As Helmut Lang enters a new era of its legacy, Denim Dudes talks with one half of the creative duo behind the brand; Thomas Cawson. We discuss the future of the Helmut Lang Jeans line and how they are making the house’s codes relevant to a new audience.

Helmut Lang Jeans Pre-Spring 19, photographed by Ed Templeton in Huntington Beach, Ca

Things are changing at Helmut Lang. The past few years has seen the house evolve through various iterations as its seeks to reestablish itself as an industry mainstay once again. From the artist collaborations (featuring everyone from Carrie Mae Weems to Peter Hujar) to the sustainability kick (through its partnership with Parley for the Oceans), or Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver’s one-season role of “designer-in-residence”; the recent noise around the brand has helped reengage original fans and generate interest amongst a new generation of curious youth. Now it’s time for a new era for Lang: that of creative director Mark Thomas and Helmut Lang Jeans creative director Thomas Cawson.

To signal the relaunch of Helmut Lang, Thomas and Cawson reinstalled the brand’s position on the New York Fashion Week schedule – the first in a year and a half since Shayne Oliver’s S/S 18 collection. For Fall/Winter 2019, the creative duo tapped into the brand’s penchant for precise, no-fuss elegance with subversive details. There were plenty of nods to some of the brand’s signature design codes like immaculate tailoring, a fascination with workwear, modular dressing and transparency, all of which were subverted through subtle undertones of fetish and kink.

The relaunch comes at a charged time. Thanks to the cyclical quality of fashion, Lang is much referenced by today’s designers, and the reinterpretations of his work have served to make the originals more valued. But while Helmut Lang’s influence is still strong (and archive sales maybe booming), Thomas and Cawford are conscious to leverage it in ways that relate to the current climate. The refined vision they presented in February is a stark contrast to the current obsession around logo mania, ironic ugliness, and streetwear’s overtly youthful attitude. But this smartening-up was ultimately refreshing and felt incredibly dynamic.

This precise approach to tailoring was reflected in Cawson’s denim design, which served as a more holistic component of the RTW collection rather than what he describes as ‘some weekend proposition’. It’s not surprising since Cawson has spent the best part of his career refining his denim expertise at some of the most prestigious design houses, including Calvin Klein where he headed up the global creative direction of CK Jeans alongside the famous Lang fan Raf Simons.

Items like the clear plastic “jeans” and denim screen-printed by artist Josephine Meckseper, add a graphic, conceptual appeal. But it was a selection of traditional denim pieces, like the trucker jacket and 5-pocket jeans, reimagined in formal flecked grey wool fabrics which truly stood out. These garments, which were inspired by Joseph Beuys’ 1970 sculpture Felt Suit came with a sharply cut quality and are testament to the brands reinvestment in traditional Italian tailoring. The show notes indicated the brand’s decision to relocate production back to Italy, which, along with this meta-referential collection, suggests the label is returning to what it does best: design-orientated minimalism with a few surprises to keep things interesting.

Helmut Lang A/W 19 Tailored Wool Denim Suit (Office Magazine)

Alongside the RTW collection, Cawson has been busy laying the foundations of the Helmut Lang Jeans label. The first instalment of his denim designs came through a capsule collection dubbed “Under Construction,” created in collaboration with then Editor-in-Residence at Helmut Lang, Alix Browne. The innagural release served as a blueprint for what was to come from the Helmut Lang Jeans program – denim archetypes rendered in vachetta tan leather, premium Italian denim and custom Japanese selvage, with each piece crafted with intentionally rough edges, unfinished and naturally flawed to present the idea of a blank prototype. The line also introduced Helmut Lang Jeans’ new fit proposition, which saw all styles equally cut for women and men and listed accordingly.

Just as the “Under Construction” title suggests, Cawson see’s this line as a constant work in progress and his follow up collections for Pre-Spring 19 and Summer 19 channel a familiar aesthetic with stripped back detailing and a focus on well-made classics. Cawson and Thomas have also been conscious to appeal the Helmut Lang brand to a younger demographic. Their recent projects with photographer Ed Templeton, who shot sun drenched teens in California for their Spring lookbook and just this month Cian Moore, lensed a variety of young creatives including Yung Lean, Clairo, Dominic Fike, Tommy Genesis and Bakar draped in the label’s SS19 wares.

Intrigued to find out more, we spoke to Thomas Cawson, Creative Director of Helmut Lang Jeans to discuss his design process, how to make premium jeans stand out in the market today and how they are making the house’s codes relevant for a new generation of Langians.

Thomas Cawson capture ahead of the Helmut Lang A/W 19 show in NYC (Vogue)

Gender neutral designs have been core to the denim line in recent seasons. How successful has this been?

