Helmut Lang was born in Vienna and grew up in rural Austria with his grandparents without a television or telephone. Lang said of the experience, "To grow up under really simple circumstances and to understand that certain things were ornamental—the idea of the simple life interrupted by the opulence of particular festivities—that made an impression on me as a child and is something I use.” He studied business to become a banker but switched to fashion. After presenting his clothes as part of the exhibition "Vienne 1880-1939: l"Apocalypse Joyeuse" at the Centre Pompidou in Paris initiated by the Austrian government, he branched out successfully to Paris in 1986 and established the label 'Helmut Lang'. He became famous for his simple but refined designs, slim suits in black or white, his denim collection and the use of high-tech fabrics. At this time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, minimalist fashion was at its height.
Lang eventually took the opportunity of his label's growing success and moved his company's headquarters to New York City in 1997, subsequently setting up his company's headquarters at 80 Greene Street in SoHo in 1998. This, allegedly, constituted the first ever intercontinental move of a fashion house. He decided in April 1998, three days before his designs were to be presented to a New York audience for the first time, to show his collection through a live internet broadcast to the world via the newly created company web site helmutlang.com. As a first in the fashion scene, ads for the brand could be seen on New York taxitops in 1998. The following season he boldly announced that he would not only show his collections before New York Fashion Week but also before the Milan/Paris runway shows. As a result, with many American designers following suit, New York Fashion Week was permanently moved up six weeks to herald the established runway shows. From 2000 on, print ads for the brand were placed in National Geographic magazine - no other fashion house having ever done so before. Helmut Lang kept his collections under a single name and included all his lines in his show, positioning them equally. He introduced an underwear (1995) and jeans line (1996) as well as accessories, such as footwear (1990) and fragrances (1999), but otherwise preferred to keep the brand unified to solidify its identity and strength. The runway show venues for the Helmut Lang label were switched from Paris (until 1998) to New York and back again to Paris by Prada (from 2002 to 2005, explained below). The collections/presentations used to be called 'séances de travail' (French for 'working sessions') by Lang.
In 1999, Milan-based fashion house Prada acquired 51% of the Helmut Lang company in the course of a multi-brand strategy which also included the acquisition of German fashion label Jil Sander. Despite the quality of the clothes and the slight revival of minimalist fashion in the early 2000s, the Helmut Lang brand did not fare well. Prada decided to cancel the exiting licensing agreements including Helmut Lang Jeans license, which had been responsible for more than half of the brand's sales, and intended to develop an in-house accessories line. But neither the new accessories nor the fragrances compensated the reallocation of resources. After alleged disagreements with Prada Group's CEO Patrizio Bertelli on how the brand should be continued and after Lang had sold his remaining shares to Prada in October 2004, he left his own label in February 2005. Lang said of his decision to leave his own brand:
|“||The size of the company kept growing, and I had the feeling at one point that I would become the victim of my own success and get pushed further away from what I worked so hard to be able to do. I did try to do more artistic work in between, but it was not possible to be one of the main players in the fashion world and then to do art at the same time. I was ready to take a new challenge, in part because in fashion, things have become very predictable.||”|
Lang lives and works in New York City and on Long Island.