The Verdict on the New Helmut Lang

Once, back in the early 2000s, I owned a black Helmut Lang pantsuit. That was a time when even the word “pantsuit” kind of made me cringe, but there was something about how this one was cut — three-button, single-breasted jacket and flat-front (but louche) pants — that skewed all its establishment implications. It made me feel like both the coolest and the most grown-up versions of myself, as if I were a person who could talk to anyone, could go into any room.

I wore it until I wore it out, and have been in mourning for it ever since. When I talk about it, which I still do, there is almost always another person who will come up to me with a story of their Helmut Lang. His clothes caught an angsty, disaffected cultural mood and a moment and then transcended them, which made him enormously influential in both the micro (individual) and macro (industry) sense.

So much so that he shifted the entire show schedule in 1998, when he moved his show to New York Fashion Week from Paris. New York had traditionally been the last of the big four cities on the collection calendar, its shows taking place in mid-October. Mr. Lang wanted to go first, so he hopscotched to early September, and the entire city went with him.

Little wonder that ever since he walked away from his brand in 2005, Fast Retailing, the company that bought it the following year, has been trying to revive it, cycling through a series of designers and “editors-in-residence” who mostly succeeded in garbling the brand’s image.

On Friday, as New York Fashion Week began, it tried once again.

The timing, in theory, could not have been better. The late 1990s and early 2000s, those years just before social media changed how we live, have become ubiquitous points of reference.

The new designer, too, seemed tailor-made for the post: Peter Do, a rising star whose razor-sharp suiting for his own brand contains the sort of peekaboo surprises that put him smack in the center of the Lang lineage.

The cavernous space on the Lower East Side where the show was held was heaving with anticipation. A poem by Mr. Do’s friend, the writer Ocean Vuong, had been painted on the floor (sample verse: “Our clothes on the floor like stepped on flowers”), much as Mr. Lang had once plastered slogans from the artist Jenny Holzer around his store. Mr. Do had clearly done his research.

That, it turned out, was the problem.

The collection was replete with Helmut Easter eggs: Straps! A taxicab print in reference to his taxicab ad campaign! T-shirt dresses with a sheer scrim of twisted silk chiffon like Stella Tennant’s wedding dress! It was carefully crafted in Mr. Lang’s sartorial vocabulary: flat-front pants, Crombie coats and lacquered jeans.

Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

It had the Lang palette: black and white and beige, with occasional shots of bright pink and marigold. It had color blocking and message shirting, worn back-to-front for easy reading. It even had old Lang models: Mipam Thurman (Uma’s brother), Sasha Pivovarova.

It was accomplished, accessible and very commercial. That will probably make the collection sell very well — and it should sell very well. Mr. Do went through the motions of Helmut Lang more adeptly, really, than any would-be Lang designer before him. But what it didn’t have was subversion.

One of the reasons Mr. Lang’s clothes were so resonant in the first place was that they took classic elements and added just the slyest layer of kink, sending everyone slightly off axis. Mr. Do’s clothes, on the other hand, seemed earnest — too respectful of a legacy that understood the allure of strategic disrespect. Mr. Lang’s straps spoke of bondage and things done underground; Mr. Do’s, of your first car (they are actually based on seatbelts) and doormen. These are clothes that fill in a wardrobe rather than redefine it.

Think of it as Lang lite. Easy to digest, but the taste doesn’t linger.

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