” he concedes. “For the first year, I did no interviews. I didn’t want to comment on anything. When people asked me what I was up to for the future, my idea was not to be up to anything in particular. You want to clear the head from everything you know, which takes a while because you’re in a system. I always tried to be curious and fresh and think about things in quite an innocent fashion, and it’s extremely difficult to stay innocent when you’re in that whole fashion thing. So I planned nothing. And people would ask what are you doing and it was kind of odd to say I don’t do anything specific. Then I started to do certain things that happened here, and archiving my personal stuff and out of this certain projects are slowly arising. I’m trying to slow them down a little bit.”

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In the past, Lang called his shows ‘séances de travail’, works in progress. It is still his modus operandi. “I really don’t want to name certain things. But the work in progress was also about the attitude in that time, the showing of the work. I wanted it to be less pretentious and more modern in a way. I was clearly inspired by things, but I didn’t want it to be always starting somewhere and then ending and the next thing being completely different, because that didn’t make sense to me. And maybe now I’m starting to do all these indefinite projects in a way because I like the idea that something goes on and you just take excerpts out if it, different points of view or ideas or emotions.”

The name HL-art is less absolute art than it seems, in English at least. In German, ‘art’ can mean a species or type, which is a tidily generic catch-all for Lang’s current activities. So far, he’s released morsels of two ongoing projects. One, called Long Island Diaries, is best interpreted as an oblique visual record of his life now, incorporating a meticulously maintained daily record of his hens’ egg-laying (published in the French magazine Self Service) and a set of photos of his feet anchoring photo spreads from gay porn magazines, which appeared in BUTT magazine, Fantastic Man’s brother publication. The other project, called Selective Memory Series, seems Warholian to me in its appreciation of the idea that life is reconstructed from people’s ephemera – letters, thank-you notes, photos, articles saved from magazines – not their art.

“I was moving round a lot in my life,” Lang explains. “I didn’t have any archive of my work early on. At first, we couldn’t afford to. You have to re-invest everything to build up your own company. Also, I was never really interested in archiving it all; I was not interested in diaries. The only thing I kept were little notes from people in a box somewhere in a drawer. But when we started to organise the archive, I started to find it interesting to reconstruct the whole ambience of how it happened. It’s a lot of material right now, from the very banal to the very special, all mixed together.” The 600 pages of notes run an extraordinary gamut of the people whose paths Lang crossed since 1986, from Catherine Deneuve to Bill Murrary to Ellen Degeneres to Quentin Tarantino. “It’s like half artistic context, half who’s who,” says Lang, “and everyone seems to be intrigued by it.” Celebrity factor aside, I suggest to him one reason for the interest might be the potential for social satire in the arrangement of the material. “I guess it could be if you edit it that way,” he counters, “but the fashion is important because it’s an important part of my life, and I met really great people.”

The recent magazine cameos have inevitably sparked conjecture that Lang is building up to a re-entry of some kind. “It’s not true. Magazines kept asking for any contribution, whatever I wanted to do, and with all the archiving and the projects I started to respond. If somebody asks you three or four times, they’re very loyal to you, so you also come up with something, to respond.”

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The contributions themselves have sparked conjecture of other kinds. The hen-laying records published in ‘Self Service’ were introduced with definitions of the notion of the pecking order, a hierarchical concept which could be construed as a comment on the nature of the fashion industry. They were accompanied by a ‘self-portrait’ of Lang’s groin. He is wearing white cotton sweatshorts with the pockets turned inside out, and he holds a razor at his side. He got Pavlick to take the photo after a day at the beach because the look of the pockets offered a nugget of future fashion inspiration.

The photos in BUTT were also labelled ‘self-portraits’. Lang had been promising something to the magazine for three years, and when he was asked for a self-portrait, he knew he didn’t want to do something formal. “It’s BUTT magazine and it should be sexy somehow. It’s very easy to photograph your feet, and I thought if I put old pornographic photos in the background it’s going to look kind of sexy. So that’s my self-portrait. I don’t get naked, because I can always keep that for later…if I had to.” Some BUTT readers missed the feet which frame the images of tumescent professionals and inevitably speculated that the ‘self-portrait’ label refers to hard-on Helmut. “Well, it’s not small,” he teases the wishful thinkers still further.

For the cautious, guarded designer who would cryptically field questions backstage after his shows, anything personal was usually treated as an irrelevance. Now Lang exudes a warmth and ease which suggest an enviable degree of contentment. “First, I didn’t have something to share privately before I met Edward, and second, I just thought the work thing was the really important part and the way to express myself. But now this is a big part of my life, so it’s become normal – and normal for me to express. In my life, I’ve managed to go back to a certain energy where you’re not constantly thinking ‘What does it mean?’ It means nothing to begin with, and eventually if it means something to me, or somebody else, that’s really good. And if not, it doesn’t have to. It’s a good place to be.”

He agrees he has, in a way, made himself stateless, even in spending more time in ocean-side isolation than in his adopted city. “Things happen somehow partly with instinct, it’s never deliberate. Edward knew Long Island. In retrospect, one reality is that everything is so global, but on the other side, there’s another freedom and directness in a microcosmos…maybe that’s not the right expression, call it a smaller circle…I find quite interesting right now. Never neglect the small circle around you because you can really do something by yourself.” This is Lang’s own spin on environmental awareness.

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“The urban context used to be important, but all the secrets I wanted to know I kind of know. I think what we understand in an urban context is so well known that there are no secrets left generally, and somehow nature is a bit more unpredictable. You don’t know exactly what’s going on. It’s more immediate, it gives you a different approach, which I find more stimulating at the moment.”

So Lang was raised in nature untamed, in the Alps, and he’s ended up back there, on the shores of the Atlantic, almost like a full circle. “Yes, if you see it that way,” Lang acknowledges, “but there were a lot of circles in between. You always enter another circle every few years. There’s just another circle ahead. I’m kind of thankful for this, it’s more liberating and inspiring than the other environments I know well. I think the idea of being able to do this is for me more progressive than adding another 20 years to the same body of work I already have, so to speak. This is actually more evolution and progress, fulfilment and happiness. That might change again, but for now this is a good reality.”

My tape runs out to the sound of a rooster crowing exultantly. How’s that for a meta­phor?