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The Time For A “Tabula Rasa Closet”


Ushered in by Phoebe Philo’s debut collection at Celine, minimalism is enjoying a revival on the fashion scene, acting as a sort of palate cleanser after seasons of bombast and excess. But as fashion historian Elyssa Dimant traces in her new book, Minimalism and Fashion ($75, available now in stores and online now), the minimal aesthetic has been an important part of fashion throughout the twentieth century, from Madeleine Vionnet straight through to Yohji Yamamoto, Helmut Lang, and Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein. Costa and W‘s Stefano Tonchi hosted a fête for the book’s launch in New York last night, and checked in with Dimant for a chat about where the style has been, and where it’s going.

Minimalism has been on the rise over the past few seasons, but you’ve been working on your book for years. When did you first identify the minimal strain in fashion?
I think there have been a great many journalists who have identified minimalism—whether covertly or more explicitly in their reviews—over the last five years. For my part, I saw minimalism moving into fashion as a reaction, beginning in about 2005, to the complex historicism and romanticism that had been ushered in by Galliano and McQueen in the years leading up to the millennium. I think it started with a more rigorous attention to materials, to architecture…And a focus on structure always brings the conversation back to minimalism, as its essence is a dedication to the reduction and simplification of form.

Minimalism has been within fashion all along, but why do you think it made as big an impact as it has recently, even among designers who don’t necessarily adopt the style from season to season?
I think we wanted a simple answer. Fashion had become so glitzy, so ornamental, and so self-referential. I think, especially with what’s going on in the world around us, that we wanted a fresh start, a tabula rasa closet! Also, the minimalist sensibility is so technologically friendly; it’s all about finding new ways to explore and create curvilinearity and streamline design, so it was a great way for many designers to exploit new digital textile and constructive technologies.

One of minimalism’s great practitioners in fashion at the present is Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein, who also wrote the foreword to your book. Can you tell us a bit about how that came about?
I approached Francisco to write the foreword, as I feel that he’s the most masterful and also the most consistent proponent of minimalism in fashion—especially in this new era of the movement. He has been extraordinarily supportive of the project from the get-go. His collections don’t need to be high-concept, because they’re technically driven. He’s taken Mr. Klein’s innovations with regard to minimalism at the luxury level and the rise of “basics” dressing, and he’s evolved that aesthetic to include expert engineering. While Francisco’s designs are rigorously minimal, the intricacies provide an ultimate impact that is astoundingly complex.

Do you think minimalism will continue to hold as a trend next season, or will it give way to a new aesthetic?
While I don’t believe that minimalism is really ever totally abandoned, I do think it will give way to more applied and constructive details in the seasons to come. After all, most designers in any art form see a blank canvas and try to fill it, no? That’s what makes the work of some of these career minimalists so impressive: their ability to reinterpret and redefine reductivity, simplicity, and elegance, again and again.