Honestly, I find the world in general a little aggressively over gendered. Looking at jeans, I think it feels really unnecessary. For me, I think why on earth would a brand offer a classic jeans for guys and then a weird boyfriend jean for women? Our approach is to think that a cool girl is just going to buy a guys jean, so lets just help her do that. For us it wasn’t about creating a unisex jean, it was more thinking that if a women wants to buy this men’s jean how do we size it for her. There’s a really intricate, deep, deep study into how the jeans are graded. If you look at the interior labelling and on the back joker tag we show this is a man’s size and this is a woman’s size. I just want to make it easy for people to not feel constricted by traditional gender codes of men being only able to shop in the men’s department or vice versa.

Helmut Lang Jeans for women and men

We’re still in the very early days and we’re still growing but we’re starting to see the reaction to this in our initial retailing. That particular jean that is very mannish, what we call the ‘Masc Hi Straight’ is really resonating with women. Then on the reverse of that, I like the extremity of it, we also have what we call ‘femme jeans’ which are really hyper-feminine and they’re belt-like on the waist and the hips are super sleek and curvy and exaggerated and if you put that on a boy he looks like Robert Plant. Its a fun thing to play with and I like that playfulness. Its a waste of energy to develop tow separate jeans when the product is already there.

It also continues on from the brands legacy. When you look at a lot of the original runway shows there was a lot of repetition of looks going between men and women. You would see a man coming down the runway and then a woman and they’d almost be wearing the same outfit. This is something we wanted to continue. I think in jeans we have the opportunity to do it in a bold way with beautifully made product.

Helmut Lang Jeans Pre-Summer 19

What excited you the most about heading up the denim designs for such a defining label?

I think the open mindedness of the team here. In jeans, everyone has an opinion. It’s very difficult to be able to strike out and create a singular minded vision of it because its so loaded, its so full of history and something everybody always wears.

I’m so thankful to Andrew Rosen, the CEO of the Helmut Lang Group (Rosen left the Helmut Lang Group in March 2019) and the team here because they really trusted me. They were open about not having jeans expertise here and that they needed to do something that was different from the market and they wanted to hear what I proposed. You don’t get that kind of opportunity in a big company. I think there are a lot of people that have claimed that have had that opportunity but honestly, their product doesn’t speak to that. It makes me think, so why are you making the same kind of LA jean that every other brand is making?

Artist and consultant, Kamil Abbas photographed for Helmut Lang Jeans S/S 19

So to be able to have that kind of trust of ‘well if you want to do something different then we need to do it this way’, is incredible. And then having the technical expertise at Helmut Lang has been brilliant in bringing our creative vision to life. And then moving the development and production back to Italy, it’s kind of a dream job. The freedom to do it, and then the expertise to do it; having the people being able to execute what you want to do.

What have been some of the key factors in re-establishing the future vision of the Helmut Lang label and how it’s represented today?

Its a tricky one. I was always a huge fan of the brand back in the first place, but I have not bought the brand for many years. I think there are a lot of people my age that also feel that way. But then with the projects that have happened in the last couple of years, with the brand making so much noise, it’s created this whole new fan base, which is fantastic. And this has pricked up the ears of some of the old fans. It’s this really interesting game of reengaging that original fan base, which a lot comes from the behind the scenes to establish expertise in product execution. But then its also thinking about how do we make that exciting to a new generation because the market place is just so much more crowded now. This has made it difficult to try and quietly stand out. Its a lot trickier than it was 20 years ago.

It seems we’re at a time in the fashion landscape where much of what he designed back then is still relevant today. Do you agree?

Absolutely. We recently released a series of capsule re-edition product, which were executed absolutely impeccably and so close to the originals. But for the most part, I do think it’s important that we don’t just live off the fumes of a brand that to put it blunt, is long gone. We need to be really future looking but at the same time we need to try and remember what are those touch points that people remember and then think about what is it that these new young eyes on the brand are excited to see. And then how do we present that in a modern way.

A/W 19 screen-printed denim jacket by artist Josephine Meckseper nods the coveted Helmut Lang 1997 stripe trucker (Vogue)

In the A/W 19 RTW collection, there were definitely elements of Lang-arian in the extreme sense. What is your approach to referencing the house’s DNA with your own creative vision?

Mark and I are very much against working in any thematic way so there’s no easy answer to that. Honestly, I think its about our conversations. We talk very often about the idea of uniform. Obviously there’s the context of that utilitarian inspiration of actual uniform product that influences our design process, but then there’s also the idea of the uniform in the sense of what do people actually need to wear? And then there’s a little perverse nod to an idea of social uniforms as well. We like taking what might be considered bourgeois items and recontextualising them. I think its that combination; both the utilitarian uniform, the actual uniform of the modern wardrobe and what people functionally need to own, and then that little perverse twist thats a kind of a european nod to bourgeois classical dressing.

