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Jenny Holzer x Helmut Lang
Jenny Holzer x Helmut Langvia

The feminist artist who broke the rules of fashion

On Jenny Holzer’s 65th birthday, we look back at her iconic but unsung collaborations with designer Helmut Lang

It was Ingrid Sischy, the beloved art and fashion critic who passed away last week, that first caused the worlds of Jenny Holzer and Helmut Lang to collide. Holzer was the artist whose Truisms, Inflammatory Essays and projections brought poetry and politics to the field of typography, whether they were pasted guerrilla-style around New York or illuminated on the sides of buildings. Lang was the Austrian minimalist whose bondage straps and clean silhouettes defined the stripped-back aesthetic of the 90s. United by their similar approaches (described by Holzer as “a little mean, and less-is-more”), their work together disturbed the boundaries of fashion, perfumery, architecture and art, raising the bar for future multi-disciplinary collaborations. On Holzer’s 65th birthday, we look back at the ways that the two set the standard for the meeting of art and fashion. 


The two first came together (at the suggestion of Sischy) to create I Smell You on My Clothes, an installation for the 1996 Florence Biennale. In a constructed space, Lang pumped in a fragrance meant to evoke the scent left by a lover on the sheets, and Holzer produced an LED sign that displayed possessive proclamations: ‘YOU ARE THE ONE’, ‘YOU ARE THE ONE WHO DID THIS TO ME’, ‘YOU ARE MY OWN’. It was a moment that marked the beginnings of Lang’s cult fragrance career, and began their creative partnership.

“United by their similar approaches (described by Holzer as ‘a little mean, and less-is-more’), their work together disturbed the boundaries of fashion, perfumery, architecture and art”


Two years later, Lang enlisted Holzer’s talents again. Opening in New York’s SoHo in 1998, the designer’s flagship store deliberately blended art gallery and shop – the imposing white space was not immediately obvious as a boutique to passers-by, with cash registers hidden from sight and giant black cabinets encasing clothes, like the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey resting on their sides. Most importantly, one of Holzer’s LED pieces took centre stage, repeating monosyllabic messages. For his specialist perfume store (which opened in 2000), Lang teamed up with Holzer once more, her artwork adding depth to the minimalist space.


Perhaps most famous of their collaborations is the advertising created to mark the launch of the brand’s first fragrance in 2000: art-directed by Marc Atlan, the ads rejected the glossy images and buff bodies of most perfume campaigns to instead employ Holzer’s bold black words on white paper. Recapturing the intimacy that Lang had sought to project in 1996, the campaign was a jarring blend of the human (“I BITE YOUR LIP / I BREATHE YOUR BREATH”) and the mechanical, its newspaper style conjuring up the mass-produced. With no product shots and a tiny logo, it was anti-advertising, invested in the conceptual rather than the commercial. 


Designer-artist collaborations often feel two-dimensional, the former usually incorporating a print from the latter into a collection or specific accessory. But Lang and Holzer’s work rejected convention, making viewers question the lines between commerce, art and high fashion. Then again, just as Holzer defied tradition in her own work, Lang never fit comfortably into the niche of fashion designer, borrowing Robert Mapplethorpe photographs for his campaigns, calling sculptor Louise Bourgeois a close friend and, in 2005, turning his back on the industry entirely, destroying his own archives.