After decades of homogeneity, the fashion industry has (finally) begun to evolve. The bitter truth of a crumbling retail market and the insurmountable demands for newness has been something of a shock to the system. And everyone from the designers themselves to the investors that keep them alive are feeling the heat. It makes sense, then, that everything — especially right now — is changing.
A most curious industry development occurred last March, when Dazed editor Isabella Burley was appointed "editor-in-residence" of New York-based label Helmut Lang. At just 26-years-old, the British editrix has landed not one, but two, high-profile positions that she will execute concurrently. But there's more to Burley than her pastel locks and vast collection of handbags. In fact, there's more to the editor than any traditional designer's résumé can boast (and vice versa, fairly).
To assist her in Lang's evolution, she called in Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air to design a capsule collection for the brand. Earlier this year, Oliver made waves across the industry when news broke that HBA would not be showing at Paris Fashion Week, and going on a immediate hiatus. And now, we get to see what the streetwear mastermind has been up to. Through the label's new Designer Residency, the capsule will be designed by Oliver, and collaborated on with the editor.
That Designer Residency, by the way, will see several different creatives being brought in to design capsule collections for the brand that will "respond to" and "channel" the legacy of Helmut Lang, according to an official press release. Oliver's capsule, entitled Helmut Lang As Seen By Shayne Oliver, is set to debut at New York Fashion Week in September. To note: The brand's latest campaign, lensed by photographer Ethan James Green, features designs from the main collections (by Lang's women's ready-to-wear designer Selina Elkuch and the men's design team), separate of what's to come from Oliver.
As pointed out by Lang's chief executive Andrew Rosen to the Times, Burley's appointment isn't a creative director position at all. "It’s exactly what it sounds like. This gives me more flexibility," Rosen clarified. That flexibility means a rotating roster of top industry creators and innovators. Burley has been tasked with reinventing Helmut Lang, so to speak, and her tenure as Dazed's top boss makes her the perfect candidate for the job. In the past few years at the glossy, Burley has helped Dazed maintain its status as an industry leader when it comes to profiling what's next in youth culture.
It was Brian Phillips, the founder of Black Frame, the public relations firm that reps Lang, who connected Burley with Rosen. And the rest is history. "I think Andrew Rosen started working with Brian Phillips, just over a year ago, and wanted Brian to brainstorm new ideas and set up a new blueprint in a way for Helmut Lang, which is where this idea [came from]: instead of following a more traditional fashion brand model of having a designer as an artistic or creative director, what if you brought an editor into the picture?" she told Refinery29.
"He had this idea of creating this new role of an editor-in-residence, and that editor being responsible for all of the creative components of all departments, but also about them bringing a network of different people into the brand, almost like you have a whole array of contributors working on a magazine. It’s not just about one person’s vision [but instead] a whole community of people and their point of view, collectively." And it may just work. Of the recent shakeups that include designers trading New York for Paris, appointing industrialists to top tier creative posts, and luxury brands collaborating with popular high street labels to secure millennial appeal (the EIR doesn't fancy that word, by the way), her appointment is one of the smarter business moves we've seen.
On whether or not there will be more designers like Oliver called in to collaborate, Burley prefers to think of things as an open dialogue. "I think it’s about what’s right for each designer and what makes sense, so there’s not a strict seasonal system or approach with it; it’s not like one season in, one season out. That might work for one designer, but it might not for someone else, so I think we’re trying to be as fluid as possible in the way we work." It's unclear just how their creative powers will continue to be shared throughout their joint stay, and which sectors of the collective will get the new wave treatment (i.e. e-commerce, brick & mortar, or "special projects"). But their first endeavor was restoring the logo back to its original state.
"We want to re-educate and really build up the foundation [of Helmut Lang], which is why something as simple as going back to the original logo and bringing back the old typographic language was so, so crucial for me. How does that logo and that kind of typography work when it then enters a very digital space like Instagram," she explained. "That's why those first three posts we put up were really about re-establishing that graphic language and those slogans. As soon as you see it, it gives you shivers because you know what brand it is. Those things are really important."
In addition to typography changes, the label just released their first campaign under Burley's reign. The ad series features everyone from Oliver himself to actress Traci Lords, and is quite reminiscent of the old, provocative Helmut. But she's concocted a monthly side project for the brand, as well, that will see 12 artists collaborate with the Helmut Lang collective on special works. "I think the relationship between Helmut Lang and artists was something that I was very interested in. I think he really pioneered that," she said.
"That really felt like something that I wanted to explore. Every month [will feature] a different artist, and it’s really going from someone like Carolee Schneemann, into work from the Peter Hujar estate, to Leigh Ledare, and Boris Mikhailov. We wanted it to be very cross-generational and I’m excited for people to see the images that have been selected," she continued. That idea of bringing diehard Helmut Lang fans and potential new fans together via different mediums is quintessential Dazed, and is exactly why Burley's promotion is different from the rest. There's not much to be found on how the Theory-owned company has faired financially since its founder's departure in 2005, but Burley is aware of the workload that lies ahead of her.
"It’s been over ten years since [Helmut] was sold and acquired by different people, and I think there’s almost been, in a slightly great way, enough of a distance in that time that I think now feels like the right time to reignite the spirit of the brand and look at the past, the archives, and really go back to the roots in a very strong way," Burley said. Assuming the creative direction for a brand and digging into the archives is not a new concept by any means, but Burley's connections, as well as her hand-selecting of some of the freshest, most forward-thinking creatives will surely inject new life into the label.
As for how long she'll be there? Neither Rosen nor Burley can be sure. But she promises a ton of changes to come. "I think one of the key things is celebrating that legacy and trying to get back to that very progressive and disruptive way of thinking, letting that lead the brand and telling that story through a whole new generation of kids." If Burley's point of view sounds rather optimistic compared to the current mood of the industry, that's because it is. And you can't help but love it.