Helmut Lang: Make it Hard

The Fashion Legend on His Renegade Act of Artistic Reinvention

Iconic designer turned artist Helmut Lang shredded 20 years of fashion history for his latest exhibition, repurposing 6,000 garments from his eponymous label into a series of terrestrially textured, stalactite columns that stretch from floor to ceiling. On view at the Fireplace Project in East Hampton, Make it Hard comprises 16 sculptures that meld natural and synthetic fibers with plastics, metals, leathers, fur, feathers and even hair. “The fight against entropy and decay is always going to be a losing battle,” says international curator Neville Wakefield. “So why not make of that destructive energy something new?” It should be noted that Lang's most adored designs were saved from the cut, when in 2009 and 2010 the designer donated a large volume of his work to select fashion, design and contemporary art collections worldwide. A leading figure of 90s minimalism, the Austrian-born Lang has left a lasting mark on the industry. Following his brand’s acquisition by the Prada Group six years ago, Lang relocated to a Long Island studio to focus on his artistic career. “In the autobiographical sense, the material of people’s lives has always been the subject of their art,” says Wakefield. “The only difference here is the level of identification and investment that the public has in that material.” We asked Lang about his dramatic endeavor.

What inspired you to shred your archive?
With a little help of outside force in February 2010—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 for months through the pieces to see in which condition they are, I slowly became intrigued by the idea of destroying it myself and using it as raw material for my art. It was a cathartic experience, which led to an interesting and positive energy. 

Were you motivated by a desire to draw a line between yourself as an artist and designer?
I retired from fashion in 2005 and that was final for me. I feel fortunate I am able to work in art now and still contribute to the cultural landscape.

There is an organic feel to your artwork, which seems almost at odds with your fashion aesthetic, which felt very urban. Has your new lifestyle been an influence?
I feel that the new work is actually both, on the one hand very urban, but at the same time it has organic breaks within the structure. I do also think, in my work as a designer, I tried to contradict the contemporary with small defects and elements of reality, which can be considered organic. Anyway, it feels to me that either visible or not visible, I always consider both. 

You were seen as having a very serious approach to fashion. Has art relaxed you?
I am always serious and I am always relaxed. Nothing has changed.

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