Minimalism in fashion_Maison Margiela

Inside Martin Margiela’s all-white maison / photo source

There are few schools of thought, philosophy or design that have been so consistently reused and revisited as minimalism. Many times considered as a blank sheet, starting point from which everything originates and to which the designers return to renew and recharge, #minimalism has been recently exploited and labeled on every posted outfit or décor photo colored black or white. But minimalism in fashion is much more than a use of single color or a trend of simplicity. It is aesthetic that is thightly connected to broader spectrum of social development and continuosly reinvented and adapted to fit different eras.


COCO CHANEL and Serge Lifar, 1937: After the first World War, when the physically active lifestyle of women demanded new style, Coco Chanel reworked the traditional masculine wardrobe and created the more tailored capsule of separates for women mainly in monochrome. / photo source

The term originates from the artistic movement that appeared in 1960s in New York when a group of artists including Donald Judd, John McCracken, Agnes Martin and many others, “rejected the traditional representations in painting and sculptures and chose to pursue the new mode that owed as little as possible to the physical existence of an object”. Deriving from reductive aspects of Modernism, Judd described his work as “the simple expression of complex thought”, which sums up the aesthetic as it exists within fashion, too.
Minimalism was always the indicator of economic cycles and tehnological development. Looking back, at the development of the 20th century, we can observe the minimalism underpinning almost every social development, even before the official start of the minimalist movement. From women entering the workforce to winning the voting rights, the story of modern working woman also mirrors the rise and fall of minimalism. The beginning of the more complex lifestyle was accompanied by the simplified, masculine and more practical clothing (take for example Chanel) while the backlashes against feminism in the 1950s and 1980s returned the hyper-feminine look (think Dior with his New look) that was again overturned by avant-garde designers guided by reductivist mode.

In fashion context minimalism concentrates more on the form and fabric than on the function of the clothing. Through the process of reductivism that stripps the design object to its necessary elements, the minimalist designers often play with lines and geometric shapes in monochrome palette.


YOHJI YAMAMOTO brought to fashion new sense of dimension that featured asymmetrical lines and considered the wearer’s body in the round rather than head to toe. / photo source


Moulded and pleated clothing by ISSEY MIYAKE explores the space around the wearer as well as within the pieces. / photo source

Early minimalism in art rejected tradition of craftsmanship and rather opted for raw materials. The Japanese designers like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo in the 1980s followed similar path by sending down the runway clothing in unconventional fabrics like polyester, PVC, Lycra etc., baggy silhouettes and layering of distressed fabrics, not often found in Western fashion characterized with elegance and artisanal craftsmanship of haute couture.


Minimalism of this decade was also a way of escaping gender stereotypes. It removed the idea of gender by covering up or revealing the body in new ways and chalenged traditional perceptions of sexiness. The impact of the Japanese designers on minimalism movement was substantial, they provided the politicaly relevant alternative to glitz and glamour of the decade and revolutionised the way we view clothes once and for all.

Renowned for her desire to push the boundaries of wearability and challenge modern perceptions of femininity, REI KAWAKUBO (Comme de Garçons) in 1997 created the collection, entitled “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body”, that chalenged traditional perceptions of female body, often sexualized in Western cultures.

While the fashion in the 1980’s was divided between the so called bourgeois and the avant-garde, two very different types of minimalism emerged. The large designer houses, such as Donna Karan and Armani, opted for chic and clean purism, while emerging designers and smaller labels continued by moving minimalism  into more conceptual direction. The next stage of minimalism was born: deconstructionism. Reduction of the garment to the extreme of its fundamental parts would be the most basic understanding of the concept. And its pioneer? One and only, Martin Margiela.


Maison Martin Margiela became known for its definitive deconstruction and transformation techniques, where volumes are reinvented, shapes are modified and garments’ original use and movement is playfully turned on its head. Margiela’s vision was always to maintain the focus on the clothes. As the fashion became more concerned with labels and branding, his work became even more relevant, not only for its technical brilliance and new take on feminine elegance, but also for its values of anti-fashion, anti-status symbol.

Anonymity of design and of the designer himself was key to MAISON MARGIELA’s aesthetic. The designer decided to remain anonymous throughout his whole career, refused to give interviews or take the bow at the end of his shows. He also often sent models down the catwalk with covered faces or walking backwards to keep the attention on the clothes.


CALVIN KLEIN ss 1994 / photo source

While avant-garde designers had already embraced the “power dressing” and resorted to minimalism, the mainstream fashion followed in the late 1980s and 1990s, with the American designers like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein taking the lead. Design directives: comfort, ease and practicality for modern working women. So called post-minimalism was a far cry from power look of the previous decade, and unlike the European (Maison Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Helmut Lang) and Japanese (Comme des Garcons, Issey Miyake), version of minimalism of the 90s focused more than ever on the female body than on the clothes themselves.

HUSSEIN CHALAYAN s/s 1998: Chalayan re-evaluated traditional womenswear by playing with proportions and reducing clothes to bare minimum. / photo source

In the late 1990s again arose an attachement to adroginity. Hussein Chalayan’s intellectual, scientific approach to fashion brought a transfomrative and futuristic aspect to minimalism, that was more concerned with what body can achieve than how it looks like.

HAIDER ACKERMANN: Fluid, draped shapes in satin, silk and leather are distinctive of Ackermann’s minimalism. / photo source 1 & 2

And minimalism today? In 2007 it became increasingly evident that the financial system is becoming unstable, crash was unavoidable and fashion buying habits ready to change again. While minimalism of the past was always connected to various social, political and cultural shifts, the movement of the 21st century is more impacted by the economics. We have less money to spend on clothing and want to spend it on pieces that won’t be outdated already next season – and looking at these photos it simply seems that minimal pieces always stay contemporary. Beside we are more concerned with ethical aspects of fashion, as well as enivironmental issues, such as use of natural resources, waste and pollution. Minimalism became a responsible way of fashion consumption and aesthtetic that pervades the current fashion consciousness, with designers as Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo for Celine, Haider Ackermann or highstreet brands as COS and Uniqlo leading the way.

THE ROW ss 2017 / photo source

Minimalism in fashion_Stella Mccartney_ss17

STELLA MCCARTNEY ss 2017 / photo source


CELINE aw 2016 / photo source

Written by Sandra Gubenšek
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