Less is more: The new minimalism

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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

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