When Helmut Lang departed from his eponymous label in 2005, seven years after Prada took a 51% stake in the company, the shock rippled among urbanites and fashionistas from New York to Paris. The Austrian designer left an undeniable imprint in contemporary tailoring and his absence has continued to reverberate among the fashion community ever since.
Though the Helmut Lang brand continues to exist under ownership of Link Theory, Lang’s departure as a designer opened an as yet unfilled gap in the market. The slick, avant-garde chic that was his hallmark—characterized by carefully considered cuts, subtle detailing, choice fabrics and precise interiors—is hard to come by these days, despite numerous imitators.
Lang’s style and details were unmistakable: a floating strip of fabric, feathered headdresses and military detailing were unique yet appealing elements of his skill. Even after five years out of the business—practically a lifetime in fashion—the emotion of his work continues to emanate from direct references in other collections. And, as minimal becomes the new maximal in style, he is again appearing on many designers’ inspiration boards.
Celine, now helmed by Phoebe Philo, has done wonders for its own luxury image in a very short period of time—thanks in large part to cues from Mr. Lang’s legacy. After viewing the first pre-collection of Celine in June 2009, the New York Times‘ Cathy Horyn applauded Philo for providing a solution to the lack of solid tailoring, sense of function and pointed purpose in fashion among the post-Helmut Lang generation. In addition to showing in the same space that Lang used upon his return to Paris from New York, Philo also featured a strictly controlled reverence that also evoked her forebear. Similar references have also appeared in recent collections from Givenchy, Acne and many other top houses.
Lang’s persistent influence is clear, but the question still remains as to how his space in the market can be filled. Some point to mass-market companies’ success at interpreting minimal chic for much lower prices. The new catalogue for H&M’s more contemporary sister Cos, as one example, features a story with model Christina Kruse that looks strikingly similar to an old Helmut Lang advertisement. Colors like lemon yellow and precisely tailored clothing seem to have Lang and his former creative director Melanie Ward written all over them. This new direction could, in turn, mean that customers who once spent thousands of dollars for a cotton poplin suit from the designer will now spend only a few hundred at Cos or at other such stores like Zara.
Whatever the finale to this story will be, the Helmut Lang gap will continue to be a hard feathered heel to step into—but one that we look forward to being adequately fulfilled.