Helmut Lang – 1990s designer

posted in: Designing, History of fashion | 10

Still considering my own New Look of pared down androgyny, I took a look at fashion history.

When I did my City Guilds training in fashion in the 1980s, our History of Fashion module finished in the 1970s, although our tutor Judy Tregellan did her best to encapsulate the defining features of 1980s style. But by 1990 I had three little kids and no time, money or energy to keep a close eye on fashion trends. I wore a baggy track suit, managed to get my hair washed, but rarely cut, and gave up my subscription to Vogue. The last claim is a joke – I never had a sub to Vogue – although little known fact was that you could read it in the Equal Opportunity Commission Library in Manchester.

However I wanted to catch up with the decade that I lost Looking back now, how do we define the 1990s, in fashion terms?

It’s hard to see a defining “look” as so many trends were evident – from Supermodels to Kate Moss (a more natural, slimmer version), from Grunge to Glamour, from neon colours and exercise wear – a wide variety of incoherent trends can be discerned. For me the two notions that were both new and ground-breaking were Minimalism and Deconstruction. I loved both these trends and while Alexander McQueen  pursued a highly creative deconstructivism and Tom Ford (for Gucci) captured a pared down, sexy and highly commercial minimalism, the person who combined both into highly wearable outfits was Helmut Lang, which makes him my Designer of the Decade for the 1990s.

Lang only decided to move into fashion after he failed to find the perfect jacket and T-shirt in the shops and was forced to make his own. And he left fashion to become a fine artist when he felt constrained.

His pared down, simplified aesthetic was technically challenging and completely modern. He broke with many traditions – moving his shows from France to the US, putting his shows out via the internet during this decade, and leaving his own company when he felt his creativity was compromised. A look we currently take for granted (and one I interested in, designing my own work wear look) is industrial, sharp-cut, pared down, androgynous, predominantly black-and-white and includes both basics like white T-shirts and black skinnies with beautiful, detailed and cutting-edge items.

Many of these styles feature a simple, round neck white vest. In addition trousers with a flat front, the three button suit for men and low-rise jeans were all design idioms coined by Lang and now completely ubiquitous wardrobe staples. To my mind these looks and many others are wearable classics, with a twist. Still fashionable and sought after his 1990s ready to wear items are aspirational but also plain and restrained.

For more marvellous images, see Vogue feature.

Lang created a new design language for the 1990s and beyond. His minimalist approach revealed the underlying architectural quality of the clothes, but these are not stiff structural creations. The soft, translucent fabrics, the layering and shadow effects, the use of transparency is just the bees knees as far as I am concerned. I also love the palette – black, white, neutrals, splashes of yellow, cerise, blue and golden-yellow from time to time.

Helmut Lang has always been interested in this light and shade/layered translucency. I find it fascinating! I saw this photo of Kate Moss in a Helmut Lang top and wondered if I could knit it?. Also we have Erin O’Connor in a knitted vest.  The Kate Moss top is so beautiful. Is this something a beginner knitter could create, in some way?

Obviously not! It appears to be a translucent shell top, worn over a simple white vest, with diaphanous pink fabric (bias cut neon pink chiffon?) lightly attached across the bust and also wrapped around the upper arms. Is it even constructed or is it just for show? But I am hooked on this look and will be experimenting. Stay tuned!


10 Responses

  1. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    Gorgeous- I love all those gauzy layers too- especially the dress with the gauzy checks overlaid. Very nice. Not sure about the ultra fine gauzy knits though- I just see snags waiting to happen!
    Once upon a time I could do androgynous, I have too many lumps and bumps for it to work these days though. I think you’re onto something with these looks.

  2. Karen Kayes

    I enjoyed reading this – Helmut Lang wasn’t on my radar ever but I love those looks you posted and have I’ve always been drawn to light and gauzy fabric layers myself, just not in that colour palette. I have knitted with a metal mix yarn from Habu, which creates an interesting, open and sculptural fabric. Also kidsilk haze can be knitted at a loose gauge to create a more open fabric, like all lace yarn.

  3. jay

    I second Elaine’s thought that these looks, lovely though they are, work best on the relatively bumpless. I’m pretty sure that you’ll carry them off.

  4. Annie

    Ohh, lovely, classy and unfussy. This is a concept you are inspired by and one that should be easy enough to imitate. I don’t get how the chiffony bits are done either they’d be a challenge but a simple overlay wouldn’t be too time consuming to try out, like DM, it’s not a look I could carry off but it would suit you.

  5. Sarah

    I think this pared back style and apparently simple shapes are actually the most demanding to design, cut and tailor correctly. There is simply no room for error is there, especially with fine fabrics. But when they’re done well, as here with HL, they look fantastic and so flattering on the body. As for the knitted pieces, as a VERY wobbly beginner, my version would probably look very deconstructed indeed, but more by accident than design I fear!

  6. Su

    I liked the pared down look of HL. The Kate Moss top is likely very fine mesh and not possible to create by hand knitting, but it could be possible to knit something similar to the over top worn by Erin – lace weight wool on 4 mm needles?

  7. Sue

    I love that you’ve done this overview of the 1990s, and I am also a fan of Helmut Lang. I can totally see you in some of these ensembles, and am very excited to see where this direction takes you.

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