I loved the Joseph Buoy wool-suit inspired denim set. Can you tell me about the concept and creation of those pieces

Absolutely. We’re moving our RTW back to Italy and we’re reengaging with traditional tailors in the country as we really want to revive our tailoring business. For Mark the idea of tailoring and uniform clearly took inspiration from the famous Joseph Buoy grey felt suit.

Between the two of us, we really do not consider jeans as a sub brand of the business. Its a holistic brand first so its important for us to have a comprehensive jeans offering. We’re constantly looking for new ways that we can blur the boundaries between what Mark and I are doing creatively. Mark showed me a selection of fabrics that he was working on in the tailoring end and we mad e a section of what we thought could make it through the industrial processing of sewing a jeans garment. The ones you saw on the runway worked out so beautifully.

Helmut Lang A/W 19 British Moleskin Denim Jacket (Office Magazine)

Mark and I also wanted to revive the brand’s classic British moleskin fabrication, so we created this quite glamorous jean jacket in a black moleskin with satin collar and a skirt with a satin band across the hem. Its just a constant conversation between us. We both bring different expertise to this collection but we love finding that weird middle ground where we can muddy the waters. There’s very few brands where you can do that.

Is it your first time working in a creative director partnership?

My whole career has been extremely collaborative mainly due to the fact that I’ve worked in generally larger companies. So there’s definitely a different team aspect to that. But yes, in this more intimate setting where there are two people creatively coming together, its new and really exciting.

Thomas Cawson, Helmut Lang Jeans Creative Director (Left) and Mark Thomas, Helmut Lang Creative Director (right) take a bow after their debut F/W 19 show in NYC in February

Can you tell us about the stage show you guys created for the runway collection with the big screens. What were the inspirations behind this?

It was kind of a happy accident in a way as we found this space that we both really loved. It was raw, it was industrial, but at the same time is was chic and had beautiful high ceilings and a polished concrete floor. When we walked in we were like ‘OMG we don’t want to touch this space’. As it was an event space, there was this huge screen on one wall. Originally we were thinking about how we could cover it up, which wasn’t really a option. But when it came down to it, Mark and I honestly felt really confident in our product, so we thought why don’t we just showcase it on the screens.

Close-up detail of one of the Helmut Lang runway looks as projected on the digital screens

Usually within that more open space where its not a traditional runway space, its actually very hard for the audience to see different angles of the product. They only get one shot of the look. So we thought why don’t we film the models from a couple of different angles as they come around and let people see how beautiful the product is. It was really nice within that slightly theatrical experience to bring in an element thats super intimate. Its very salon like. I don’t think a lot of brands, especially at runway stage, where pieces are a little bit dubiously made prototypes can do that. We really wanted to let people know how impeccably made it all was so there were a lot of really close up shots on the screens. It worked out really well so I think that is something that we will continue to explore going forward

What are some of the denim innovations you’re most excited about working with today?

There’s a couple of things for us. We’re trying to work with our factories in modern ways that allow us to make the experience of wearing a jean something quite functional. We’re not selling to denim-head collectors, we’re not talking to an audience that has the patience to not wash a jean for two years to get the pattern that they want from it. But at the same time, I’m completely against faking that and selling something pre-made in that way. I still want people to have a relationship with the jean. On the floor we want it to look super box fresh, simple and clean, but there are treatments there that you can’t see that are going to help the indigo degrade really beautifully. Even if its a stone wash jean, you’re going to get your own unique whisker pattern and wearing in there and its going to look really natural, because it is. We’re working on ways in which you can speed that process up a little bit so that someone who used to shopping in the RTW world is able to get the reward. You’re basically buying a product thats going to be completely yours.

Canadian director Tyler Ross photographed for Helmut Lang Jeans S/S 19

Are you a big vintage collector or are there any specific eras that you obsess over?

Denim is a category that I personally love, but I think the culture around it is very toxic. I think there is this horrific macho game of one-upmanship there that I very consciously keep myself well away from. I really find it unpleasant.

I don’t have a huge collection of vintage, but a nice selection of vintage Levi’s, Wrangler, Helmut Lang and 80s Calvin Klein. These are more reference points for me. One of the main things that is most inspirational about the denim I’ve collected is really how modern it is. I think one of the things I struggle most about the denim-head culture is how backwards it is. Im sorry but things weren’t always made better in the old days. That’s crap, that’s a myth. What’s so beautiful about a denim product is the history of industrial clothing production laid out in front of you. And to try and go back and replicate old ways of sewing is ridiculous. A fell machine can make a beautiful seam, why would you need to do a single needle decorative stitch. Its not functional. People talk about authenticity and honesty, which is so misused in the denim world. What’s honest is actually using the most clean and modern methods of production.

