Interview by Filep Motwary
Dapper Dan has waited two long years for this conversation to take place. The visionary independent designer whose work most definitively embodies the 1990s, Helmut Lang was considered an artist long before he decided to become one. His work as a fashion designer is still relevant, though it’s been almost seven years since he left it to focus on sculpture instead. The designer who refined an era now intrigues us with a new spectrum.
Motwary: You have shredded several hundred of your archival clothes in order to recycle them into an art piece. Are you severing your bonds with the fashion world?
Lang: The intention was not to sever my bonds with the fashion world, no. Actually, between 2009 and 2010, I donated a large volume of my fashion work to the most important fashion, design and contemporary- art collections worldwide, in order to give back to fashion and culture at large. After a fire in the building where our studio in New York is located, which could have destroyed the rest of the archive, and after going through the pieces for months to see what condition they’re in, I became intrigued by the idea of destroying the remaining 6,000 pieces myself and using them as raw material for my art. I wanted to dedicate my time to creating something new, following the idea that the past is never static, but undergoes continual metamorphosis and transformation. It was a cathartic experience to accelerate that process and make it my own. After all, the fight against entropy and decay is always going to be a losing battle, so I thought, why not make of that destructive energy something new. In the autobiographical sense, the material of artists’ lives has always been the subject of their art. The only difference here is the public’s level of identification and investment in that material. I think the story has changed because the human body is not the centre of attention any more. It is more the human condition that is taking centre stage. I became interested in working with forms and materials that were not restricted by the human body and its needs.
Motwary: Although it has been several years since you moved from one medium to another, the fashion industry still considers you one of the most important designers in its modern history. Why do you think that is?
Lang: It is really not about my opinion, but rather the collective verdict of the fashion industry. It would be hypocritical to say that it makes me feel bad. I am proud that I was able to formulate a body of work that is still contemporary and influential. While I was working in fashion, I read everything that was said about me, until I stopped in 2005, but I think I never fully realised the impact of my work until I stepped back and saw its continuing influence on the fashion world.
Motwary: Do you follow the evolution of fashion nowadays?
Lang: I do, but not as a priority. I follow all important developments and contributions to culture and humanity at large.
Motwary: Do you feel any responsibility to those who idolised your clothes and cannot find them any more?
Lang: I don’t think it is a question of responsibility. It is a question of appreciation for the past and, for me, the excitement and evolution of something new. I feel fortunate that I’m able to work in art now, and able to contribute to the cultural landscape as I did before with fashion.
Motwary: Is there a complete archive of your work anywhere?
Lang: The archive, in its near entirety, is kept in digital form. I recently donated my visual archive to MAK in Vienna, which encompasses all graphics, images, Séance de Travail videos, press material, advertising campaigns, architecture and so on. They will develop a virtual database of my work that includes all silhouettes and locations of the pieces, which are in museums around the world. MAK will also create a dedicated space where, on request, students or other interested parties can study my work.
Motwary: Often, the way critics interpret one’s work has little to do with the creator’s own viewpoint. How would you describe your art?
Lang: I am not so much into interpreting or analysing my work, as I don’t want to impose my own thoughts. I think it really depends on who looks at the artwork. Every person will form their own opinion and have their own experience and emotions, which is part of what makes art interesting. I just do what I feel is part of me, as I did with fashion. Time has to pass in order for a collective opinion to be developed.
Motwary: How did the desire arise to create beyond the boundaries of fashion? Was it about the corporate fashion industry, or a personal choice?
Lang: It was more a premonition of a changing world. Also, I did not want to stay in fashion until my death. My instinct was to contribute on a different level and within a different set of circumstances. Fashion is extremely complex in its requirements, and if these requirements change substantially, one possibility is to be brave enough to question the expected and re-evaluate personal needs. I don’t think many people walk away from fashion—it is very addictive.
Motwary: How can someone who loved fashion so intensely abandon it?
Lang: Thirty years in fashion is a pretty good run. I did some art projects while working in fashion and I was always interested in pursuing them full time, before it was too late.
Motwary: Was it difficult for you to detach your heart from the company you once owned?
Lang: Once I made the decision, it was not difficult.
Motwary: How have Paris and, later, New York shaped your personality, your likes and dislikes, your character, after you left Austria as a not-so-happy young person?
Lang: Paris is really the place where I have been the most, for private and professional reasons. I travelled for nearly 20 years between Vienna and Paris, and later between New York and Paris, and I also lived there for two full years, and it really became my second home. I still feel very attached to the place and all the people I know there. Paris has profoundly shaped me into the man that I am today. New York probably did this later, in a similar but very different way, as I was much more mature and experienced, and I also arrived in New York already well known and successful in my profession. I decided to move to New York in late 1997, when I relocated and established my company headquarters there and also got my apartment in the city and place on Long Island. I felt less driven to look around for a “better” place to be—it seemed that I had found the place that worked for me. I had also found my perfect relationship at the time, and it seemed right to pay the same attention to my private happiness as to my professional life, and to start to create a home. In a way, I had never desired that before.
Motwary: Do you feel you have achieved a harmonious state of mind?
Lang: Yes, I do. Definitely.
Motwary: What is your ultimate goal in life?
Lang: I always want to be my best and I never expect it to be easy along the way. In that sense, it does not matter what I do. I think I apply this approach to everything.
Motwary: What are your aesthetic obsessions?
Lang: I like when things are in the right context within their surroundings, and I like them a little bit off at the same time.
Motwary: After many years of intense exposure, you have managed to retain an enigmatic personality. Have you never been tempted to succumb to the cult of celebrity?
Lang: I think you answered the question yourself. It was a personal choice. I don’t like fame to get out of control, so that you are not able to live the life you want to live.
Motwary: I wanted to ask about your late friend, Louise Bourgeois. I have read that you think of her every day.
Lang: Louise was all or nothing. Intense, warm, embracing and straightforward. All qualities I treasure. There was nobody like her.
Motwary: You embarked on some lasting, even legendary collaborations whilst working in fashion, with Jenny Holzer, Melanie Ward, Juergen Teller… are you still in touch with them?
Lang: Yes, most of them. With some of them, I am even closer than before.
Motwary: Do you have the same kinds of friends in art?
Lang: Yes. Some of them I’ve known for a long time; others are more recent.
Motwary:If life moves in a series of cycles, will there be another cycle for you after art?
Lang: At the moment I cannot imagine that there will be another cycle, so to speak. Also, we live in an environment where, increasingly, people don’t just do one thing, but work across creative disciplines in a more open capacity.
Motwary: What is art about, then?
Lang: It is something the critics and the public are discussing and interpreting constantly, and that is how it should be.
Helmut Lang, a pioneer of luxe minimalism in the '90s, became known for his signature draping, sharp cuts, and unusual fabric pairings, which made his label a uniform favorite among the fashion-forward creative set. Relaunched in 2007 without its legendary namesake at the helm, Helmut Lang still maintains the pared-down, cutting-edge spirit that first put the label on the map.