The new purity: Minimalism is back, and not just because of the recession

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The new generation of austerity-chic designs may be unadorned, but they are never, ever plain and simple

Maxed out, OTT. Excess seems so tired these days – it isn't clever and it isn't cool. Brits paid back more than £600m of debt in July, and unnecessary bank loans are going the way of the Hoxton fin and the micro-scooter. That is, into an abyss deeper than one of Ingmar Bergman's dark nights of the soul, along with all the other trappings of Noughties conspicuous consumption.

There is much talk among the fashion press and the dreaded pop-culture "recessionistas" of spending wisely, of investment buys, of calculating price-per-wear. Everyone is aware – at least among the ethically chattering classes – that the fast-fashion heyday of budget retailers such as Primark is over but so far, there hasn't been a concerted movement to replace it. We saw the "new austerity" in last autumn's collections, when Prada and Yves Saint Laurent showed toned-down and prim pieces in dark colours and sensible fabrics. It was the first time ready-to-wear had been just that for a long time: designers realised clothes had to be accessible and justifiable in a time when spending power was waning.

Enter the New Minimalists: a sect of young talent, who saw the impact of design purity during the late 1980s and early 1990s – the last time, in fact, that we have universally been as financially savvy as we are now – and who understood that the economic principles tightening our belts and purse-strings might also be the ones governing our wardrobes. "Minimalism is more relevant than ever," says Rob Phillips, creative director of the school of design at London College of Fashion, "and on so many levels: environmentally and stylishly. A non-definable outfit has more longevity than a seasonal trend. If you define yourself as a minimalist in the fashion sense, you could go through decades wearing the same thing, looking great. Though," he adds cautiously, "if we all did that, well... bang goes the whole fashion business."

Minimalism is a field of design associated with lifestyle, be it architecture, interiors or fashion, which in its purest form should apply to all aspects of the practitioner's life. "To be unaffected by the unnecessary or the chaotic, or to be ' so disciplined and immerse yourself in a beautifully simplistic state is hard to execute in today's society," continues Phillips. "Imagine you're dressed in a straight-fit black shift, you complement – even exaggerate – the white space you are in, and then an eccentric lady in florals with a fondness for oversized millinery stands next to you. Game over."

Yet, as Miuccia Prada pointed out a few seasons ago: "I think that minimalism is interesting right now, because there has probably been too much obvious glamour and nakedness in fashion." Indeed, this is a cyclical starting point from which minimalism first sprung up in Western fashion, beginning with the aesthetic overhaul instigated in the 1920s by Coco Chanel and her liberation of women from corsets, feathers and frills into simple shift dresses, blouses and cotton jersey. Glamour is not practical but it is aspirational; it has a time and place, but most would agree that Kelly Brook in crotch-high Julien Macdonald isn't as fitting to the zeitgeist as, say, Tilda Swinton in Haider Ackermann or Beyoncé in Roland Mouret. There is something intrinsically cool about minimalism, and it derives from the adage about not gilding the lily. "There is room for you to do what you want," says Wendy Dagworthy, head of fashion and textiles at the Royal College of Art. "It suits all occasions, because it is uncluttered. It's a school of aestheticism, quite like Bauhaus, for more thoughtful times."

"Two predominant influences on the growth of minimalism can be identified," says Phillips. "Traditional Japanese design – from architecture, graphical prints like colour-blocking and, for example, the basic shape of a kimono. And the De Stijl movement, where straight lines and block primary colours were the design parameters." Proponents of De Stijl, who included Piet Mondrian, were looking to impose order and harmony on to modern life via simplicity, and this has been an enduring conceit in fashion. Armani, for instance, along with Donna Karan and Calvin Klein in the late 1980s, aspired to simplify the newly defined working woman's wardrobe. It was after power-dressing, and the look was less extreme and more functional. Their softly draped dresses and sharply – though not razor -sharp – tailored suits had a clarity and unfussiness that suited the mood.

A lack of clutter is a significant directive of minimalism, and was a mantle passed on from Chanel to designers such as Claire McCardell, whose simplified daywear pioneered the "American look" in the 1940s, and Cristobal Balenciaga, whose lean lines and sack dresses were noticeably less structured than most other 1950s design. His amphora-line evening gowns were cut in cocoon-like shapes, using crisp, rigid silk to create convex forms which – although occasionwear is anathema to the simplicity of minimalism – were undeniably purist in construction. Similarly, Jean Muir, whose pin tucking and drapery recalled the clean lines of kimonos and ancient Greek chitons, used detailing to express the functionality of her designs. The 1960s, though bright and radical, brought Mary Quant and André Courrèges, whose angular and graphic use of fabric breathed new life into the discipline, and designers such as Rudi Gernreich and Paco Rabanne, who were influenced by science fiction, but ' whose visions made fashion futuristic and sharp – two qualities which cannot be separated from traditional minimalism. "In fashion it's very hard to find a pure definition or designer ethos for minimalism," explains Phillips. Although they can be ascetic in concept, clothes are by definition methods of making statements and impressions, and it is this bisection that modern minimalism is concerned with.

