Forgoing the runway, the brand instead chose photography to display their fall collection
Fall 2020 may well be remembered as the season that NYFW had its big existential crisis. Or more probably with fashion’s short memory, the chitter-chatter surrounding MIA designers and last-minute show cancellations will be quickly forgotten. But one lasting effect may be how several designers re-examined the need for a runway show each go-round the calendar. Designers and brands such as Phillip Lim, Rebecca Minkoff, Tibi and Helmut Lang chose to speak to their audience in more intimate settings. In the case of Helmut Lang, the brand chose a path more aligned with art than commerce but with equal reach. On Monday of NYFW, they hosted an intimate exhibition in their Washington Street store.
The brand has been working with PR-maven-turned-creative director Brian Phillips on runway shows since their first Isabella Burley editor-in-residence show. Under Burley’s direction, the brand collaborated with Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver in 2017. Lately, though the brand challenged Phillips to rethink the runway format.
The natural path connected the brand to its artistic roots dating back to founder Helmut Lang’s work with the Mapplethorpe foundation as well as artist Jenny Holzer to today’s iteration called The Artist Series. The latter resulted in collaborations with artists such as Josephine Meckseper whose work appeared on a T-shirt, trucker jacket and jeans. Those projects often donated a portion of the proceeds to a charity.
Phillips was intrigued by the work of photographer Sunil Gupta in his 2018 book called “Christopher Street, 1976”. Phillips reached out to the fine art photographer, writer, curator, and activist via social media which Gupta initially didn’t take seriously but the resourceful Phillips tracked him down through the Hayes Gallery where Gupta’s work is represented.
The images of the book were the result of a year Gupta spent in New York in 1976. “I came here from Montreal for love following someone here. I was enrolled in an MBA business school program as per my parents but was also taking photographs.” He eventually abandoned that and enrolled at The New School.
He told The Impression what struck him most about NYC in those days was “how street corners would change dramatically from one thing to the next.” He further explained “There were different districts and every few blocks, there was a whole new world. I was comparing the different streets until I honed-in on this corner of Christopher Street because this was my people and my tribe.”
The concept Phillips suggested was relatively simple, yet laser-focused. The photographer would recreate to some degree the photos using the Helmut Lang Fall 2020 collection designed by Thomas Cawson with Phillips as creative director for the project. A cast of characters – friends and collaborators of the brand such as stylist Mel Ottenberg – were rounded up on Friday three days prior to the event for the shoot. Gupta shot over 3500 frames that eventually became 17 final images. The updated images were paired with the originals that best matched the mood and the feeling communicating a strong message for the Fall 2020 season.
“I did some research; we didn’t know what the clothes would be yet, but I knew them as a brand but not intimately. I think back in the day when I did look in the fashion magazines, I was aware there was ‘Germanic’ kind of brand which was severe-looking and mostly black and white.” The shoot, which took place near the Village Cigars on 7th avenue and beyond Sheridan Square down to the river on the West Side, was also somewhat organic based on the model’s availaibitly who came and went based on their own schedules throughout the day.
From shoot to presentation was rapid pace. “We edited the images Friday night, they were printed Saturday, mounted Sunday and hung Monday. I just thought ‘this just fashion in New York because it was very fast’’ said Gupta adding “The old ones were taken over a couple of months. One or two pictures a day if you got lucky; you had to wait for it.”
The result of the exhibit of the Helmut Lang collection juxtaposed with Gupta’s original images will serve as the brand’s fall campaign. And definitely worth the wait.