Up until seven days ago, I had never seen Peter Do’s face. Most people in fashion haven’t. The designer, who founded his namesake brand in 2018 and who became the new creative director of Helmut Lang just three months ago, rarely allows himself to be photographed. When he does, it is usually from the back. If it is head on, he is obscured by a mask.
This reserve is atypical in today’s culture of overexposure, but it reminds people of Lang himself. The designer, who left the brand in 2004, was widely considered enigmatic. In 2000, the New Yorker published one of the only profiles written about him and titled it “The Invisible Designer.” Lang, who was born in Vienna, famously did not show up to accept the award for Menswear Designer of the Year at the CFDA Awards in 2000. When asked about it, he said, “American people don’t have the fear of being exposed. Here, when you have success, it’s like you belong to the public.”
Do was raised in Vietnam before moving to Philadelphia when he was 14, but his commitment to partial anonymity has less to do with a cultural difference and more with fear. He told me simply, “Being famous freaks me out.” But that too has backfired, considering his first show for Helmut Lang, which marked the official start to the New York Fashion Week Calendar yesterday, was one of the most anticipated of the season.
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Do has been given what seems like an impossible task: to make Helmut Lang cool again without Helmut Lang. Despite its reputation of subversive sexiness, built off of Lang’s utilitarian and minimalist basics, no one has been able to elevate the brand to its former glory or cultivate even a fraction of the excitement it formerly generated.
The closest the brand got was when it brought in Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver for a one-off collection in 2017 that Oliver described to The New York Times as “horny.” Its bra bags and re-editions of Helmut Lang originals (like the 1999 silver motorcycle jacket and famous 1998 paint-splattered jeans) made headlines and received praise from critics and fashion fans alike, but it was never repeated.
Do’s approach to reviving the brand is noticeably different and less raunchy. For one, Do says there are no exact replicas in his collection. “There’s definitely a similar feeling to them and there’s details that are from the past, but the clothes are definitely a new chapter for the house.” And despite their shared interest in privacy Do has no illusions of becoming what Lang was. “It’s not my intention to try to be the next Helmut.”
Unlike Lang, Do is not an autodidact who rose from obscurity. He studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology, worked as an assistant designer for Phoebe Philo’s Celine for two years, and was awarded the LVMH Graduate Prize in 2014. When he launched his brand Peter Do in 2018, it was met with so much praise some people have called him a prodigy.
When Do speaks about Lang, he doesn’t immediately mention the clothing. Instead, he mentions all of Lang’s innovations: how he was one of the first people to show his collection online, how he insisted on showing the men’s and women’s collections together, how he worked with artist Jenny Holzer on clothing advertisements that didn’t feature any clothing. Of particular interest to Do is the fact that Lang was the first designer to advertise on New York City taxicabs back in 1998. Seeing photos of the Helmut Lang ads atop taxi cabs on Tumblr is how Do first become aware of the brand.
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Do tells me he found himself thinking about cars often throughout the interview process for the job. “I thought a lot about when I first came to the US and experienced being in a car for the first time. To me, that was a very luxurious experience coming from a farm in Vietnam. I feel like everyone around me had taken it for granted. But for me, it was like, Oh my god. This is incredible. You can just get in a car and go anywhere you want.” When he walks me through the collection, he starts with a purposefully crushed button-down covered in those ‘90s photos of taxi cabs displaying Helmut Lang ads. “We printed those photos out, crushed them, took photographs of it, and then crushed the fabric again,” he explains.
His vision for Helmut Lang became clear to me in that moment: He’s not trying to replicate the ‘90s version so much as create paralleled emotions. There’s references to cars throughout, with seatbelt-like details rendered in the hot magenta pink reminiscent of the one seen prominently in Lang’s fall 1994 show. He’ll never be the first person to advertise on a taxi cab, but he can try and instill the feeling of riding in one for the first time through his slinky satin dresses and crinkled tops. “Freedom is really important for me personally. I feel like that was important for Helmut too—to feel creatively free,” Do says.
In that New Yorker profile from 2000, Kate Betts, then the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, said, “Lang did for T-shirts and jeans what Ralph Lauren did for club ties and tweed jackets — he made them fashion garments.” What Lang did was radical then and impossible to replicate now because his influence has been disseminated so widely across fashion as a whole. All those paint-splattered jeans and biker pants we see now are made by designers in an attempt to walk in his footsteps, only to fall into his shadow.
Do doesn’t want to be Lang. He just wants to “dress New York.” Which, given that his brand is owned by the parent company of Uniqlo, he probably will. At the show yesterday afternoon, each seat was set with a poem by Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong alongside a self-portrait, taken in the side-view mirror of his car, printed on a Helmut Lang scarf. Before it began, Vuong’s voice played over the speakers, describing how he took the photo on a road trip. “We were not born to die, we were born to go,” he said.
The models criss-crossed each other on the runway like New Yorkers at a busy intersection. It was easy to imagine looking chic on the subway in the jeans with ripped colourful chiffon panels, the button-down shirts worn backwards with poetic phrases like “Touch me so I know I am still here,” and the denim jackets covered in that taxi cab print.
Helmut’s work, Do points out, was “grounded in reality.” He was inspired by military garb and fetish gear and an entirely different New York, one without social media, one where the name Helmut Lang didn’t carry a generation’s worth of resonances. Do is simply designing for the New York of today, one where people dress for the online approval of peers with a dwindling attention span. And what he’s making is attainable and pragmatic and not at all intimidating. You can go anywhere in Peter Do’s version of Helmut Lang. That’s the kind of simple freedom he’s chasing.
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Helmut Lang Spring 2024
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US.