A (Very) Deep Dive Into The Helmut Lang Reboot and What Makes Fashion Photography Art


A (Very) Deep Dive Into The Helmut Lang Reboot and What Makes Fashion Photography Art

"Untitled," 1982. Walter Pfeiffer
"Untitled," 1982. Walter Pfeiffer
"Untitled," 1984. Walter Pfeiffer

While there are many brand revitalizations happening right now at the hands of visionary directors (Raf Simons for Calvin Klein, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, Alessandro Michele for Gucci) perhaps none is more exciting or nostalgia-inducing than the renovation of Helmut Lang by Dazed Editor-in-Chief Isabella Burley. Burley, who’s serving as the brand’s first ever “Editor-in-Reference” is joined by none other than Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver, who is the first designer to collaborate with the new version of the brand. Considering that Helmut Lang’s total influence on contemporary fashion is (probably) only rivaled by Raf, Martin Margiela, Miuccia Prada, and/or Phoebe Philo, it has been rather depressing to watch the brand sink into irrelevance after its namesake designer retired, cashed out, and allowed his corporate overlords (Prada) to sell his brand to Link Theory (owners of, yes, the label Theory) in 2005. Theory went on to thoroughly dishonor the brand’s founder’s high fashion heritage and reimagined Helmut Lang as a mid-quality contemporary label. For over a decade, one of the most venerated names in fashion history has been stitched onto the tags of bland and overpriced hoodies and sweatpants with awkward zippers.

So, when we heard that the brand was finally looking to restore its former high fashion glory, we were interested. When we heard Burley was involved, we were even more interested. And when we heard Oliver was designing, well, we were sold. Hood by Air is arguably the most exciting fashion label to emerge out of New York in the last 10 years, and Oliver’s engagement with the fine arts, weird electronic music and hip-hop, and savvy for merging alternative and queer culture into the fashion mass market all suggest Oliver is the right man to carry on Lang’s design legacy. Both Oliver and Burley’s experiences suggest that they are right for this job, and boy oh boy, they’ve delivered (so far). Under Burley’s curatorial direction, Helmut Lang has been reimagined as an interdisciplinary collective, and while Oliver’s design post seems to be temporary at the moment, his hiring suggests that the brand is hoping to elevate itself beyond the contemporary market and back into the world of high fashion.

In late July, Helmut Lang premiered its first campaign under this new direction. Shot by the truly gifted fashion photographer Ethan James Green in his signature high aperture focused black and white, the campaign featured portraits of cultural influencers like artist and filmmaker Larry Clark, author/performance artist Kembra Phaler, author Chris Kraus and Oliver himself all wearing new Helmut Lang products (some of which are now available on the website, but according to Vogue, the Oliver-designed products won’t be available until September). The images provide a contemporary take on the minimal, grungy, and austere chic aesthetic that Helmut revolutionized in the ‘90s. This is how Helmut Lang is supposed to be.

But the most exciting announcement comes in the form of a series of artist collaborations the “new” Helmut Lang will be hosting. Lang modernized the concept of the artist-designer collaborative relationship. He worked on store concepts with Louise Bourgeous and Jenny Holzer and once used Robert Mapplethorpe archive images as fashion ads. The archive art as contemporary fashion ad is re-birthed in this new campaign, which, thanks to Burley, features a truly stunning roster of artist collaborations. Leigh Ledare, Peter Hujar, Carolee Schneeman, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Carrie Mae Weems, Boris Mikhailov and more will all see their images reimagined within the context of Helmut Lang. The archival images will be plastered on advertisements as well as posters, T-shirts, and various products.

The first in the “Artist Series” features three black and white images shot by artist and fashion photographer Walter Pfeiffer in the early 1980s of three young men in minimal but poetic poses. As art pieces, the images suggest quiet confidence and youthful experimentation. As Helmut Lang ads, the images reinforce the brand as a means to achieve that youthful experimentation. These images were not arbitrarily chosen; Burley has expertly selected artists and images that perfectly represent this new phase of the brand.

While Raf has certainly used his appreciation of fine art as a rebranding method for Calvin Klein, what Burley and Oliver are doing at Helmut Lang is much more daring. The artists featured in this series are generally more subversive—more “underground” if you will—than artists we normally see working with fashion labels. Credit this to Burley, who intimately understands that the kids who are into fashion, like, really into fashion are often the same kids who have an interest in art. So, Burley is directly tapping into an audience that is already waiting to be engaged. It’s exciting, modern, and quite possibly an act of marketing genius.

