Back to Basics: 90’s Minimalism

January 17 2016

Everything old is new again. A quick Google search will attribute this phrase to author Stephen King, songwriter Peter Allen and R&B singer Stephanie Miller. While it’s origins are uncertain, what can be sure is that the phrase will inevitably be invoked at the beginning of each fashion season. This Spring, eyes turn back toward the nineties for our 2016 Pre-Spring Lookbook. In particular, the sleek minimalism pervasive at the end of the century.

Minimalism, a word diluted by the aesthetic monotony of our visually replete age, is both a philosophy and practice that serves as a cornerstone of 20th century fashion. To define what minimalism is to fashion is a bit tricky, as there are so many interpretations of the word. The philosophy behind minimal fashion design could easily be defined by what it is not, it’s lack of embellishment and frivolity often reinforce the trope of minimalism as overly stark and austere. The more essential definition of minimal fashion is two-fold, it is functional and it is pure. 

As fashion began its trudge into the 20th century, it brought all the pomp and frill of Victorian fashion – a style defined by its restrictiveness. Clothing was costume, frills and lace decorated bodies bound in corsets. But women of the age were no longer content to sit at home hosting. Increasingly modern women were working in careers outside the home, participating in sports, and even riding bicycles. These were not the gilded lilies of generations past, these were women who admired clothing for it’s function simplicity. It is fitting then that the style of clothing that became popular at the beginning of the century would surge back to popularity in the 1990’s, bookending a century of dramatically varied styles of dress. Now twenty years on, we turn a critical eye back on the minimalism of the nineties to help provide context for the return of minimalism this spring.

For the sake of brevity, it is easiest to divide the minimalist designers of the nineties into two camps, the theorists and the formalists. Both of these camps were working largely in reaction to the lavishness of the eighties, a time of excess in which more was more. “There was this feeling in the air that it had to stop at some point.” stated Dries van Noten in an interview with The New York Times, “Something real had to happen.”

And happen it did, due in no small part to Mr. van Noten’s fellow Belgians, including Martin Margiela. So sure was Margiela of the decade being an era of upheaval in fashion that he plastered the number ’90’ on the pieces he presented in late 1989. Margiela served as flag bearer of a group of theoretically driven minimalists, known loosely as deconstructivists. They eschewed the referential fashion of the eighties and returned focus to clothing’s most essential elements fabric, cut, drape and construction. It may be said that Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons was the godmother of the theoretical minimalists, who in addition to Margiela include the likes of Ann Demeulemeester and Helmut Lang. It is easy to see a Japanese austerity in the way these designers approached fashion, for them the process of fashion design was much more an exploration of the garment than of the body. Even the most outlandish of Margiela’s garments can be accounted for by understanding this motivation. While it may not appear to be minimalism at first glance, the underlying concept of the garments is. The deconstructivists sought to achieve simplicity by removing superfluous elements until they returned to nothing in a process they deemed La Mode Destroy. The influence of deconstructivists’ approach can be seen in many of Spring’s collections. Ashley Rowe’s frayed hems are a particularly beautiful nod to a technique developed by Margiela for his AW 92 collection.

If Kawakubo is to be the godmother of the Theorists, the Formalists would surely claim Jil Sander as their spiritual mother. Sander’s approach to minimalism was itself simple, clean cuts in luxurious fabric. For the Formalists, minimalism was not a rarefied and academic practice, it was an attempt at creating clothing that contained only the essential elements of a functional garment. They contested the idea that clothing needed to be overwrought to seem designed. Each element that went into a garment, silhouette, color, fabric, was highly considered by the designer so that the wearer could appear refined without effort. It was a way of working that perhaps more than any other, Calvin Klein brought to the mainstream with his particularly American version of minimalism. Klein’s minimalism was one that embraced the body, the simple lines of his garments kept the focus on the wearer, not the clothing. His inclusion of American staples such as t-shirts and blue jeans in his collections emphasized the focus on the functionality of a garment being itself beautiful. 

Klien also brought to minimalism a sexiness that had been missing from the otherwise austere minimalism of decades past. He made a name for himself partly through the controversy surrounding some of his more risqué advertisements – but the heart of what he was trying to do was still there. If sexiness was about the woman and not the clothing, it naturally followed that clothing would be as simple as possible. It was an approach to fashion that Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, an employee of Klein’s that would become a fashion icon in her own right, succinctly described as “straightforward”.

When pieces are as simple as Klein’s, details are key. The shape of a neckline, the quality of fabric and stitch. It’s a deceptively difficult task to achieve, and one that the Alnea Farahbella of Toit Volant has been quietly working towards from her Los Angeles based studio. The consistency of her fabric and silhouettes place her work right in line with the classic American minimalism Klein championed in the 90’s.

Whether your vision of 90’s minimalism contours up the academic garments of Martin Margiela, or the little black dresses of Calvin Klein, Spring presents the perfect opportunity to revisit minimalism. It’s a way of dressing that often is accused of being austere or boring, but when approached correctly it can be absolutely timeless. Minimalism is thoughtful, and the consideration put into the garments paradoxically makes it much easier to get dressed. As Flavin Judd, son of renowned minimalist sculptor Donald Judd says, “All things go with what is good; don’t make it more complicated.”

View the Pre-Spring 2016 Lookbook and shop the collection.