A view of the Helmut Lang show (photo by the author)

Few designers would be inspired when a fire nearly incinerates the archives containing their entire œuvre. But Helmut Lang, the Austrian-born designer who’s always been somewhat of an anomaly, didn’t waste the opportunity when his imagination was set ablaze.

A close-up view of one of the columns on display (via thefireplaceproject.com)

The fashion designer-cum-contemporary artist is presenting over 6,000 pieces from his previous career in the ongoing exhibition Make It Hard, beginning in the East Hampton gallery The Fireplace Project this summer.

After a fire in his New York studio last year threatened the preservation of his fashion, Lang decided he’d use them for a new body of work. Shredding each and every piece, Lang reconstituted the remains of his raiment along with new materials into over 100 tubular structures, 16 of which are currently set up in the gallery space. One has the sensation of entering a birch forest after a wildfire, witnessing the hearty survivors, but the manufactured essence of the natural-looking sculptures is apparent upon closer inspection.

To see scraps of cotton, polyester, fur, leather and even hair bond together to form the columns startles and mystifies in many ways. To think that he’s taken hours upon hours of patternmaking, draping, sewing and finishing and concentrated it into thin, roughly seven foot tall sculptures presents a new way of experiencing history and gazing at creativity. While the more standard, formal methods of analyzing and evaluating fashion is lost, overall the process is intellectualized and varied, and adds subtext to a new installation.

Contemporary culture and art writer Neville Wakefield, who presented this project, muses in the press release about the collage aspects of the new work, as well as Lang’s ingenuity and progression:

Thus metabolized, the material began to take the form of strangely beautiful excretions: witnesses to both the transience of our creative endeavors, and the enduring need out of which such efforts are born.

Detail of “#016” (2011) (via thefireplaceproject.com)

The destructive act of shredding 28 years of clothing designs that shifted the aesthetic in the 1990s, only to resurrect it in a completely different form, establishes a new definition of conservation. Helmut Lang helmed a new look for the end of the millennium that shied away from the decadent opulence and flagrant ostentation that defined the 1980s, reverting to simple forms, tones and fabrics that intellectualized sex appeal and the craft of tailoring.

Though an 1980s redux in the 21st Century has almost completely overthrown that minimalist flair, Lang has found a way to present his archives in a manner akin to his true spirit.

Unlike the showroom-on-steroids museum retrospectives that thrive on spectacle and continue the legacy of a designer’s work, Lang has taken his intellectual past and used it to facilitate his evolution and growth into the more conceptual territory of his future.

Helmut Lang’s Make It Hard continues at The Fireplace Project (851 Springs Fireplace Road, East Hampton, NY) until August 8.

Editor’s Note: From the Twitterverse, we learn the following from blogger Greg Allen and gallery owner Magda Sawon, though we’re not sure why Allen thinks it’s “fishy” as the fire didn’t destroy his archive — we never said it did — but in an interview with Artinfo, Lang clarified things:

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 use it as raw material for my art.

And here are the tweets:


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Alexander Cavaluzzo

Alexander Cavaluzzo is a Pop Poet, Cultural Critic and Sartorial Scholar. He received his BS in Art History from FIT and his MA in Arts Politics at NYU. His interests focus on the intersection of fashion,...