Atlanta recording artist, Clairo photographed in Helmut Lang Jeans Spring 19

I think you if you want to talk about a historical moment, its always Levi’s Orange Tab for me. I love to see the process of what the company was doing and how they transitioned into truly mass manufacturing. They took this really nerdy approach at how a factory was set-up, how a sewing-line was laid out and asked how do you actually make this product as efficiently as possible so that you can churn out more of this really democratic product. If you look at a 501 vs an Orange Tab jean of the same age – the modernity of the Orange Tab is so aggressive. I find that so much more inspiring than a hidden rivet or single needle stitch. And again as jeans production moved into industrialisation there was this whole explosion of jeans moving out of the realm of what they were traditionally used for (working) and into something more personal. Around this time there was a bigger cultural conversation starting to happen between the wearers and manufacturers and thats so interesting.

Now that the foundations have been laid with the first collection, how will you position the brand going forward for SS20?

Its an evolution and its back to that idea of a conversation. Now that people are starting to wear the product its important to listen to whats working and what isn’t. We’re not a brand thats going to be throwing out different trend fits every delivery. For us its about reinterpretations and reinterpretations. The original Helmut Lang runway shows were called ‘Scéance de Travail’ – works in progress. They were about saying we’re a brand thats constantly developing and evolving and this is where we are at right now. They weren’t stand alone collections. I think thats something we’re really aiming to get back to.

Recording artist Dominic Fike photographed in Helmut Lang Jeans Pre-Fall 19

We’re just continuously working and when things are ready we’ll put it together into something we can present to you. But we don’t just show you something because its an idea we love and we haven’t finished it yet. You’ll see it the next season when we’ve resolved it. It’s this continual work and development to make sure that the product is familiar but also moving forward.

Whether its our suiting or its our jeans, you’re getting a lot of value for your money. We’re certainly not making cheap product but we’re giving you something that we’d like you to see as an investment. These will be a pair of jeans you’re going to love and cherish for years to come and (hopefully) not need to replace. But we’ll also be finding new ways to make you hungry for the next one. We’re not just throwing stuff out into the world that we don’t think people need.

I loved the recent Stock Boyz collab with Slava Mogutin. Can you tell us about that and how you’re working with collaborations with the brand going forward.

Slava Mogutin is an artist that I’ve had a long appreciation for and through this job I’ve had the opportunity to reach out and make a connection with him.

We had a lot of interesting conversations about masculinity and masculinity in America in particular. There was a really nice dialogue in how I was seeing that in product point of view and how Slava likes to play with that in the way he creates imagery. I like to poke the bear a little bit and put this blatant queerness into what we’re doing here. I think there is something really lovely about a sheer t-shirt with a boy stripping on it. Then there is the idea of the boys that present themselves like this. Do they know that they’re sexualising themselves? How innocent is this? I think that little twist on masculine presentation is super interesting.

London recording artist Bakar photographed in Helmut Lang x Slava Mogutin t-shirt S/S 19

Slava had done a project the original Helmut Lang team just before it was about to shut down and he had the opportunity to photograph archival show pieces on Go-Go dancers around New York. It was very risqué photo essay that never ended up getting published. But he did actually publish it recently in his book ‘Bros and Brosephines‘ and his art director Jan Wandrag had created this superb graphic with Helmut Go-Go on it. They kindly let us use it as a t-shirt graphic, which meant the collaboration came together more organically and fluidly.

Who are you gearing the Helmut Lang brand towards today?

Obviously there is this fresh young eye on the brand that is so insanely well educated about the roots of the brand. But they need to engage with it in a very different way than the previous consumers of the brand. I think finding those visual cues that are going to excite them is really interesting. On a basic level, it all goes back to how beautiful the logo of the brand is and just printing that on a t-shirt is just so good. You know, you don’t want to mess with it too much.

And then also thinking about how to we capture the people who’ve forgotten about the brand, how do we bring them back into the fold? And we’ve really been starting to see that happen. Its super nice to see people like Nicole Phelps write about us in Vogue, and she’s such a huge fan of the brand. We’ve also had the opportunity to work with Alix Browne, who was very closely connected to the brand originally. Her enthusiasm of getting to work with us on new projects was superb. You’re starting to see people who haven’t been paying attention, pay attention again. And then you’re starting to see a new generation getting excited. And I love that. I think that cross-generational fanbase is what I want to appeal to.