Peter Do held up a pair of Helmut Lang jeans by their pockets, pulling them against his waist. The denim was off-white, splattered with white paint and softened with age. I’d already reached out to feel the fabric, pinching it between my fingers, when Mr. Do said that he’d never washed them.
“Maybe that’s kind of gross to some people,” he said. “I’m just scared of destroying them.”
Ten years ago, he’d bought them at a vintage store for about $300, he said, and now he was showing them off in the Helmut Lang headquarters, in the meatpacking district of Manhattan. Mr. Do had arrived at the company in May, fresh-faced at 32 and ready to revive the brand as its creative director.
Mr. Do felt attached to the jeans in the way people often do to denim that simply fits very well. He wore them while interviewing for the job and, after he got it, decided to recreate the long slim cut in his new collection.
This is essentially Mr. Do’s objective: He wants to reintroduce Helmut Lang, once considered among the coolest, cleverest, most modern labels in fashion, and not just “for the sake of doing it,” he said. “Even when I’m not at the brand anymore, I hope I built a strong enough foundation that it goes on.”
Mr. Lang, a self-taught designer from Austria, was early to selling luxury jeans. Beginning in Paris in the mid-1980s, he became known for clothes that were utilitarian and witty. He popularized slender, androgynous suits. He used sheer layering and cutouts to suggest sex in a kind of unsexy way, the anti-va-va-voom, like a nipple popping out of a men’s tank top.
Mr. Do, wearing his white vintage Helmut Lang jeans, has a tattoo that runs up one arm — finger to neck — like a seam.Credit…Erik Tanner for The New York Times
It can be hard to feel interesting while getting dressed — to push the envelope of style without feeling like you’re wearing a costume or sacrificing a tailored fit — but Mr. Lang made it easier. At least for those who could afford his clothes (dresses and jackets started at about $700, or $1,740 today).
Yet after Mr. Lang left the company in 2005, and despite efforts by its new owners and several new designers, the brand never recaptured its Y2K-era relevance.
Mr. Do is now feeling the pressure to deliver. He will introduce his first Helmut Lang collection on Friday, and it is the most anticipated show of New York Fashion Week. Although if any young designer can revive the label, it’s him — or so the thinking goes.
“I’m running on adrenaline,” Mr. Do said, six days before the runway show, sitting on a bench on the waterfront outside his apartment in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was a perfect morning. The sun inched over the high-rise condos, casting a shadow across half of Mr. Do’s face.
It was an apt image: As a designer, he had been split in half this year, dividing attention between Helmut Lang and his namesake label, which plans to have a runway show in Paris and release a Banana Republic collaboration this month.
This is what often happens when celebrated emerging designers are successful: self-bifurcation. They build up their own labels, sometimes from scraps, then get recruited to run bigger brands with in-house ateliers and merchandising teams and corporate overlords. They delegate more but sleep less. Earlier this summer, Mr. Do began carrying two cellphones, one for each job.
“I feel like I’m crashing at some point,” he said. Still, he smiled.
‘Like a Lightning Rod’
On the note of Mr. Do’s smile: He doesn’t typically show it in public. He wears a face mask when being photographed or attending industry events. Not while working in the studio, however, or while walking his dog, Uni, a Shiba Inu, around his neighborhood with his longtime roommate Lydia Sukato, the operations director at Peter Do, and his boyfriend Matthew Jamison, the design director at Le Labo Fragrances.
Mr. Do only hides in public. It is a less extreme emulation of one of his heroes, Martin Margiela, the avant-garde designer who declined photographs entirely (along with interviews and post-show runway bows).
Still, when people now ask Mr. Do why he wears a mask, he has somewhat lost the plot.
“There isn’t one single answer that I can give,” he said, acknowledging a slight Streisand effect. “I just wanted people to talk about the work and dissect the work. I don’t really understand why it’s such an important thing. Maybe it backfired.”
Maybe not. There’s ample discussion of Mr. Do’s work among his online fan base, including on TikTok, which seems like an evolution of Mr. Do’s early adoption of Tumblr, where he posted his work while still a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. (On Tumblr, he met many of the friends he would team up with and hire in 2018, when Peter Do was founded.)
