As the newly appointed creative director of Helmut Lang, Peter Do had a not-so-easy set of tasks: Update the quintessentially cool ’90s fashion label — which, despite its continued influence, has spent a number of years rudderless — and fuse its aesthetic with his own. Present the collection as the first official runway of the Spring-Summer 2024 season at New York Fashion Week (having only shown on the schedule twice prior). And then put out another collection, for his eponymous label, in Paris just a few weeks later.
“I haven’t slept in awhile,” Do told CNN backstage at the New York show, with a small laugh, during a group interview.
When 32-year-old Do was announced to the post in May, excitement rippled through the fashion industry at the prospect that the minimalist label would be reimagined by the Vietnamese-born designer. Lang left the brand in 2005; both its ownership and creative leads have switched around since, with short-lived ‘editor-in-residence’ roles replacing Michael and Nicole Colovos in 2014, followed by a long gap.
“As someone who loves the original Helmut Lang, I was so happy that they were making an effort to revitalize the brand, because it’s still so relevant,” said the designer Derek Lam, whose label Do worked for prior to striking out on his own, in a phone call with CNN. “And then I think that it was brilliant that they had someone so strong as Peter.”
“Sometimes American designers are a little bit more removed — they’re designing for some (other) person in mind,” Lam continued. “I think he personifies his clothes.”
Do, a graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, worked under Phoebe Philo at Celine and Lam before launching his eponymous label in 2018. Since then, he’s built a fast following, including Zendaya and Rihanna. His evocative takes on men’s and women’s suiting have gone viral, such as the layered backless ensembles Do put out last September (a twist on his earlier Fall-Winter 2019 designs), with one modeled on the runway by K-pop musician JENO.
But from the very first garments that entered the airy, cavernous industrial space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Friday afternoon — jackets, striped with pink, draped over models’ shoulders; unbuttoned, asymmetrical sheer collared shirts — it was clear that Do was leaning into the poetry of the moment. Quite literally, in fact, as he had tasked the Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong to pen words for the collection, which were writ large on the room’s floor, and also appeared smaller on black tank tops and high-necked white shirts. Lines such as “When was the last time you were you? When was the last time?” spoke to the “beautiful freedom” Do said he wants to instill in his new iteration of Helmut Lang.
Vuong also wrote an opening letter for the show, speaking to the car as one of Do’s inspirations for the collection: the abandon and limitless possibilities one feels on the road — and its particular symbolism for LGBTQ people — as well the feeling of a joyride, as captured by the Vietnamese phrase “di chup gió” which means, “to catch the wind.”
Do immigrated to the US when he was 14 years old. Having grown up on a farm in Vietnam, he recalled backstage how his family’s new car felt like a specific marker in time — and opportunity. “(Moving) to Philadelphia, with my mom owning a car… the freedom to go where you want was something that everyone was taking for granted,” he explained.
Do’s collection was also an ode to New York City — the “fast. energetic, chaotic way that people live” across its five boroughs. Models filtered into the space in a gridlike pattern, wearing the hues of yellow cabs and loose graphics of newsprint, but for the show’s finale, fell into the cadence of passersby on the street, with their lives adjoined for a fleeting moment. Amid poignant piano notes and audio of Vuong’s opening letter, the familiar tones of the MTA’s “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” chimed in, too.
The designer hit many of the notes his ’90s predecessor was renowned for: a limited palette, a sense of counterculture and rebellion made elegant and neat, even in deconstruction, and a mix of luxe fabrics and tailoring alongside utilitarian and everyday pieces. Through Do’s eyes, though, classic Lang pieces like paint-splattered cream jeans became color blocks, and the brand’s iconic straps and harnesses became seatbelt-like bands of pink and yellow.
Still, Do wants his own vision for the brand to be clear, and to cut through “the noise,” which includes attracting more than just “fashion people,” he said. “I want the prices to make sense… I want people like my mom to go to the store and buy a beautiful dress that lasts a lifetime and a suit that doesn’t cost a mortgage.”
Do’s mother was sitting front row, and she cried as they hugged at the end of the show, amid thundering applause as the final models exited the floor. Others in attendance for Do’s debut included the actors Jodie Turner-Smith, Amandla Stenberg and Hari Nef, and Korean American singer Tiffany Young.
Do will barely have time to breathe (or sleep) before his label’s first showing in Paris, but he’s looking forward nonetheless.
“I want my own brand to be more intentional and more sensitive. and to reflect where I am now in my life,” Do said backstage. “I started my brand six years ago when I was 26 and now I’m 32. I have a different way of living; I found my voice. So you will see it will be very different (from Helmut Lang).”