Warm Minimalism

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The last year has felt like a replay of the ‘90s. Hedi Slimane reintroduced the Seattle grunge/ California rocker look through his Saint Laurent collections, which have been surprisingly influential even for areas of men’s clothing that were unrelated (Ovadia & Sons is almost unrecognizable from its former #menswear self, while checkered flannel shirts are seen tied to waists in nearly every lookbook). Likewise, streetwear has made a comeback, albeit in a different form. Whereas ‘90s streetwear was about t-shirt culture and the appropriation of “white” sportswear brands, modern day streetwear seems to be about pairing sneakers with high fashion (a look that Jian Deleon describes well in his article about Tres Bien).

No comeback, however, has been as interesting as the reintroduction of minimalism. Then, as now, minimalism offers us respite from the excesses that came before it. In the ‘90s – when Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, and Prada defined it – austere clothes felt fresh after the power-shows of the ‘80s and peacocking of the ‘70s. Now it feels new again after years seeing dandies at Pitti Uomo, overly engineered garments, Stay-Puff Marshmallow-Man levels of layering, and the occasional three-piece tweed cycling run.

To understand minimalism, I find it’s useful to break it into two parts. (Of course, minimalism is a lot more complicated than this. Elyssa Dimant’s book is a great primer, while The Rosenrot has a good synopsis, as well as some thoughts of her own. Both are worth reading if you’re interested in this subject).

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On the one hand, minimalism can be cold. It’s stark and austere, with sharp lines, boxy silhouettes, and monochromic color palettes. This is the work of Helmut Lang, Maison Martin Margiela, and early Giorgio Armani. Since then, designers such as Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto have built on the concept by elongating the silhouette and adding more volume, but even when the cuts are different, the billowy looks make the wearer seem impersonal and isolated.

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On the other hand, minimalism can also be warm. Instead of isolated, the wearer looks approachable. More colors are introduced and silhouettes are less extreme (skinny turn into slim; billowy into relaxed). In this way, clothes are pared down to their essential forms – a bomber jacket still looks like a bomber jacket, even if it’s made a little more luxurious. There are a ton of designers for these kinds of things. Think: Our Legacy, Patrik Ervell, and even the old stand-by of APC. Granted, people have been buying from these lines for a long time now, but they often pair them with unusual pieces. Warm minimalism is the total embracing of a pared down, non-descript look.

Cold minimalism is often interesting, but hard to wear (at least for most people). Lang and Margiela less so, but certainly true for Owens and Yamamoto. Warm minimalism, on the other hand, is almost wearable to a fault. The Rosenrot talks about this in her post about Dimant’s concept of Post Minimalism:

The mainstream fashion of the 90s era was marked by the shift of focus to the female arena, in which designers such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan made easy clothes for the modern working women. Klein himself identified his version of Minimalism as ‘an indulgence in superbly executed cut, quiet plays of colour tones and clean, strong shape.’

Although formal Minimalism discouraged figuration, Post-Minimalism allows casual references to the human body, as long as they appear in reductive a manner as possible, notably exemplified by Klein’s nondescript slinky slip dresses. […]

In fact, this American brand of post-modern Minimalism was bordering on generic, so much so that it could not be separated from mass market offerings from Gap, Levi’s etc, other than through its label. In essence, the label itself became the sole compensating factor for the lack of fashion, because it was often found that the quality of the offerings did not correlate with price tags. The logo had ironically become the centerpiece, elevating mass-market quality products to high-fashion level, which then begs the question: how little is too little?

Warm minimalism gives us two important things. The first is a refreshing moment of simplicity after a long period of excess, over detailing, and gaudiness (like now). The second is a chance to bring more men into fold of menswear. Whereas the first wave of enthusiasts came through the Americana/ heritage trend (where fashion could be discussed in technical and masculine terms, thus hiding the fact that it’s fashion at all), warm minimalism is easy to adopt and digest. Don’t like skinny clothes? Try the relaxed looks of Margaret Howell. Want the comfort of sneakers without needing to wearing running shoes? Try Common Projects. Dislike excessive detailing? Try these basic pieces from Dana Lee.

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In an essay for T Magazine last year, Cathy Horyn praised Hedi Slimane for reintroducing simple, wearable clothes. As the lede for her article reads: “straightforward, commercial clothes used to be the antithesis of high fashion. Now, they are the benchmark.” Twenty years earlier, John Seabrook wrote something similar about Helmut Lang:

Lang’s mixing of the casual and the formal is not just a matter of marketing; it goes to the core of his aesthetic. His most expensive formal clothes have the ease and simplicity of everyday stuff, and his casual clothes have the correctness and detailing of ready-to-wear. Most high-fashion designers, whose natural leanings are toward ornament and glamour, don’t do casual clothes very well–the fabric is too rich, the styling too elaborate. But Lang’s distinction as a designer is his instinct for the appeal of the most basic items, like an old blue sweatshirt or a T-shirt worn silky with use, and he has created a whole new genre of luxury casual clothes. According to Katherine Betts, the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, “Lang did for T-shirts and jeans what Ralph Lauren did for club ties and tweed jackets–he made them fashion garments.

My prediction: simple, wearable clothes will be more popular in the next year or two. Not just as things you can easily incorporate into any wardrobe, but as components to a total look – a warm, but minimalistic look. Maybe the real joke about Normcore is that, while you made fun of it in 2014, you’ll be wearing it by 2016.

(Photos via Our Legacy, The New York Times, StyleForum member lvwri, Dana Lee, Margaret Howell, Harmony, Totokaelo, Christophe Lemaire, and Common Projects)

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