Mr. Do is known for dramatic, elegant silhouettes: billowing shirtdresses and oversize blazers and coats with exposed backs, often in neutral or muted colors, as if designed under the assumption that a bold shape can outshout a bold color on any day. Despite the enthusiasm for the brand among young fashion people, these are not clothes for cool kids. Peter Do offers a grown-up, intellectual glamour, made to last forever. (They’re priced that way, too: Dresses and jackets exceed $3,000; jeans run more than $800.)
“He came onto the scene like a lightning rod,” said the designer Phillip Lim, who founded his brand in New York almost 20 years ago. “Was he born with tailoring chalk in his hands?”
Mr. Do, more confessional millennial than ironic zoomer, once compared designing a collection to making pho with his father, a former army chef who brought his family to Philadelphia from Vietnam when Mr. Do was 14.
“It took hard work and lots of patience,” Mr. Do wrote in a letter to the attendees of his spring 2022 runway show. “There were hours of simmering and waiting to reduce all to a perfect and clear broth.” Mr. Do began cooking more for his brother and mother, a nail technician, after his father died when Mr. Do was a teenager. His mother, who still lives in Philadelphia, later sold her salon; the brothers, both now living in New York, send her some money every month.
While Mr. Do was considering taking the job at Helmut Lang — he’d also been weighing an opportunity with another luxury brand, though he wouldn’t reveal the name of the house — he sought advice over dinners with Mr. Lim and Ruba Abu-Nimah, a creative director, formerly of Tiffany & Company.
“This poor, poor brand, Helmut Lang, had just been beaten and battered to oblivion,” said Ms. Abu-Nimah, who still sometimes wears a white suede vintage Helmut Lang hoodie, albeit on days when there is close to zero percent risk of getting it dirty. “He will be able, I’m pretty sure, to take things out of the archive and re-contextualize them for 2023, 2024. I think that’s actually a very difficult thing to do. Clearly no one else has managed to do it”
One of the largest private collections of Helmut Lang’s work is owned by a New York City stylist named David Casavant, who began acquiring the pieces — upward of 500 of them, he estimates — as a teenager.
Dua Lipa has worn one of those nipple-revealing tanks from Mr. Casavant’s archive; Rihanna has worn ripped jeans; Solange has worn a harness. But generally the most requested pieces are Mr. Lang’s high-quality basics.
“As basic as it gets: a sheer tank top or T-shirt or crop top,” said Mr. Casavant, who was surprised to find this was also the case at a sale he organized with Dover Street Market last year. “The jeans sold like crazy. I think people keep coming back to that because it can be weirdly hard to find something so simple now, but done the right way.”
Mr. Do recognizes that part of his job at Helmut Lang is to continue offering these high-quality wardrobe staples.
“Beyond the show, beyond the fantasy that you’re going to sell, at the end of the day, these are beautiful functional products that people even outside of fashion, like my mom, can enjoy,” he said. The prices will start at $95 for T-shirts and tank tops, climbing to about $3,000 for specialty outerwear items. The sizes will range from 3XS to 3XL.
Helmut Lang, which is owned by Fast Retailing, a conglomerate that also owns Uniqlo and Theory, has tried to commercialize excitement around the Lang archives before. In 2017, Helmut Lang began reissuing small capsule collections of old pieces, like a silver moto jacket from 1999 and paint-splattered bluejeans from 1998. At the time, these capsules were released alongside new designs made by Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, then Helmut Lang’s “designer in residence.”
When Mr. Do went into the archives, he was struck by Mr. Lang’s “go big or go home” approach to color, he said. One thing the designers have in common is a perception that their color palettes are super-minimal, drenched in black or bleached in white.
There was no color in Peter Do’s fall 2023 collection. But at Helmut Lang, he has embraced color — color-blocking in particular, in a way that seems reminiscent of Phoebe Philo’s Céline, where Mr. Do worked as an assistant designer for two years after being awarded the LVMH Graduate Prize in 2014.