"Hussein Chalayan is without doubt a minimalist designer," adds Dagworthy, "and a very influential one. But he always did something completely new and had something else going on as well, whether it was a remote-control dress or one that turned into a table." Chalayan's experimentation with function brings to mind Chanel's, albeit on an intergalactic level. He made clothes that could do things; she, that the wearer could do things in. And this links to what Armani & co were looking towards in their workwear – with easy slits for arms, and wearable palettes of black, beige, white and grey.

Yes, colour: buying into minimalism is not about swathing yourself in yards of black crepe. At Jil Sander's spring/summer 2008 collection, Raf Simons showed vivid oranges and feminine lilacs, dresses made from tulle, intricately pinned and draped, and almost (whisper it) frothy. The seed of minimalism on today's catwalks is not po-faced or in mourning, it is concerned with an architectural purity. At the label's autumn/winter 2009 show last February, Simons showed slit-back coats with shocks of white peeking out, slate-grey dresses with sunshine-yellow linings protruding from the necklines, and black silk shifts that looked like they had been peeled, with their orange undersides rolling down across the shoulders. Sarah Mower, the British Fashion Council's ambassador for emerging talent, described it as "total clarity of vision and superb quality", which just about sums up New Minimalism.

Those involved in this wave of the movement have taken it in various ways: Roland Mouret's clothes are tailored and ladylike, where Alexander Wang's are sportier and look to the grunge movement of the 1990s. His spring/summer 2010 collection, shown in New York last weekend, reflects the sort of utilitarian minimalism of the early days of Prada, with zip detailing, pockets and a sterile feel to it. London duo Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi, the designers behind Preen, have shown medieval-inspired but futuristic cowls and bell-sleeves, and recently delved into Helmut Lang-esque bodycon and cutaway dresses. Joseph Altuzarra debuted at New York last season with artfully ruched separates, and last week showed deconstructed dresses; while Haider Ackermann is as luxurious as it is severe, with floor-length silk and mannish jackets. The cult label du jour for streetwise hipsters, Swedish brand Acne, is also known for its structural approach to minimalism, manipulating classic designs with asymmetry and pocket detailing, while for those of us on a stricter budget, Cos (Collection of Style) is the high-street go-to for purist design, from the same company as H&M, but with slightly more grown-up prices and a reputation for high-quality concepts and production.

So consumers have the maximum choice right now for minimal styles. Even Victoria Beckham's line (for whom Mouret works as a consultant), whose spring/summer 2010 collection was unveiled in New York last week, owes something to minimalism with its pin tucks and colour-blocking. But maybe that's going a bit OTT.

The New Minimalists: Five of the best

Preen

As seen on Gwyneth Paltrow

Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi are the Isle of Man couple behind London label Preen. Founded in the mid-1990s, Preen has established a strong client base that includes Kate Moss and Kirsten Dunst. Thornton and Bregazzi use draping, asymmetry and unusual fabrics such as mesh to transform simple and minimalist designs into sexy, distinctive creations.

Alexander Wang

Wang moved from California to New York to attend the Parsons design school and soon established himself as one to watch with internships at Teen Vogue and Marc Jacobs. In 2007, a 23-year-old Wang launched his first full women's collection. Interested in subverting the notions of sexiness and glamour, his sharply cut trousers, jackets and skirts have a street-influenced edge. His palette is muted, rarely wavering from grey, black and white, and the leather and man-made fabrics he favours are reminiscent of the grunge and utilitarian minimalism of the 1990s.

Roland Mouret

As seen on Beyoncé

In 2005, Mouret created the Galaxy dress – the sleek and grown-up frock that sounded the death knell for the boho trend and spawned countless high-street copies. A year later, Mouret parted company with his investor and the brand was reborn as RM by Roland Mouret. Although none of his subsequent designs have attracted as much attention as the Galaxy, he continues to make exquisitely tailored and flattering clothes. He consults with Victoria Beckham on her fashion collection and she seems to have derived inspiration from his clean lines and ladylike shapes.

Haider Ackermann

Colombian-born Ackermann was adopted by a French family as a baby and, due to his father's work, lived in Iran, Chad, Ethiopia and Algeria before moving to Antwerp to study at the city's Royal Academy. Influenced by his time in Antwerp – where a cerebral approach reigned – and by his nomadic childhood, he has created an aesthetic that is minimalist but still rich in colour and texture. Tilda Swinton has been a fan for years, often wearing his draped creations on the red carpet, and it seems the rest of us are finally catching up: Ackermann's autumn/winter 09 show was met with unanimous praise and rumours abound that he is to take over at Maison Martin Margiela.

Joseph Altuzarra

As seen on Julia Restoin-Roitfeld

Though he has just two collections for his own label under his belt, Altuzarra is already creating a buzz. Raised in Paris, he moved to America to read art history at university. An internship with Marc Jacobs followed, before stints at Proenza Schouler and Givenchy. The Altuzarra silhouette is strong, with exaggerated shoulders and nipped-in waists, and colours are bold. French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld has been pictured wearing an Altuzarra coat and her daughter is a fan too. Lynn Enright

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