But of course, nothing is without precedent. Fashion designers and retailers have been using artists to market their brands for ages (to varying degrees of success), fashion photographers have been claiming to be artists since the twenties (some fashion photographers are, most definitely aren’t), and a healthy symbiosis between fashion and art is always a topic industry folk on both sides are willing to debate. So, in honor of the brilliance of the brand spankin’ new Helmut Lang, let’s look at some of the more successful hybrids of fashion and art.

Juergen Teller for Marc Jacobs, Céline, Vivienne Westwood

“Louis XV,” Juergen Teller, 2004

There are tons of fashion photographers who prefer the term “artist” to “fashion photographer:” Nick Knight, Mario Sorrenti, David LaChapelle to name a few. The problem is, there are very real differences between fashion photography and fine art photography and, in my opinion, what these photographers do has little or nothing to do with art (sorry).

Juergen Teller, conversely, doesn’t care if you call him an artist or not. “I have no interest in this question,” he told Purple in 2014. But of all the great contemporary fashion photographers, Juergen approaches his craft the most like an artist. How does fashion photography become art? A sharp provocation is elicited, a new kind of beauty is discovered, or a central concept is consistently explored. Check, check, check. Teller has always embodied the “enfant terrible” fashion photographer artist. In a 2004 campaign for Marc Jacobs, Teller photographed himself alongside actress Charlotte Rampling in the nude, brazenly celebrating aging adult sexuality in the confines of a fashion advertisement (my favorite image from the campaign finds Teller sucking on Rampling’s toes). In racy ads for Jacobs, Céline, and more recently Vivienne Westwood, Teller has often opted to use older models, thereby challenging the beauty standards of an industry that normally considers its models “too old” by the time they are 22. The art in Teller’s work lies in that: challenging the standards of the industry in which he makes his living.

Represented by the gallery Lehmann Maupin, Teller often exhibits his fashion images alongside his personal work, imbuing all of his images, whether they be a close-up of Kim Kardashian’s butt alongside a barren landscape or a close-up of an Octopi-based Paella dish, with the same playful eroticism. The art world has largely accepted Teller as an artist of rare distinction as well: last year, Teller curated an exhibition of rare work by Robert Mapplethorpe, placing himself in the lineage of challenging erotic fine art photographers.

Collier Schorr for YSL menswear FW 2017

Collier Schorr for YSL FW17

Fashion photographer Collier Schorr had some success in the art world before she began dominating the pages of style bibles. Throughout most of the nineties, she worked as an editor at Frieze, often writing worshipful prose about the brilliance of artists like Sarah Lucas, and working under artists Richard Prince and Peter Halley. Her first visual work, collages comprised of appropriated imagery (mostly from fashion magazines), were exhibited at 303 Gallery (still her gallery to this day). Schorr’s work is concerned with challenging and finding new representations of beauty, and as an artist she seeks a representation of queer female beauty that she felt was lacking in contemporary culture in the nineties: “Nobody was overtly queer as a woman,” she said in an interview with Fantastic Man earlier this year. “Fran Lebowitz was heavily invested in gay male literature and lifestyle and Susan Sontag wasn’t out in her profession or social life.”

For the Saint Laurent FW 2017 campaign, designer Anthony Vacarello tapped Schorr to photograph and design a series of collages of young boys. Of her many, many campaigns, it feels closest to her art, chronicling young boys in their efforts to grow into themselves as men and adopting a kind of feminine strength. Using prints, polaroids and close-ups of loaded imagery (like a pentagram tattoo), Schorr has developed a campaign that feels as much a personal art project as it does a fashion campaign. Very few artists are as successful as Schorr at creating images that provoke in the way of fine art while still selling clothes and building brand identities.

Irving Penn for Issey Miyake

Irving Penn for Issey Miyake, 1991

Had Irving Penn started working in the seventies, he would have undeniably been celebrated as a great artist, but when he started photographing in the 1940s, there was simply little to no art market for photography. Therefore, he (as well as great experimental photographers like Dora Maar and Man Ray) turned to commercial projects to secure a living as a working photographer. In portraits of artists ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Alfred Hitchcock, ethnographic portraits from around the world, still live close-ups of cigarettes and countless fashion spreads, Penn defined the 20th century photographer as an artist capable of building a unified aesthetic around a wide variety of subject matter.

Of all his fashion projects, however, his countless campaigns for Japanese designer Issey Miyake most closely resemble works of fine art. Despite Penn never attending a Miyake show and Miyake never appearing on the set of a Penn shoot, the two creators forged a fascinating creative partnership that spanned from 1987 to 1999. In Miyake’s designs, Penn found what he considered to be a new kind of abstract sculpture, and his images render Miyake’s designs as such: a row of pleats transforms a woman into a slinky, coats are inflated to the size of hot air balloons, and garments are read as shapes as opposed to recognizable products. In other words, he was photographing these pieces like an artist would photograph abstract natural beauty.

