At Helmut Lang, Peter Do Isn’t Worried About Pleasing Everybody
SUNDAY SEPT. 10, 2023 4:36 PM NEW YORK.
The Vietnamese-American designer Peter Do is feeling refreshed when he calls up our senior editor Taylore Scarabelli to discuss his sharp-yet-controversial Helmut Lang SS24 debut at New York Fashion Week. After a busy four months of designing for both Lang and his namesake brand, which is set to show in Paris for the first time later this month, Do isn’t shying away from press. Rather, he’s ready to face his critics, and explain why he’s rebuilding a well-loved heritage brand from the ground up.
TAYLORE SCARABELLI: Hi, Peter. Thanks for taking the time today. How are you feeling after the show?
PETER DO: I feel rested today. I had a long sleep, so it’s all good.
SCARABELLI: It must have been a lot of pressure. You were opening New York Fashion Week. You’re stepping into the shoes of a very well-loved designer. How are you feeling about the response so far?
DO: It’s overwhelming. I’m with my team and people tell me what they read but I try not to read too many reviews. My phone is blowing up, but it seems positive. It’s always going to be difficult to follow such a strong heritage such as Helmut Lang’s. A lot of people love the brand, so I don’t think that I can please everybody.
SCARABELLI: When Helmut Lang came on the scene in the ’90s, his work felt like a refreshing response to this opulence of the ’80s. What are you responding to in the fashion world today?
DO: That’s the spirit that we were trying to embody at Helmut too. The collection is a response to a lot of noise in fashion right now. I want Helmut to be a solution that goes beyond the fashion conversation and into a helpful system of everyday dressing. I spent the past four months making foundational pieces, so that we can rebuild this house from scratch.
SCARABELLI: So you’re thinking more about accessibility in a way.
DO: I really care about the product and I hope people can see that in February when the collection hits the store. But I think there’s a lot of expectations for the debut to be really big and grand and have all these things. I just felt like during the four months that we had, it was really important for me to rebuild the foundation.
SCARABELLI: In the poem that your friend Ocean Vuong wrote, there were a lot of references to this almost mid-century idea of the car as this liberating force in America. Can you explain what that meant to you?
DO: The car holds a special place in my memory, because when I moved to Philadelphia from Vietnam when I was 14, having access to a car was one of my first luxurious experiences that I can remember. I come from a farm in Vietnam where you don’t really have much. We had to walk or use a bike. Having access to such a functional, beautiful object that people take for granted, for me personally, was a very memorable experience, and I want Helmut Lang to be like that for people. I want it to be a functional everyday luxury that people can afford. For the show we took vintage seat belts and remade them into tuxedo tapes and belts that you can detach and wrap around your body. I want the new Helmut suit to be the car that takes people places.
SCARABELLI: You mentioned recycled seat belts. Are you thinking a lot about that sustainability at Helmut?
DO: It’s Fast Retailing [a fashion conglomerate that owns UNIQLO, Theory, and more] so we’re always actively looking for solutions to reduce waste and produce things sustainably and responsibly. But I also want these pieces to be heirloom pieces, items you can pass down. I want people to see value in the pieces that they buy from Helmut, that these are not just disposable clothes. I feel like that stays very true to the heritage of the brand, because when people talk about Helmut Lang, they talk about the clothes they collect, search for, and still wear to this day. That’s how I feel about Helmut personally, the pieces that I own I’ve been wearing for the past 15 years.
SCARABELLI: Were there any collections that you specifically referenced throughout this process?
DO: No, I really think about the evolutions of Helmut as a brand, and less about a specific moment, because everything’s so layered. It’s really about not forgetting where you come from, and building upon a foundation. So every season at Helmut will be built upon this base. It’s not going to be completely brand new. For example, I found this shirt in the archive that has been through 10 different iterations. It’s done sleeveless, or with a strap, or in wool, or it’s cut and crushed or collaged or slashed, but it’s the same shirt. So that’s the approach that I’m using for the new Helmut.
SCARABELLI: I think a lot of brands are switching things up so quickly that it’s just impossible to keep up.
DO: I think it’s good to have something familiar when you come back every season to the store, because then it shows that you care about the people that have been buying your product. People always want to grow bigger and cater to more people, which is fine, but I think we [first] have to rebuild that trust with the people that support us and also build a new customer base.
SCARABELLI: I did want to ask you a little bit just about the New York references in the collection and your relationship to the city. How long have you been based here?
DO: I moved here when I was 18, so it’s been about 14 years now. I just love the people here and I love the way that it is constantly changing. I like the resiliency of the people in New York and how diverse it is and how chaotic it is. When I come back from traveling, I feel the energy immediately. It’s such a special place, and I really want Helmut to dress New York and I really want New York City to be the anchor for the brand.
SCARABELLI: So we’re not going to totally lose you to Paris.
DO: I really think that Paris is going to be good for PD. I started the brand when I was 26, six years ago, and I feel like I’m in a different chapter of my life. The clothes that I want to make and the people that [I’m engaging with] feel very different. PD has always had that European sensibility and we’ve always been supported by Paris and Italy and even Asia. It feels like a romantic, sensitive new chapter thats very different from my Helmut Lang journey right now.
SCARABELLI: Okay, last question. You’ve been notoriously private. Will the mask come off anytime soon?
DO: The mask won’t come off. Thank you. [Laughs]