Helmut Lang is one of the most important designers of the past 50 years. He permanently changed the date of New York Fashion week, normalized designer jeans and t-shirts, and, perhaps most importantly, altered the fashion paradigm with an elegant interpretation of minimalism.
But you’ve probably heard all that before.
The use of military elements permeates Lang’s minimalism. Sometimes explicit and others subtle, specific military influences reappear throughout Lang’s collections. To understand these recurring references is to perceive a throughline uniting Lang’s work.
Below we look at 10 of Lang’s most iconic military references, identifying the military counterpart and providing some context for the works they inspired Lang to create.
1. Flak Vest
The Flak was conceived as protection from the explosive fragments of grenades, shotgun rounds, anti-aircraft artillery, and mines. The construction of the original Flak vest was made out of layers of ballistic nylon and a plate of manganese steel, giving it an oversized and heavy construction. Lang’s version used a lighter yet equally voluptuous goose fill to mimic the construction of the original. He transformed the vest into a puffer jacket for AW99, making otherwise minimal changes (like the arrangement of the pockets and the molle). He also issued a vest version, though this item is quite rare. Available colours included white, black, and khaki.
2. Bulletproof Vest
One of Lang's most famous designs has an obvious military origin. The bulletproof vest was featured in his AW97 collection, a reimagination offered in a kevlar, goose down, nylon and poly wool blend. The vest was also released in the usual variety of colours: black, white, khaki, and green.
3. French Jungle Boots (Palladium)
One of Lang's most famous footwear creations are based on the French Jungle boots first used in the Indochina war and manufactured, interestingly, by Palladium. Like the authentic French canvas boots, Lang’s version offered three iterations; a high-top, mid-top, and “M43” buckle. Lang offered more materials, from leather to ballistic nylon, often with small tweaks, like a strap running across the lacing system.
4. N-3B Parka
The N-3B parka was originally designed for US flight crews in the 1950s to withstand cold, windy climates as low as −51 °C. Its quality design and construction made it popular with civilians, meaning Lang may have been exposed to the parka in domestic settings during his youth in Austria. This parka made various appearances throughout Lang's work, often cut from different materials, like leather (AW98), or with modifications, like the velcro hood and the backpack straps (AW98 & AW99).
5. Arm Bag
This particular bag is an homage to the armbands (known as brassards or armlets), which were part of a military uniform indicating unit, role, or rank. Lang's took this armband design and transformed it into a functional bag, shown here in AW99.
6. M65 Parka
The US fishtail parka was developed in the late 40s, refined over the next two decades, and has remained an icon ever since. The latest iteration was the M-65, an item made iconic thanks to mod culture in the 60's. Lang modified and issued the form frequently. AW97 saw two shortened iterations of the parka (one slightly shorter than the original, the other even more cropped) with different details, like decorative stripes. In AW03, he issued another parka resembling the classic in the original shape with some of the iconic bondage details he became known for later.
7. MA1 Bomber Jacket
The MA1 bomber jacket is another classic. Its inception made all of the previous flight jackets obsolete and has taken many forms since. Lang often referenced bomber jackets, but his most iconic take was his AW03 bondage bomber. In this iteration, he added bondage details (cuff straps and "belt" strap), and issued it in a myriad of materials and his usual colours.
8. Wool Jersey
Inspired by the military wool sweaters with nylon patches and a striped design, Lang created his own series of sweaters. Below are some of the most coveted. First, for AW97, he issued a seemingly normal wool sweater with cut-out elbows. For AW98 he issued a "transparent sweater", with a translucent thread joining the wool stripes. For AW03 he issued several sweaters. Among the more traditional silhouettes one stood out, part of its neck missing.
9. M65 Jacket
Like the M65 parka, the field jacket with the same name is an iconic piece of American militaria. Lang created several garments across different collections loosely based on the classic piece. For AW97 he offered a simplified version, with smaller streamlined pockets, no drawstrings, and no shoulder straps. He added rectangular elbow patches and buttoned cuff adjusters. This jacket came in many materials including nylon, polyamide, and waxed cotton. In FW99, he built upon the model that he created in AW97, this time, using moleskin with a down fill and an "eskimo" hoodie, also adding practical drawstrings in the hem and the hood.
10. WW2 raincoat
Lastly, a reference to WW2. Here, Lang references one of the rain smocks of the US Navy. This jacket uses an impermeable and durable nylon and a particular "corset" lacing system. Lang's version was a more wearable, made of light polyester with no other significant changes except for the lack of wrist adjusters.