Less is more: The new minimalism

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

When the financial crisis hit, fashion said farewell to the froufrou. Three years on and sleek silhouettes, muted colours and an austere androgyny continue to dominate the catwalks as designers eschew the extraneous for the elegant

The fashion industry is in the business of creating moments out of moods, and trends from the temporal. And it does this, of course, to persuade us to part with our money, to buy into the new and the exotic, the other and the extraordinary.

So what do the economically minded do when the mood calls for restraint, and all things ephemeral are tangibly tasteless? When the creaking cycle of trade and trend ground to a halt in September 2008 – as Lehman Brothers collapsed during the London collections – the fashion world was not quite ready for it. It-bags and mega-shoes costing upwards of £13,000, store launches and sushi: the in-crowd had not bargained for a credit crisis. There was much talk of hemlines rising as the stock market plummeted, of vibrant brights that keep our collective chin up; no one, in short, could reconcile what was emerging on the catwalk with what was happening at the cash points.

Some labels at that point turned to a newly austere look: for autumn/winter 2008, Prada showed high-necked black-lace dresses, ornate but severely so, while Yves Saint Laurent's Stefano Pilati came up with androgynous boxy tailoring shown on models identically dressed in black pudding-bowl wigs and ebony lipstick. And Marc Jacobs unveiled a fresh vision at luxury label Louis Vuitton: stone, neutral and pastel pieces, such as collarless jackets and sculpted peg trousers – quite the remove from his usual brash and cartoonish collections.

By the following season, designers began to develop this "new austerity" (as Vogue had by this point officially termed it), and another aesthetic emerged, spearheaded by Phoebe Philo and her first collection for the French house Céline. Here she presented eminently luxurious knits, tunic dresses, capes and buttery leather T-shirts, allcut in strong and simple shapes, with no embellishment or frippery. With nothing, in fact, extraneous to its construction. It sounded a new note within the industry and sent it in a completely different direction.

Forget the po-faced architects and sombre artists of yesteryear: New Minimalism was a movement that distilled all of the quality, desirability and "must-have" nature of previous aesthetics into something more palatable for a troubled economy. It was cogent in the face of insolvency; it allowed for our straitened shopping habits; it spoke of hard times and simple solutions: it was the era of the minimalist revival. Shopping and fashion – particularly high-end fashion – were OK; stealth wealth and investment buys were key.

Previous habits of disposable pieces and conspicuous consumption fell by the wayside – people wanted durable, quality items that were anonymous enough to be worn again and again, and versatile enough to work anywhere and everywhere. Minimalism was a functional alternative to the "spend, spend, spend" ethos, by way of both practicality and fashionability.

Clothes became plainer, as did their messages. Designers such as Stella McCartney and Hannah MacGibbon at Chloé followed suit, with pragmatic tailoring in neutral palettes; young names in the industry, such as New York's Alexander Wang and London's Heikki Salonen (who had previously focused on grungy, urban streetwear) began showing pared-down sportswear in black, white and grey; even celebrity designers such as Victoria Beckham, who had surfed the crest of the bling wave on the strength of their names alone, turned to strict silhouettes, minimal adornment and muted colours. Minimalism was soon much more than a trend; it became a zeitgeist.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a piece for this magazine, cataloguing the new ways in which designers had been manipulating the aesthetic to suit it to their signatures and their fanbases. I looked at the fledgling names coming through who were making it their trademark. And I tried to look into where it had come from. What I found was that minimalism has been the weft and weave not only of modern fashion but of the modern social fabric since the turn of the 20th century. Any history of the discipline becomes a social commentary that reaches much further than the intellectual enclaves with which it is usually associated.

Minimalism, its ebb and flow as a popular aesthetic, underpins almost every single social development of the 20th century. As women are liberated from their houses and roles in the 1920s, so they are freed, too, from the swathes of restrictive clothing, skirts, corsets and crinolines. As they take to the streets and to the workplace in the 1970s and 1980s, so clothing becomes more simplified, more masculine and more practical – and when the backlash to feminism came, at the end of that period, so the catwalks filled up with froufrou and frills and frothy femininity.

So it happened that in this recession – billed "the women's recession" on account of where job losses and Government cuts might hit the hardest – fashion once again became simple and sanitised, androgynous rather than objectifying. And it was no coincidence that the designers creating these clothes that dictated a mood were all women too: Philo, McCartney and MacGibbon.

But minimalism is also behind wider social trends – reductivism has ever been a means of progress and innovation, from early designers such as Paul Poiret and Fortuny, who sought to overhaul the excess of contemporary womenswear, to the space-age designers of the 1960s – André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin, whose clean, streamlined shapes introduced a new sort of futurism not only to fashion, but to emerging consumer and lifestyle trends. Furniture became streamlined too, as did architecture and art; the geometry and uncluttered work of De Stijl artists directly influenced Yves Saint Laurent when he created his Mondrian dress.

Minimalism as a fashion directive is imbued with political relevance, too – the emergent Japanese designers Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons used drab, sombre and often deliberately distressed clothes to undercut the haute bourgeois looks of the 1980s, while the Belgians Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester deconstructed classic tailoring and wardrobe basics to superbly gothic effect.

Ultimately, fashion has moved on once more – as it always does. But the minimalism that came with a certain moment still informs the looks being unveiled on the catwalks this season: shapes are plainer; femininity is played down, spoken in colour and sculpted shapes rather than frills and froth; and above all, the emphasis remains on investment.

It will take us a while to rehabilitate our weary wallets, but the time will come again for conspicuous consumption. George Osborne and Mervyn King may not know what's in store, but you can be sure of one thing: we haven't seen the back of modern minimalism just yet.

'Less is More: Minimalism in Fashion', (Merrell, £35), by Harriet Walker, is out now

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

    Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

    £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

    £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital
    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty