Peter Do wants to dress New York.
And when he unveils his debut collection as creative director of Helmut Lang Friday afternoon, New York will see — and judge — what the designer plans to offer: straightforward tops, dresses and jeans that combine the legendary label’s industrial, androgynous sensibility with Do’s own subtle tailoring.
“I just feel like more than ever we need non-fussy clothing,” Do said in an interview ahead of the show. “Things you can go to work in but also go out afterward.”
Do, 32, moved to Philadelphia from Vietnam as a teenager. After winning the LVMH Graduate Prize in 2014, he trained in the studios of Phoebe Philo at Celine and Derek Lam before starting his own label in 2018. Fashion critics, enthusiasts and fanatics of the cult of Helmut Lang — whose influence on fashion starting in the late 1980s and continues to ripple through the industry today — have long anticipated Do’s debut at Helmut Lang, hoping that the new creative direction can breathe life into the storied brand, whose relevance has faded since its founder’s exit in 2005.
“I miss Helmut, I miss a great pair of pants and a great shirt, things that we sold over and over and over again,” said Julie Gilhart, chief development officer of brand incubator Tomorrow Ltd. and former fashion director at Barneys. “But with Peter, I think I’ll be able to buy many of the things I’ve missed from Helmut in the last decade.”
But while Do plans to honour the brand’s roots, the designer says he’s more focused on attracting the next generation of shoppers — most of whom have no idea who Helmut Lang is — with a focus on offering practical, accessible pieces to customers who care less about trends as they do having something nice to wear.
“We’re going through a very complicated chapter in the fashion industry and it feels like there’s a need for honest value clothing that doesn’t cost you a mortgage,” Do said.
Making the brand desirable again will require Do to tap into the current cultural zeitgeist, executing an original vision for Helmut Lang in the spirit of its renegade founder rather than relying on archives alone. “There’s so much soul in the original Helmut Lang brand that there’s nothing I can do to replicate that,” Do said. “I can’t please everybody.”
The designer said he has yet to go through the entire Helmut Lang archives, which are stored in New Jersey. “We really want to move forward,” he said.
The stakes for Do’s debut are high. Do, who joined the brand owned by Uniqlo-parent Fast Retailing in May, is tasked with revitalising a once-groundbreaking, hotly collected label whose timeless wardrobe staples transcended seasonal trends and, arguably, redefined what luxury fashion could be: a seamless integration of form and function that were at once minimalist and totally idiosyncratic.
For the brand, Friday’s show will be its first runway since 2019, having largely gone dormant during the pandemic. For Do, the debut marks a pivotal point in his career. His own label earns critical acclaim from fashion insiders season after season (and will be shown in Paris later this month), but the brand’s reach remains limited. Aside from a handful of specialty retailers and an upcoming collaboration with Banana Republic, the Peter Do line is difficult to come by for the mainstream consumer.
At Helmut Lang, a far more commercial business, it will be necessary for Do to create products that people don’t just admire but are willing to purchase, again and again.
“As a modernist, a minimalist and a highly creative designer, Peter has stood for American fashion in a very strong way,” said luxury consultant Robert Burke, who was an executive at Bergdorf Goodman during Lang’s heyday in the early aughts. “But for [Do] to come out strong at Helmut Lang, he needs a very strong message and … having a wide range of products. It’s a different mentality than being a small designer.”
A Sleeping Legend?
Do is hardly the first high-profile talent to take a crack at reviving the Helmut Lang name, which was acquired by Prada in 1999 and later passed onto Theory, which is now owned by Japanese giant Fast Retailing, whose largest brand is Uniqlo.
Beloved ‘90s designer Katayone Adeli was tapped for a brief stint as creative director in 2016, followed by Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver, who created a capsule collection for the brand in 2017.
Beyond temporary buzz, these efforts ultimately failed to drive long-term demand. Fast Retailing does not break out sales by brand, and Helmut Lang sits under its Global Brands division, which also houses the far larger Theory, an American contemporary brand, and Comptoir des Cotonniers, a chain in France. Revenue generated by the Global Brands division fell from ¥149.9 billion ($1 billion) in 2019 to ¥123 billion in the year ending Aug. 31, 2022.
All the while, Helmut Lang’s legacy is as relevant as ever. When Miu Miu sent models down the runway donning tiny briefs as bottoms earlier this year, it was a direct nod to Lang, who did the same more than 20 years ago in his Spring/Summer 1992 collection. Asymmetric cut-outs and sheer organza fabrics, two inescapable trends in recent years, were just a few of Lang’s many signature details that continue to be referenced in mass and luxury fashion alike.
After he left his company, Lang effectively retired from fashion, and today is an artist in Long Island. His enduring influence, nonetheless, poses a formidable challenge for Do. Anyone can mimic an archival look. Do must pay homage while also presenting an original point of view.
“With a brand like Helmut, anything you pull from the archives is virtually impossible to do better than how it was already done,” said Dominik Halás, a master authenticator at The RealReal and a collector of vintage Helmut Lang. “[New pieces] will always be compared side-by-side to the original ones. And I just don’t think enough time has gone by where references will feel fresh to younger customers.”
Do says he’s more inspired by the philosophy of Helmut Lang rather than any specific aesthetic codes — a sensibility that lends itself to a wardrobing approach in both how the clothes are designed and how they are worn by consumers.
“In the past three months, we’ve been in the atelier redeveloping all the foundational pieces like blazers, suiting, poplin shirts, dresses, leather and raw denim,” Do said. “It’s really just building a foundation that you can look back on and use every season, which is similar to what Helmut did, because when you look at his body of work, you’ll see the same shirt done 10 different ways, season after season. He would change the colours, the fabrics, he’d slash it, collage it, destroy it, take the sleeves off, or make it collarless.”
Touches from Do’s own story include a seatbelt-inspired waistband motif. The designer recalls feeling a sense of American freedom riding in a car when he first moved to the US. Do tapped his friend, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” writer Ocean Vuong, to write a poem about cars that adorns some of the tops in the collection.
“What a luxurious way to travel! To be able to get in your car and go anywhere you want,” Do said. “I want Helmut Lang to be that for people: to be a functional luxurious experience, where you can go to a store and buy a suit that’ll last a lifetime, but with prices that make sense.”
While other designer labels from Lang’s heyday like Jil Sander and Margiela have gradually raised prices to embrace a luxury positioning, Fast Retailing and Do plan to target a more accessible segment, with jeans, sweaters and dresses in the $300 to $400 range, practically unchanged from current Helmut Lang prices.
Do hopes his reinterpretation of Helmut Lang will first spark a renaissance in his home city: the label was once the go-to brand for outerwear and basics for New York’s downtown creative set. Lang was born in Austria and founded the company in 1986, but ended up embracing his popularity in New York, decamping shows to the city from Paris in 1998, single-handedly overhauling the New York Fashion Week schedule to run ahead of the European shows, not after them, as it was prior to Lang’s arrival in New York.
Pieces in taxi yellow are a reference to Lang’s New York heyday, Do explained: Lang was the first designer to advertise on top of the city’s cabs.
First, New York — “And then the world will follow,” Do said.