One recurring color in the new collection is taxicab yellow. Mr. Lang famously advertised on the tops of taxicabs. Mr. Do printed out photos of those ads, crushed and crumpled and deconstructed them, then transferred the results onto chiffon minidresses, prewrinkled slinky pants and denim jackets.
Mr. Do also sent vintage seatbelts to a factory, ordering recreations in magenta. A long version can wrap around a sharp-shouldered blazer — part harness, part military sash — while a short version can be buckled across the tops of shoes. The effect is reminiscent of some Helmut Lang looks from 1994, in which slices of magenta peeked out from underneath black layers, running along the sides of pants or dolloped on the shoulders of a tank top.
In short, cars were on Mr. Do’s mind. Even while exploring someone else’s archive, he was mining his own personal memories.
“When I first moved to Philadelphia, when I was 14, that was the first time I was suddenly in cars a lot,” he said. “My dad had a van for construction jobs. My mom had a Honda, and she’d drive me to school.”
Growing up in Vietnam, he would mostly bike or walk, he said. In the United States, cars represented a new sense of freedom and flexibility that he felt like people took for granted. “Everyone has a car, it’s very normal,” he said. “I look at cars as something really magical and beautiful, still to this day.”
Although Mr. Do has never learned how to drive.
‘A New Label’
On his first day at Helmut Lang, Mr. Do sat in a meeting meant to help him get to know his new team.
He recalled that one woman said, matter-of-factly: “‘You’re going to change the logo.’”
“‘Well, slowly, yeah,” Mr. Do replied. “‘There’s a new direction, and I want a new label that signifies a new chapter.’”
The woman just nodded, Mr. Do remembered, and he asked her what was wrong. “She was like, ‘You’re like my fifth creative director. I’ve been through this five times.’”
It was a reminder of how quickly designers can be churned through a game of musical chairs that never really ends.
“This industry can be quite unforgiving with expectations,” Phillip Lim said. “As talented as Peter is — like a prodigy — he’s a human being. It takes time.”
The expectations are undeniably high; the Helmut Lang show is the first on the official New York Fashion Week calendar. “We always like to open with a bang, and we think this is a big bang moment,” said Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “You want to come out with Beyoncé.”
Mr. Do isn’t a fixture on the industry’s social circuit. He doesn’t often go to parties or dinners, unless contractually obligated. Ms. Abu-Nimah referred to him as “the anti-industry guy.”
“All he cares about is making beautiful things,” she said. “He’s almost very naïve. And when I use the word ‘naïve,’ I use it in the most positive sense. He’s like a soft rebel.”
Mr. Lang wasn’t so different. He kept the fashion industry at arm’s length. Even at the height of his career, when he was nominated for three major awards by the CFDA, he did not bother to show up to the ceremony, preferring, according to a 2000 profile in The New Yorker, to stay working in his studio that night.
When he was offered the top design job at Balenciaga in 1997, he turned it down in favor of making jeans under his own name. ”It’s about America,” he said at the time. “It’s not about couture.”
When he left his brand in 2005, Mr. Lang left fashion entirely, shifting into a career as an artist. (Through his studio, he declined to comment for this article.) He once told The New Yorker that “in Europe they still respect the privacy of the artist. Here, when you have success, it’s like you belong to the public.”
Mr. Do worries about the day he might belong to the public. He already gave up his name to his brand — much like Mr. Lang, who will forever be associated with fashion despite not working in the industry for the last 18 years. Mr. Do refers to his namesake label as “PD,” instead of speaking of himself in third person.
His time is not his own. One night recently, he said, he arrived home so exhausted from work that he found himself zoning out while his boyfriend, who wears a silver “Do” necklace around his neck, was talking about his own job. “I’m so sorry,” Mr. Do said he told him. “I want to be there for you, but my battery is so low. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”
“I like my private life,” Mr. Do said on the waterfront. “I like to walk my dog in peace. I want to be in a restaurant and have a meal and be a normal person.
“For me, that always freaks me out, that someday maybe that freedom will be taken away,” Mr. Do said, returning to the issue of concealing his face with a mask.
“It’s something that I have left that I have for myself. And I want to protect it as long as I can.”