In 2005, Helmut Lang was at the height of his career. He had risen from a self-taught fashion designer in the mid-1980s to the status of a global superstar. But that year, the Austrian-born creator stepped away from his worldwide fame and influence. One of the most distinctively creative of contemporary fashion designers, he sent his last collection, spring 2005, down the runway at the close of 2004. The show was a fitting capstone to 20 years of work, showcasing his neutral yet vibrant color palette, his masterful cutting and draping of fabric in unisex-wear minimalist silhouettes, and his insouciant references to fetish and bondage culture. If ever a designer could be described as creating classics with a twist, it’s Lang.
After creating his unique vision and design vocabulary, Lang elected to leave the plaudits of critics and luxury-minded minimalist consumers behind. But he didn’t disappear. He just moved his artistic talents to another canvas.
Helmut Lang has spent the years since his “retirement” from fashion as an artist working with found materials, natural objects, and personal treasures to create sculptures. One of the reclusive Lang’s interviewers described these works as “enigmatic” and “raw.” Lang has said that he had always wanted to work in this space, and he’s forged a visual idiom in sculpture as original as the one he developed in fashion. The Helmut Lang brand continues, sold first to Prada, then to Link Theory Holdings, which maintains the designer’s name on the logo and has told him the door will always be open for him to return.
Lang’s abiding influence
Lang’s influence on fashion has never gone away. The designers who went on to show 21st-century audiences what minimalism looks like to a new generation have built on his legacy. In particular, his high-concept yet utilitarian perspective, his knife-edge precision tailoring, and his highly wearable expressions that drape and move fluidly over the bodies of multiple genders haven’t gone out of style in today’s world and probably never will. Raf Simons, Calvin Klein, and Adam Kimmel are only a few of the designers for whom Lang has served as a touchstone for their own aesthetic.
Adam Kimmel picked up the minimalist torch
While Kimmel was a student at New York University, Lang was a huge influence on him. After branding the Adam Kimmel label the year Lang left fashion, the young American menswear designer saw his own star rise steadily. Thanks to his Lang-inflected talent for cutting and tailoring in a luxe minimalist style, Kimmel became a legend among discerning millennial consumers, who also appreciated the way he created immersive storytelling experiences unique to every collection and reflecting the style of every muse he chose to work with to produce a show.
His fall/winter 2005 collection served his distinctive looks right out of the gate. It featured cashmere blazers and coats, cavalry shirts, “old man” sweaters, and luxe sweatpants in cool grays and darkly elegant tones, accessorized with self-branded shades. Kimmel consistently grew his style along this same line, working on innovative collaborations with heavy-duty outdoor wear purveyor Carhartt and with the New York streetwear maker Supreme to put a fresh spin on the classic Italian two-piece suit.
Designer as showman
Early on, Kimmel’s shows distinguished themselves for their grand-scale creative ambition and their immersive artistic quality, packing a multisensory punch. He made over storied Paris venues into, for example, a casino for his fall/winter 2010 collaboration with “artificial realism” artist George Condo, and built out an entire lowrider-filled Southern California ambience for his spring/summer 2011 collection inspired by Snoop Dogg. His models over the seasons included actor Dennis Hopper, writer Glenn O’Brien, photographer Ryan McGinley, and other guys famous for their cool.
Also a filmmaker, Kimmel also produced a short movie, “Dressed for Dinner,” in which illusionist David Blaine swam with sharks off the coast of Guadeloupe while wearing a custom-made tuxedo. In “The Cowboy in the Continental Suit,” director Meredith Danluck filmed famed rodeo rider Rocky McDonald demonstrating the durability of a suit from Kimmel’s 2009 fall/winter collection. For another show, he worked with poet and photographer Gerard Malanga to reprise the kind of “screen test” videos Malanga created with Andy Warhol for his Factory.
Leaving at the height of his powers
Kimmel presented his last collection for fall/winter 2012, offering numerous variations on his classic themes: straight silhouettes fashioned with his subtle, neutral color palette and sharp tailoring. But this time, he explored his fascination with the military and “black ops” themes, initiating his audience into the alien mysteries of Area 51 in another of his big-concept sets. Easy-fitting pants with suspenders, work shirts, and storm boots shared the runway with tailored blazers and button-downs. Dark bomber jackets topped elegant turtlenecks, and he also clothed models in head-to-toe dark blue in the form of trench coats and jumpsuits. Accessories fittingly included both aviator glasses and fighter pilot masks. Some critics said it was his best show to date.
And then, like Lang before him, he walked away from it all. In Kimmel’s case, he initially just wanted a hiatus to concentrate on family time and creative experimentation. When he realized his company was growing too big, too fast, he didn’t want to become just a cog in his own wheel. So he never went back. He moved into other creative projects in film, art, and architecture. In 2017, he joined WeWork as chief creative officer, drawn in by the adrenaline rush of a company where multiple creative challenges crest daily. In doing so, he became responsible for everything from video to furniture to the small design details that brand the workday for 400,000 customers worldwide.
Part of Kimmel’s legacy is that his innovations have become so seamlessly woven into the work of today’s designers and their presentations that they might go unnoticed. Ironically, he left fashion just as his signature style vocabulary was taking off.
Other creators are now more emboldened to champion their own exquisite attention to fine tailoring while drawing on a wealth of cultural influences outside fashion, and they continue to showcase their work outside traditional runways. Kimmel devotees around the world still scour archives, eBay, and Japanese auctions, hoping to score one of his pieces.
Adam Kimmel and Helmut Lang both earned a reputation as designers ahead of their time—and for staying attuned to the signal of their own creativity in place of the noise of public acclaim.
Featured Photo by Roberto Martinez on Unsplash