A Modern Love Story
From Helmut Lang to Alyx and Off-White, Tracing the Luxe-Utility of Dystopian Silhouettes
- Text: Tyler Watamanuk
The past few seasons and trend cycles have revealed that fashion is preoccupied with everything and anything tactical. Utilitarian workwear, cross-body bags, performance sneakers, and high-tech accessories. Similarly connotative: donning a strappy bomber jacket on top of a hoodie, or the comeback of cargo pants. There’s also that which provokes, like wearing a military-esque harness that looks born for battle.
There is perhaps no better emblem for this tactical trend than Alyx’s “Chest Rig,” a bag modeled on the fully-functional harnesses that can be purchased from various military supply shops across the globe. The unit from Alyx, which sells out every time it’s restocked, is practical but showy—it sits directly in the middle of the wearer’s chest—made of premium nylon with cordura straps, and features a single zippered pocket-pouch at the front. Similar chest harnesses from military surplus stores retail for a fraction of the Alyx bag’s price, but pack much more punch. The most robust units are designed to carry up to four high-capacity, semi-automatic magazines, two pistol magazines, hand radios, and also feature miscellaneous “general purpose” pockets.
There are other examples, too. Virgil Abloh’s Off-White offers the “Industrial Belt” which is designed in the style of army-like hoisting slings and straps originally intended to support the transportation of heavy cargo. Heron Preston, under his own namesake label, produced a similarly styled item: the “Quick Release” belt. A-Cold-Wall*, the label helmed by British designer Samuel Ross, sells a utility holster that looks like a deconstructed riff on a classic handgun holster.
The rise of this luxe-tactical wave is cresting on a backdrop of heightened conversations surrounding gun violence. The presence of guns, police brutality, and mass shootings looms large in modern society’s psyche and this fashion trend suddenly feels far more unnerving considering how images of AR-15 rifles, militarized police forces, and news of methodical killings have become a shadowy evil in our everyday lives. High fashion provides surrealist fantasy, but these are grave, real-life concerns. If the clothes and accessories associated with combat and violence can be seen as en vogue, one could argue that fashion has the power to find art and appeal in just about anything.
It’s worth noting that despite how of-the-moment this style may seem, this phenomenon of streetwear-adjacent, martial fashion can be traced in part to the lasting influence of Helmut Lang, a virtuoso designer who ushered in a roaring shock of utilitarian minimalism in the late 1990s.
Founded in 1986 by its eponymous Austrian designer, Helmut Lang has originated nearly every notable streetwear trend in contemporary fashion. Whether it’s luxury bomber jackets, monochromatic palettes, zippers and straps as design motifs, ergonomic biker pants, you can trace most of it back to Lang and his uncanny ability to elevate ready-to-wear clothing into something that feels much more avant-garde. The label’s most revered work occurred in 1997 and 1998, collections that featured paint-splattered jeans, mesh tank tops, sharply cut shirts—and ballistic-styled vests that Vogue described as “modern armor.” These Helmut Lang collections showed that utility could be reinterpreted as adornment.
Kanye West sent a near-replica of the iconic Helmut Lang vest down the runway for his inaugural Yeezy collection. The past and present men’s artistic directors of Louis Vuitton, Kim Jones and Virgil Abloh, have both spoken of their affinity for Lang and his work. A$AP Rocky rapped about the designer on the 2013 single “Fashion Killa.” The designer is beloved by industry insiders and has set the stage for red-hot labels like Alyx and Off-White.
When I think of tactical aesthetics and accessories, I don’t think of fashion or late 90s Helmut Lang. I picture an infamous security camera still from the 1998 Columbine High School shooting, in which two teenage boys methodically killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others. You can clearly see the profile of one boy, his strong jawline and longish hair and the bulky pockets on his cargo pants, as his accomplice stares off into the distance with a strappy gun harness draped across his back. “His cargo pockets were deep enough to conceal most of the sawed-off shotgun before he pulled on the duster,” wrote American journalist Dave Cullen in his book, Columbine, a vivid examination of the tragedy published in 2009. “They both wore black combat boots and shared a single pair of black gloves.” Whether these fashion designers realize this or not, the tactical look can trigger memories of terror and violence, fear and panic.
This is fashion’s disadvantage when it chooses to seek ingenuity in unusual places. Ultimately, the poignancy of an aesthetic is informed by what we collectively associate it with.
Catching a glimpse of someone in a bulletproof-like vest or military-like harness within the context of a glossy SoHo street makes me tight-chested. Maybe there’s a deeper driving force—something in our subconscious that propels us to this fashion as our glamorous modern armor in a society where bullets seem to fly freely without regard or meaningful regulation. Maybe it’s a rehashing of a beloved designer’s greatest hits. It also may be simply because this luxe-tactical gear is jarring, provoking, and affecting in a way that luxury fashion sometimes isn’t. Whatever the impetus, dressing in luxe-tactical gear stretches the limits of what we perceive as stylish and, in tandem, romanticizes an aesthetic that most of us wish not to ever encounter.
Tyler Watamanuk is a New York based writer and producer. He has written for GQ, Vice, Playboy, and more.
- Text: Tyler Watamanuk