Peter Do had a lot on his shoulders for his debut at Helmut Lang, the hottest ticket of the New York Fashion Week season.
“I’m eating and crying,” he said backstage, trying to keep his nerves in check, dressed in a black blazer and what’s arguably the “It” item of the debut collection, a pair of jeans with legs embellished in artful ripped pink, white, yellow and black panels of chiffon.
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Outside in the seats, anticipation was high because — let’s face it — we are all missing those heady days of New York fashion when Lang was enough of a force in 1997 to swing the whole global runway show calendar in his favor.
“I wore Helmut and I love what Peter does,” said designer Ralph Rucci before the show.
Respect for Lang’s design legacy runs deep and wide — his stark, industrial ’90s-defining minimalism; his love of denim and use of unconventional materials, bondage straps and uniforms; his ability to make utility beautiful, and his renegade approach. (Lang burned most of his archives when he decided to leave fashion in 2005 and become a fine artist. By then, his business had fizzled under the yoke of one corporate owner after another.)
“There is something about knowing when to leave,” Do laughed during a preview when asked about it, and if he had met Lang (he hasn’t). And the dramatic exit only made the cult appeal of vintage Helmut Lang stronger.
At Friday’s show on the Lower East Side, the street crowd was able to catch a glimpse from the windows up above, as models crisscrossed the runway like they were on the street, as was Lang’s way.
Do enlisted some of the house’s original models, too, including Mipam Thurman (Uma’s brother).
“I came out of retirement for this, and clearly made the right decision,” Thurman said backstage, adding that he’d been wearing HL for years, and probably needed a few new pieces.
“When you look back at Helmut, people talk about the clothes, the clothes that they wear, the coat that was part of their life, and I really want the new Helmut to be that again for people,” Do said.
Today’s ’90s nostalgia makes this revival of the brand feel all the more relevant. Why are people so fascinated by that time? “It seemed like a more effortless way of dressing — a slipdress, Sarah Jessica Parker in a tank, it feels easy and free,” Do said. “Now things can feel very complicated — you need the hair, the nails, the makeup. When you look back at old photos with no makeup, it was an easier time.”
There’s certainly an appetite for fashion’s indie spirit again. And, ironically with the backing of apparel giant Fast Retailing, Do delivered that in the form of a cool urban uniform with emotion behind it, leaning into his experience as an immigrant and a queer man in the new New York.
Do’s love for Helmut Lang comes from an authentic place. He’s got a collection of vintage, including a pair of the designer’s cult painted jeans which Do wore to his job interview, and has never washed once in 15 years.
At first, he was wary of taking the gig, but decided he could do it justice, “I’m reintroducing the brand for a new generation.”
He didn’t go through archives, he insisted, though some of the collection was based on his own vintage pieces. “We want to move forward,” Do said.
Still, he touched on Lang’s artistic collaborations with Jenny Holzer and others by collaborating with his friend, Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong, on text read at the start of the show, and on the runway and T-shirts. “It’s a nod to old Helmut, the way he reached into different aspects of art, music culture, to tell the bigger story about the clothes,” Do said.
The designer played with the brand’s utilitarian DNA literally using seatbelts as stripes down the sides of tuxedo pants, belts and sashes across black blazers and high-waist trousers, and noted they have a different significance for him as an immigrant.
“My first experience of luxury was when I first moved to Philadelphia when I was 14 and my dad and my mom had two cars. To come from Vietnam where we bike and walk and take the train everywhere, it felt really free to have something so functional at your fingertips where you can just drive anywhere you want. I really love that kind of freedom.” (The text on T-shirts — “Your car was my first room; our clothes on the floor like stepped-on flowers” — spoke to a sexual freedom, too.)
The suiting (which will be priced under $1,000) was solid, including Thurman’s three-button black vest with slightly padded shoulders, and high waist-trousers, worn with a black anorak sliding off the shoulders. Black organza suiting also looked versatile and comfortable.
“We really wanted to work on the foundational pieces, the classic men’s blazer, women’s blazer, the raw denim, the shirt,” Do said. “l want this to be functional accessible luxury where you can go to the store and buy a suit and it doesn’t break your mortgage.”
Helmut Lang taxi ad prints were deliciously retro in the era of rideshare, while draped, color-blocked jersey pieces and a bubble hem leather dress were easy and fun for a night out. (At $1,895, the dress is the most expensive piece in the collection.)
Do wanted to establish the building blocks first, and it could be that later collections have more experimentation. But for now, he has a fan club at the ready to buy into the new Helmut, and Fast Retailing is going to sell a lot of jeans.
Meanwhile, Do is bringing his namesake, luxury line to Paris to show on the runway there.
“Peter Do speaks to a European sensibility, so Paris feels like the right place for me to be,” he said. “It will be even more considered, sensitive and specific. The past few years, we were trying to go so big and launching so many things, this is my time to consider what do I want PD to be, and I want it to feel new and different.”
Launch Gallery: Helmut Lang RTW Spring 2024
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