Ryan McGinley for Calvin Klein CK 2

Ryan McGinley for Calvin Klein CK2

Raf Simons, a voracious collector and obsessive appreciator of contemporary art, has certainly included contemporary art in his all-encompassing rebranding of Calvin Klein. The first Calvin Klein campaign under his direction, SS 2017, featured young, lithe models posing naked in front of works by Richard Prince, Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin and Sterling Ruby in images shot by Raf’s longtime collaborator Willy Vanderperre. Ruby himself, also a longtime friend and collaborator of Simons, has been tasked with redesigning CK’s flagship store as well as doing set design the Ready-to-Wear shows.

But long before Raf made Calvin cool again, the brand tried its hand at marrying art and fashion advertising in 2015 when they tasked Ryan McGinley to shoot a campaign and video for their CK2 fragrance. The campaign features McGinley’s typical art-y, hot and young models frolicking around in Puerto Rico. It’s a strong campaign, but it also emphasizes the limitations artists face when working with brands; unless your art is a savvy critique of mass media or industry beauty standards (like Schorr), your work is going to be greatly dulled when made specifically for advertising purposes. McGinley’s CK campaign is aesthetically similar to his recent fine art works, which document wild youths frolicking about suburban and natural settings, but the CK images have none of the conceptual subtext or politics that make McGinley’s work so rich. They say nothing about changing attitudes towards sexuality or gender fluidity, or the blissful freedom or misbegotten youth. Instead, they appropriate McGinley’s aesthetic to communicate one ideal: if you buy Calvin Klein, you’ll be hot and fun like these kids.

Cindy Sherman for Comme des Garçons FW 1993

Cindy Sherman for Comme des Garçons

Now this is more like it. Cindy Sherman had been getting the odd fashion commission since 1983, when New York luxury boutique Dianne B commissioned her and fellow artists Mapplethorpe, Laurie Simmons and Peter Hujar to create advertisements for the store. Sherman’s fashion commissions use clothes to create characters (much like she does in her larger body of work. And, just as in her work, she uses fashion portraiture as a means of examining the ways in which we build our identities through dress.

In 1994, Rei Kawakubo commissioned Sherman to create a spread for a mailer promotion. She used Rei’s designs to build the identities of a tattooed circus women, a grotesque kabuki dancer, and other characters. The campaign speaks to the Comme des Garçons buyer (surely one could expect the Comme buyer would be more acquainted with contemporary art than, say, the typical Diane Von Furstenberg buyer). But it also works as an art project in its own rite, proving that when an artist applies a critical lens to fashion imagery, that imagery can be elevated towards the realm of fine art.

Cindy Sherman, Peter Hujar, Laurie Simmons and Robert Mapplethorpe for Diane B

Diane Benson by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1980

In 1983, socialite and retail specialist Diane Benson had the idea to have local New York artists shoot images advertising her avant-garde fashion boutique Dianne B. Looking back, the list of artists she commissioned is staggering; a who’s who of the most influential camera welding artists of all time. The late Peter Hujar photographed his close friend, pupil, and once-lover, the revolutionary artist and poet David Wojnarowicz, smoking and eating an apple, wearing a chic Chinese collared white shirt and loose fitting trousers, embodying a kind of Arthur Rimbaud-ian bohemian chic. Laurie Simmons photographed her close friend, Cindy Sherman, suspended in space, emphasizing the inherent unattainability of the image that fashion projects. Cindy Sherman photographed herself, of course, looking out of place and insecure in an ensemble by Jean Paul Gaultier, puncturing holes in the common notion that wearing expensive clothes makes you feel more confident and successful. And, finally, Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Benson herself looking like the fashion goddess she was. Benson is shot in side profile wearing an utterly decadent wool coat decorated in swan graphics that literally three-dimensionally fly off the coat’s surface.

The ads are all beautiful pieces of work, but they also recognize a shift in fashion and culture at large. The idea of the starving artist was less romanticized in the eighties as artists like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat rose quickly in the market fetching million dollar prices before their 30th birthdays. All of a sudden, a bunch of rich artists were running around with no idea how to spend their money. Benson capitalized on this, retailing avant-garde fashions and then using artists to attract a creative buyer. This was one of the earliest examples of the merging of contemporary art and fashion advertising, and to this day it still feels like a remarkable body of work.