It’s seems unlikely that a Spaniard and a New Zealander, both based in New York, could come together and design clothing that is so utterly Chicagoan. Yet that’s exactly what Michael and Nicole Colovos have done with Helmut Lang, the line they took over after Mr. Lang stepped down in 2005.
The couple, who was in Chicago for a personal appearance last month, form a unique design dynamic: Michael has a pure fashion background — he attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York — while Nicole was previously a senior market editor for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. They decided to go into business together in 2002, launching the denim line Habitual, and were quickly recognized as a fashion force, winning the first CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award for emerging designers.
As the creative directors of Helmut Lang, a brand known for its edgy and deconstructed design, they sketch with a specific woman in mind: “Sophisticated and tough, but still sexy and chic,” says Michael. It’s a woman with a Midwestern work ethic — she can run a company by day and a family by night (much like Nicole, who balances work with three young children at home). And with the line’s special focus on creating outerwear, it’s a brand that’s perfectly geared toward Chicago’s capricious weather.
Their spring collection, currently carried at Chicago locations like Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Barneys New York, breaks away from Helmut Lang’s typical neutral color palette and dives into color with vibrant hues of amber and orange, cerulean blues and fire engine reds. “We were originally inspired by these crustaceans in some photographs we saw,” explains Nicole. “We love these colors, these textures and the translucency. It’s the idea of the wet look.” True to their history of incorporating high-tech fabrics, this collection features wool-nylon hybrids, laminated cottons and a Japanese fabric that is made with the same fibers used in TV screens. By mixing the fabrics with their newfound color craze, they’ve created standout pieces like a glossy linen jacket in cardinal red ($495), a chroma cutout dress in shimmering citrine ($435) and a nylon mesh dress with a printed aquamarine kaleidoscopic pattern ($735).
Nicole and Michael design with a scientific approach, paying close attention to every material selection and silhouette proportion and whittling the design down until there’s nothing left to take away. “I’m very detail-oriented,” says Michael. “I like to look at classic things and then chop off a lapel to make it look less obvious. But you can try too hard to do something different just for the sake of being different. I love classic with something that gives it a twist or an edge.”
Every season, the couple tries to find a new twist. “We want to mix it up for our customer. After a while you look in your wardrobe and say, ‘I hate everything in my wardrobe! I want all new things’ ” Nicole jokes. “We’re women, we’re very fickle.”
While Helmut Lang continues to evolve each season with new silhouettes in new shades, they’re committed to preserving their classic looks — and making them available at a lower price point — with their diffusion line Helmut Helmut Lang (dresses start at $125). “It’s our timeless pieces,” says Nicole. “There are certain blazers that we’ve done that people still love and still want.” Although by that logic, it could easily carry almost everything in the Lang repertoire.
Shop Helmut Lang at Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan, Saksfifthavenue.com; Nordstrom, 520 N. Michigan, Nordstrom.com; Barneys, 15 E. Oak, Barneys.com. or visit Helmutlang.com to see the entire collection.