Helmut Lang Shredded His Fashion Archives for Art’s Sake

After Helmut Lang retired from fashion in 2005, following Prada Group’s acquisition of his namesake label, he left behind an enviable career characterized by hard-edged minimalism, aggressive experimentation, high-tech fabrics and (still) legions of imitators. But what he gained is just as enviable: a quieter, slower-paced artist’s life in a leafy, rolling part of Long Island. Far removed from the treacherous canyons of Seventh Avenue, this is where the Austrian-American has been carving out, sometimes literally, a contemplative and more meaningful existence.

But as Lang would be the first to tell you, country living is hardly a retreat—and he has a new gallery show to prove it. Just as he himself has undergone a chrysalis, his latest solo exhibit consists of large-scale sculptures transformed from the charred remains of his fashion archives (you were expecting a sale?) into what could be mistaken for white-bark birch trees. That is, if it weren’t for the tufts of purple fabric and shiny bits of plastic poking out here and there.

Make It Hard, as the show is called in a less-than-obscured double entendre, opens this weekend at Fireplace Project in East Hampton. Here, Lang explains how it came to be…

Lee Carter: It’s been fascinating to watch your evolution from fashion designer to fine artist. Still, the molding and sculpting of material seems to be your main objective. How would you describe your relationship with material?
Helmut Lang: Material has always been important to me. Most of the time it is actually a starting point. I get inspired by the way I’m supposed to use it or inspired by the exact opposite.

What was the guiding concept for this exhibit of new sculpture at the Fireplace Project? And what sparked the idea in the first place?
Showing my work at the Fireplace Project was proposed to me by Neville Wakefield. I had, shortly before our conversation, started to work on the early stages of this sculpture series, and with time and exploration of material, it lead to a large volume of columnar forms, part of which will be displayed in this exhibition.

What methods did you use to destroy the reported 6000 garments from your fashion archives?
The pieces were put through a big shredder truck under my supervision.

Was there a particular part of the archives you most wanted to destroy, and why?
In 2009 and 2010, I donated a large volume of my body of work in fashion to the most important fashion, design and contemporary art collections worldwide. 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 using it as raw material for my art. I shredded all the pieces without remorse or preference. It was about erasing the difference of what they once stood for.

In a press release, it’s said the exhibit is an “erasing of the past.” Which area of the past are you most interested in erasing?
I’m not interested in erasing anything from my past. My past is part of my DNA. In the release, Neville doesn’t refer to erasing the past in terms of me and my work, but the past in terms of the hierarchy and the temporal meaning of the materials.

There’s a lot of speculation that the new work is a statement on the fashion industry, a rejection of its commercialism. Is it?
No, it is not.

What’s the significance of the title, Make It Hard? A reference to the stiffness of sculpture or a comment on the oversexed nature of fashion?
Make it Hard is on the one hand a reference to the transition from soft to solid, but it also has a sexual reference implied.

What was the most rewarding aspect of creating these pieces? And the most challenging?
The most challenging was finding the right form for it. The most rewarding is that they actually turned out the way I wanted them to. They are all individually crafted and all have unique content.

Do you ever get creatively blocked? What do you do to get past it?
It is always difficult to find the one good idea and to eliminate all the bad ideas. It is always a procedure.

How does the process of creating these works relate to the process of creating fashion? Any similarities?
You have to work hard and you have to recognize when it evolves into something interesting and be able to let go of it when the work is interesting enough to fight you back. I’m familiar with that procedure. 

Will the sculptures eventually be destroyed again and turned into something new? Will what we see at the Fireplace Project take on a different life?
No. The sculptures that are shown are a capsule of a much larger volume, over 100 pieces, which will be shown in different installments or in its entirety later on.

By retiring from fashion in 2005, you’ve clearly chosen to follow your bliss. What does your bliss look like?
I don’t think there is such a thing as profound satisfaction. Life implies that it is sometimes good and sometimes not. But it is clearly an evolution I am quite satisfied with. 

How does your life in the unhurried world of art compare to your life as a fashion designer in high demand?
There is more solitude, which I don’t mind. That said, this way of life only makes more sense to me after having been part of an intense pace and cycle for thirty years.

Have the unfortunate events that have rocked the Paris fashion world recently reminded you of your previous life?
No, not in that sense. I feel fortunate that I was able to work in fashion successfully and it has been an exciting period of my life.

What does the future hold for Helmut Lang?
I don’t know, but right now it looks quite good. We have a lot of upcoming exhibitions.

Make It Hard, Fireplace Project, 851 Springs Fireplace Road, East Hampton, 11937, 631-324-4666