On the New York catwalks, there seemed to be a craving for the old. For something bygone, something better – a shot of nostalgia. I won’t bother making note of all the problems hurting that country, but suffice to say America is not, right now, what it used to be. Hence, perhaps, the looking back.
I saw this very markedly in the Helmut Lang collection, which is now designed by Mark Thomas and Thomas Cawson – who take over from the short-lived tenure of Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver. Thomas, in an interview given to Vogue, cited a desire to “focus on something sartorial”. Cawson later in that same interview summed it up neatly: “We’re tired of meme fashion.”
It’s an interesting take because Helmut Lang hasn’t been this rigorously elegant and studied in a very long while. That’s to say, that the brand has been lost and wayward since its founder left for the art world in 2004. Shayne Oliver’s attempt at recontextualizing the brand for today didn’t succeed – partly because of its hokiness, but probably in large part because of the very powerful nostalgia for the 90s at the moment. That means that kids these days who didn’t grow up with the Helmut Lang glory days are simply asking for a chance to live it.
Which is what Thomas and Cawson quite smartly provided. The tailoring had sleek, understated sexy in spades. The muted colour palette worked very much in the brand’s enigmatic low-key-cooler-than-you way. Even when colour was used, it seemed to call back to a glory from the brand’s past. The hot pink dress, for one, brought instantly to mind the Spring collection from 1999 and the tank top that Kate Moss modeled.
That’s great on one level because with such a clear brand and style guide, the designers are giving themselves little room for error. The trouble is that this is design that feeds nostalgia and doesn’t look past history. Looking back, dipping into the archives, call it what you want – but the most fruitful excursions into the past ought to yield insight for the future. At its core, what Lang did was ahead of its time and embraced quite brutally the breakneck pace of the turn of the millennium.
Thomas and Cawson are doing a good job designing pieces that could’ve come from the 1990s – and believe me, the fashion looks great – but when this phase of golden age thinking passes, what will the brand be left with without having made its own statement in 2019? In the eternal words of Jasmine Masters: