This is an edition of the newsletter Show Notes, in which Samuel Hine reports from the front row of the spring and fall fashion weeks. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.
Here’s a piece of fashion trivia: Why does New York Fashion Week come before the shows in London, Milan, and Paris? A: Because of Helmut Lang. In the late-’90s, NYFW was at the tail end of the European runway tour. And then the Austrian counter-cultural designer moved his line from Paris to NYC, decided to go off schedule and early, and the rest of the industry followed suit.
His influence extended way further, then and now. Before Helmut Lang, things like jeans and parka were just clothes. After he began selling intelligently-crafted, high-quality versions of these utilitarian staples out of his store in SoHo, normal clothes suddenly became fashion. In fact, some have argued that there would be no streetwear industry without Lang—Supreme founder James Jebbia, for one, cites him as a core influence.
Which is all to say that the name Helmut Lang once had an immense amount of gravity, one that ushered in an entire era of New York fashion, the minimalist style of the ’90s and early aughts.
Peter Do, the brand’s newly-installed creative director, is hoping to bring that seismic force back.
“I feel like there's a need for Helmut now in the world,” Do told me a few days before his debut runway show. We were in the brand’s Meatpacking offices, and Do had the sleeves of his custom black lab coat rolled up. A small group of employees fussed with a fit model who was trying on a slim black dress. We were surrounded by racks full of dozens of pieces from the new collection.
Do was referring to the brand, but also the man, whose departure from fashion 2005 slackened the label’s once-strong pull. Since then, the namesake label was purchased by Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing in 2009, and it went through a series of creative reboots that never quite made the case for Helmut Lang’s place in a rapidly evolving fashion world. Do has a clear-eyed vision for how to resurrect the name’s relevance. “Things have been so complicated recently” in fashion, he said. “I feel like there's something so non-fussy, straightforward, and honest about the clothes that Helmut made, and that is something that’s been missing.”
Do, 32, discovered Helmut Lang where many of his generation did: on Tumblr. Born in Biên Hòa, Vietnam, Do moved to Philadelphia with his parents at the age of 14. A love for fashion, cultivated on the internet, led him to FIT and then to the Céline atelier where he worked under Phoebe Philo. He launched his own namesake label in 2018, which stepped into the post-Philo void for clean, luxurious daywear for women with impeccable taste, and which soon caught on with men like Moses Sumney and Jeno from NCT. His fascination with Lang’s work developed in parallel with his career. “When I first discovered Helmut, I think I was too young to understand the depth of his work. But I think as I get older, when I start my own brand, I understood more and more of it,” he said. He began referencing Lang in his collections for Peter Do.
His sharpest takeaway was the abiding connection so many Helmut Lang heads had with their garments, thanks to the designer’s obsessiveness with fabric quality and the tiny details he sewed into the clothes—a hidden trouser zipper pocket, for example—that only the wearer might notice. “What I like about Helmut is the way people talk about the clothes that they own, the clothes that they wear. The parkas and jeans that they wear for a long time.” When he interviewed for the job earlier this year after the brand got in touch, Do wore a good-luck charm that exemplified this long-lasting and almost emotional relationship people used to have with the label: a pair of “very dirty” white Helmut Lang jeans. “When I bought them, they were already vintage, and I still wore them all the time for 15 years,” he said.
But rather than resurrect Helmut Lang from the archives when he showed up to the studio in May, Do had a more audacious plan. “I didn't want to go back and just dig out things that I love and re-make them,” he told me. “Everything you see here, all the shapes are from scratch.”
(Do also acknowledged a more practical reason why he didn’t crack open the archives: “It's not really organized yet,” he said. Most of the clothes are in cardboard boxes in a warehouse in New Jersey. “I haven’t even been to the archive, because I didn’t have time to dig through everything.”)
Instead, Do is trying to replicate the casual-formal cool of Helmut Lang, but in his own way. “It's really about reintroducing the brand to a new generation of people who don’t know who Helmut Lang is, and also to ignite that love for his ethos and the way he designed,” Do said. He picked out a tan blazer in a slubby utility cotton fabric—dense with a dry hand, it felt like it could withstand anything but a sudden rainshower. “A lot of the fabric mills that we’re using are the mills that Helmut used to use,” he said. The blazer had phantom white-stitched button-holes in place of actual buttons, a move you’ll find in Do’s mainline collections. Do said he spends four days a week at Helmut Lang, and the rest working on Peter Do. “I don't sleep anymore,” he told me.
Do’s work is inextricable from his long journey to the top of the NYC fashion pile. A series of crisp white poplin shirts and T-shirts were printed with snippets of an original poem written by Do’s friend, the Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong. In the show, every five models will wear one of the stanzas, some printed in Vietnamese. In another personal touch, slim black suits have seatbelt-inspired trim running down their length, a nod to the start of Do’s journey in America, where for the first time he could go anywhere he wanted by car. Do also photographed the famous Helmut Lang taxi advertisement and turned it into a print on diaphanous shirting.
Do is hoping new customers will fall in love with these clothes like he did with his white jeans. “I hate elevated basics with a twist. I hate that category,” Do said with a laugh, acknowledging an entire category of clothing that Helmut Lang arguably launched. “But here, I want people to look at a shirt and be like, ‘Oh, that’s a normal shirt.’ And then you try it on and it fits really well, the cuff is perfect. It has the exact right buttons, the exact right stitching. Those are the little things that make a Helmut shirt different.” They sampled 30 different poplin shirts to find the right fabric, Do added.
The Helmut Lang show officially opens the NYFW schedule today, an intentional nod, Do said, to the founder’s once-mighty influence. Do promised the show, featuring a cast of musicians, artists, friends, and OG Helmut Lang models (including Uma Thurman’s brother, Mipam), would “feel like the streets of New York.” “We want to dress New York,” he said. “It feels like there's not a lot of brands here, and it feels like Helmut is so integral to the New York experience with him moving the brand here and New York Fashion Week following. I feel it just feels right for Helmut Lang to represent NYC.”
As for his long-term goal, Do was unequivocal: “I really want Helmut Lang to lead the conversation again.”
Originally Appeared on GQ